Fran Lock

Fran Lock

Fran Lock is a poet, illustrator, and political activist. She has written several collections of poetry, the most recent being 'Muses and Bruises', published by Culture Matters.

In praise of strangeness
Thursday, 21 February 2019 10:37

In praise of strangeness

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock writes in praise of a working-class poetics that revels in richness and strangeness, and includes a strange and rich poem taken from her forthcoming collection with Culture Matters, In Need of Saints.

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives… As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. – from Poetry Is Not a Luxury, by Audre Lord.

Each time I read the above the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and my pulse sprints just that little bit quicker. Sister Outsider, the collection of essays and speeches in which I first encountered “Poetry is Not a Luxury” was published way back in 1984, and yet its radical message has resonance and relevance that still outstrips most of what is written in defence of poetry today. This is both a testament to Lorde’s legacy as an activist and a writer, and a slightly depressing comment on the state of poetry and poetry discourse in the twenty-first century.

Almost by accident, over the last couple of years I’ve found myself an increasingly vocal participant in this discourse. My own erratic contributions have centred around the myriad ways in which working-class participation in poetry is policed; the ways in which our exclusion is engineered, our voices and ideas homogenised, defanged and defused. I’ve written at length on the importance of recognising our right to poetry; that poetry is ours, its art emerging of necessity from the economic conditions in which we find ourselves, from this climate of precarity, apprehension and threat. Poetry’s mode of production is fitted for lives mired in unlovable labour, anxiety and deprivation. It’s portable, it’s cheap, it communicates in flashes and fragments, moments or phrases pulled from the true. It functions as both an expression of and an escape from all that besets us. It is radiant and necessary.

You’d be amazed, or maybe you wouldn’t, by the number of people who take issue with this definition of poetry. Can you eat a fucking poem? A friend of mine asked. Is poetry going to feed the meter or wash my clothes or pay my bus fare? No, of course not. A poem doesn’t belong to the same order of things as a jacket potato or a five pound note. It won’t satisfy your hunger, but it does provide a language in which to describe being hungry, in which to expose and to challenge the political and economic conditions that keep you hungry. Poetry is a resource for those without recourse. It is a space for those whose struggles and sufferings are exiled from quotidian language. It points to the deficiencies and failures of the systems that administer us. It’s the one place we get to define who and what we are, a place where we are visible, present, where our experiences enter and infiltrate English on our terms. Daily discourse doesn’t allow for this.

This is why poetry matters to me. As far as I’m concerned, this is the point of poetry. Since about 2016, as I began to refine this argument, to test its weight out there in the world, I have been lucky enough to meet with and share poetry across various cohorts of working-class writers. These experiences have been some of the most valuable and nourishing of my creative life. And yet, I find that even among my colleagues and comrades I’m continuously butting heads about what poetry is and what it's for.

The biggest bone of contention has been this notion of accessibility, specifically the notion of accessibility constructed as some kind of absolute and unassailable moral category, in violent opposition to a parallel tradition of academic elitism. I take issue with the idea that my work should strenuously enact this kind of accessibility, that it has an ethical obligation to communicate in “the language of the people”. Such an idea is disingenuous and patronising in the extreme. Poetry simply isn’t speech. Whether you’re talking about Attila the Stockbroker or J.H. Prynne, poetry is crafted, tailored and shaped; refined and heightened, larded or stripped. Poetry is deliberate, each line transmits tension, intention and meaning. To pretend otherwise is to deny the discipline in what we do, to be afraid to call ourselves artists, to effectively edit ourselves out of art. Besides which, who says that working-class people must find poetic complexity off-putting? Who says we should not be stimulated and provoked by difficulty? That our experiences and ideas do not demand and facilitate strange and complex registers of language?

To accept this is inherently impoverishing to poetry. I have come to believe that the onus should not be on working-class creators to limit their field of expression, but that access – that is full cultural participation – is better achieved by bringing pressure to bear on the institutions and funding bodies driving this perceived dichotomy to implement real, radical systemic change in the way resources are allocated, in the way that poetry is taught, and to the provision of not merely equal but fair opportunities for creative cultural contribution. Poetry isn’t accessible or inaccessible, but our current educational system operates a hidden curriculum that manipulates and limits working-class imagination, telling those from the margins what is and isn’t for them, what parts of poetry they have a right to partake of, practice and enjoy.

Staking radical political claims upon rendering individual creative projects accessible is seductive. It’s seductive because it’s easy, a kind of cop-out that avoids engaging the deep systemic and structural inequalities inherent in the publication and dissemination of poetry, and in language itself. To be poor, for example, and to be marginalised, is to find yourself everywhere described, relentlessly recorded and administered, spoken of, but never to, figuring not as persons but as problems within the apparatus, language, and collective imagination of the state. Daily discourse serves to elide or to invisibilise grim material reality; stock phrases reduce and dehumanise you; bland bureaucracy circumscribes your testimony, inhibits and restricts you. You are failed by language, by the sterile functionality of commonplace language encounters. We might be accustomed to thinking of words as tools for expression, but more often than not they mediate and mask, filter and constrain; they neutralise potential threat, they blunt language’s capacity for affective moral witness. So it is no longer enough to say I am cold, I am hungry. Those words have lost their meaning, their ability to shock people into awareness. To expose what ordinary language obscures requires strangeness and hybridity; new phrases, new ways of saying to retune attention toward human suffering.

The continual backlash against richness and complexity in poetry both frustrates and perplexes me. To be dexterous with language, to force it into strange conjunctions, is to feel a little less at its mercy; to accelerate at warp speed away from the diminishing institutional lingo of government departments, and the easy dismissive stereotyping of popular parlance. It is to escape the narrative demands placed on me by a world that has asked me every day for the last eighteen years to account for myself, my mental state and my experiences in a vocabulary unfit for the task; to dilute my perceptions, thoughts and feelings to a linear stream of commonplaces, commonplaces that have no room for creativity, inventiveness, ambiguity or élan. It makes no sense to me to use the words, phrases and formulations of the systems that harass and hound me to tackle those systems. It would bring me no joy, it would offer me no release, and most importantly of all, it wouldn’t do a thing to redress the stupid, stupefying force of those systems. We must recognise our right to poetry, to all poetry, as both writers and readers, but as working-class activists we must also pursue a radical imperative towards polyvocality, complexity and richness.

I do not mean by this that poetry has room only for baroque multi-clausal psycho-dramas, but that our definition of what working-class poetry is and can encompass be expanded to include ways of using language that deviate from the expected and accessible; that we do not decry as “inauthentic” or manoeuvre out of our communities and publishing cohorts working-class voices that approach poetry in difficult or unconventional ways. It seems to me to be untenable – and yes even “elitist” – to insist working-class creators conform to and perform one monolithic vision of working-class identity, cutting ourselves off in self-policing enclaves away from wider cultural conversations about the practice of our art. Elitist, and monstrously self-defeating. Inverted snobbery is still snobbery, and professing some kind of political bias against the beautiful, intricate or challenging is erecting a massive wall between yourself and much that is nourishing, interesting and inspiring. 

If we begin by taking issue with the ways in which working-class voices are allowed to express themselves through poetry, we end by adjudicating on what are authentic and acceptable subjects for working-class poems. It is true that a great deal of what finds its way into print says nothing to us about our lives, but is that really to say that a working-class poetics is a poetics that consciously and continuously engages with one very specific material and economic reality? Is there no room in our conception of working-class poetics for poems about mountains, stars, the sea, quirks of nature, kinks in history, penguins, flowers, Carmelite lace? In denying ourselves and our poetries those things, don’t we allow their imaginative colonisation by intellectual and economic power elites, their ways of seeing and knowing the world? I don’t want to rid poetry of the view from a steep and windswept hill. I just wish that view wasn’t monopolised by people whose vision is tinted by a security and a certainty me and mine will never possess. We have so much to say about beauty, our sense of it is urgent and acute, bound about as it is by the pressures and privations of our daily lives. Say what you like about what I do, but when Fran Lock looks at a sunset you fucking know about it.

More than all of this, though, I write in praise of a working-class poetics that revels in richness and strangeness because I believe the subjects of my poems warrant and deserve that level of attention and intensity. I’ve fought hard to bring these landscapes into print, and to defend my vision of these places and these people as beautiful and good. Most don’t look at squats and doss houses and rusty caravans and council estates and flyovers and petrol station forecourts and muddy rec grounds as sites of and occasions for beauty. They’re wrong. These were my places, my people, and they’ve just as much right to intelligent, nuanced and textured language as anything or anyone else. By this practice they are lifted and cherished. Richness is an act of remembrance, preservation, grieving, a radical act of love.

Homobonus in Primark

by Fran Lock

where will it end? the long-sleeve t-shirts
sleep, all folded over themselves like bats.
black lycra’s pirate sinew stretched to slack.
and tubes of ruined wool relax and lose
their shape. sleeves wear the gape empty
snakes. disfigured fabrics frayed in heaps.
a woman shaking out the prissy shapes
of a summer blouses. a hanger’s embittered
caress. for two pound ten! each pleat
a gauntlet of skirmished thread, rough to
the touch. it costs so little! the woman said.
impossible pasture of rags, dear god! it costs
so very much. where will it end? i stroke
the mesh, the weft, the weave, from cheviot to
chiffon-cling. grope a glut of sturdy twills.
my hands surge out across an odyssey
of cotton, serge. and batiste gowns are
grown in rows like off-white heads of
lettuce. crisp and sleek. and underfoot,
the scattered wits of covered buttons. look!
it’s in the sale! adrenaline and penny pinch.
cash canters horselessly between the heels.
hemlines. oh, i have loved the cambrics
and the calicos, the way a seam will meet
like steadfast hands in payer. i have loved
the self-important bombazines and obsolete
brocades, stood in satin-transfix running
a bolt of blue charmeuse through my hands
like a live fish. but no, not like this. no,
not this way. the woman who sewed
this blouse, this dress, her lungs are diseased
heirlooms huffing dust; her shoulders cramped
askew. not like this, a child in a stocking
of sweat with eyes as dull and flat as coins,
his name a smudge on a label. the day
that factory became a dirt red funnel
for human grief. it’s just so cheap, dirt
cheap! yes, dirt. your cambrics, buckrams
heresies. and what’s it worth, a mewling
life? how many assiduous stitches, tucked
and running? in lamé gold is interwoven -
sweet secret vein through common cloth.
as pain pursues its jagged course, in every
shirt you smooth and touch.

Note: Being the Patron Saint of tailors and businessmen, Homobonus provides an ethical exemplar for commercial life: scrupulously honest, and using his fortune to help those in need. Primark use sweatshop labour. In 2013 one of their factories in Dhaka collapsed killing and trapping hundreds of workers. At a subsequent demonstration in Dhaka by factory workers in 2015, police opened fire on grieving protestors. Primark avoided paying over 9 billion in corporation tax this year. They are still open for business. This is not okay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our comrade saints, whose unmade faces are empty airports: two poems by Fran Lock
Friday, 21 December 2018 10:46

Our comrade saints, whose unmade faces are empty airports: two poems by Fran Lock

Published in Poetry

In need of saints

by Fran Lock

no one else to share my slanted fate. god was
routine unrelenting splendour; too fine and far
a thing to help. nervous and compelled between
the corridor, the alleyway, or any place a slack
luck failed. pain like tearing paper; pain
like biting through a glass. spasm, cramp. on
days that paled to finite shine in ugly towns
of bleak taboo beside the sea. terrible things.
this secret snow inside the globe of me. learnt
to defer to a four-letter word, to the force
majeure of shame. girls conform to the lock-
jaw logic of tetanus – dread for days. afraid
to say, afraid to name, afraid of speech. girls
untongue their stunting curse with silence,
cannot pray. god was an unbodied brilliance
loose in the room, too bright and wide a thing
to help. and christ as pure as a blank page,
the standard hush of libraries. no one else to
share recession’s stink, insomnia, this bare
and complex dark without design. unsteadied
and expendable, where flesh is ghettoed, got,
in bruising schools or trapped in airless rooms
on truant afternoons. a twisted mess of pleats
and seams our stammered lot. and god is
good, but god’s too good, and god aghast
is, faberge and satellite – beaming his gold
nonplus in tempered waves. on days you need
a human hand, a human heart. and what is
prayer? in the ear or in the air? in between
each doubt and grounded wish. the intelligent
shape of noise. what is prayer? a hope you hold
becalmed in the bowl of your own hearing?
insensible shell, the ear that makes an ache
of all my straining for sound. to be received,
just once. it was rita and mary magdalene,
lucia, agnes and Theresa who pulled me up
from joyless aural dystrophy: lost in abject
static – the directionless spite of words
unheard, halfheard, unsaid. to be received.
somewhere, by women like myself, but strong.
saints, our better engines, our comrades,
our sorority. they were my own sleek coping –
there in my mildewed bedroom, coming
and going, a tiered light in their hair, as fast
as doves or monkeys, as tangible as cats.

fig12

Rita of the White Bees

by Fran Lock

To Saint Rita of Cascia, Patron Saint of Impossible Causes, and of abused women.

pray for us, for the girls like green splinters, their pierced
reveal unfolding in small towns running on skeleton crews;
for the pageant-hearted girls who burst like bright ideas into
backseats, bikinis, the blessable dream of being human; for
the too skinny stay-awake girls, living on rice wine and red
light, whose home is the typical elsewhere of exiles; for the
lip-glossed gonzo girls, those high femme fatalists, all cried
out; for the lost girls, giddy and groped on, coked to their
stoic ponytails, shiny and slick and swinging like whips; for
the headlong girls, barefoot and bracing themselves in a bus
lane, smiles like Saint Laurent scarves on fire, manic
and vampire; for the girls who went waning in wraparound
glasses to clinics and vigils; for the pub-crawled girls in
packs, in parks and lanes, alive with the loitering joy
of foxes; for the girls who fuck like stray cats come to
sad anatomical terms in the spongy summer nights of cities;
for the girls in ravenous warp speed, spinning, spun, till tears
collect in their cartwheeled eyes like sparks; pray for us, for
wasted girls with workshy serotonin, whose trestle cheekbones
grind on air; for the peep-toed girls with broken heels
and fake eyelashes, trafficking tears at a photo shoot; for
the lookbook, look back angry girls, whose bad day is
a black dress that goes with everything; for the bitch fight
girls, their raw collided atmospheres on fire, all cellulite,
venom, and celebrity perfume; for the girls whose hairdos
are stairways to heaven, whose pigments shiver in vintage
frocks, whose song is a storm in a borderline thought, who
tend their fetishes like flowers; for the girls, most of all,
who are their own witching hour, their jaundiced drama
dragging them down in the bump and grind of a tightening
gyre; for the girls whose vertigo is not the fear of falling, but
the fear of jumping; who are so entirely sick of this mingy,
yelping ethic men call love; for the girls who are no longer
young, whose unmade faces are empty airports; whose
bodies are the quarrels they are having with themselves;
for these girls, their madness lasting them out like a sensible
pair of leather boots. Patroness of Impossible Causes,
pray for us, that we might flip a decade’s deadweight
like a mattress; gather our Godspeed, walk away from
ourselves.

Rag Town See God

 Rag Town Girls See God, by Steev Burgess

Ruses and Fuses
Wednesday, 21 November 2018 14:02

Ruses and Fuses

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock introduces Ruses and Fuses, her new follow-up collection to Muses and Bruises.

There’s something Arlette Farge says, about history being a collision of competing logics, that is applicable here. By which I mean, this is not, in any literal or linear sense, the story of English radicalism. It is not the story of English radicalism for two reasons: firstly, because a coherent and cohesive “story” of English radicalism does not exist, and secondly because to spin as a straightforward line of descent something we can only ever experience as distorted, entangled, and fragmentary, is to elide the many acts of systemic intellectual violence done to our radical histories; is to ignore the many ways in which our access to the past is impeded, its facetted truth dulled, diluted and obscured.

Rag Town Girls do Unemployment

Rag Town Girls do Unemployment, by Steev Burgess: from Muses and Bruises

About a year ago, shortly after Muses and Bruises was released and the idea for this collection was still being kicked around, I was asked by a friend why I wasn’t writing a sequence based on the Irish radical traditions that inform so much of my own political thinking and occupy such large tracts of my emotional and imaginative space. In order to answer that question I needed to go back to childhood, and to an English state school system where history came to us potted and piecemeal, portioned out into discreet periods named for their reigning autocrats; autocrats, it seemed, of largely irrelevant and undifferentiated character. In state school history the role of the poor was to suffer, a motiveless mass at the mercy of larger happenings: privations, plagues, famines, fires, religious persecutions and insane moral panics. The effect was disjointed to say the least, and could only ever afford us the merest fleeting glimpse of the lively dissenting communities that have underpinned and undercut English society on every level at every historical turn.

This is not so in Ireland. Ireland has its own fraught and freighted relationship to cultural memory and the historical past, but institutional – and institutionalised – amnesia about working-class dissent is not one of its problems. History, in Ireland, may be experienced as a nightmare, a prison, an acute psychic pain, but it is a history, nonetheless, in which people – the people – are prominent movers and shapers of their own divided destiny.

Ruses John Lilburne

John Lilburne, by Steev Burgess: from Ruses and Fuses

This collection, then, is an act of imaginative archaeology, an exploration of and excavation into the lore and the legends of diverse radical histories. I am using the plural deliberately. There is no monolithic entity we can easily identify as Radical History. Movements diverge and intersect, interests collide and coalesce, logics compete for supremacy, contesting the cultural space. The poems in this collection are correspondingly crazed, bewildered and bewildering at times, composed from the sherds and shrapnel of a past, or pasts, both buried and scattered. I don’t want to tell you about John Lilburne or Gerard Winstanley, I want to show you how I had to uncover them, warts and all, from the slimy sediment of state education in which they’d been immured. This is a book about the ways in which we, as radicals, as working-class people, access our collective troubled histories, and the echoes and incursions those histories make into the present.

This collection is about my own tentative, pre-internet inroads into those histories, uncovering my ancestors and unlikely allies, sometimes with beetle-browed bookish diligence, but more frequently through moments of serendipity: a song lyric here, a snippet of footage there, an adult conversation overheard, a urine-tinted clipping from a local paper, curling at both ends. Working-class identity can be like this, I think. Our historical sense of ourselves, our movements, communities, voices, and myths is hedged with ambivalence, ignorance and uncertainty. We have not, traditionally, been the authors or the archivists of our own experiences, our own stories. Not because we have nothing meaningful to contribute, but the exercise of history, as a subject and a discipline, requires literate leisure, a space for reflection not typically afforded to working-class people.

Ruses Suffragettes

Suffragettes, by Steev Burgess: from Ruses and Fuses

Our stories have been kept from us, erased and eroded, but surviving in unlikely ways, in slang and songs, in long, unconscious cultural memory. This fragmentation of our pasts, and our inability to apprehend our histories whole is deliberate, systemic, systematic and strategic. If we did not shape our society then we have no stake in it. We are outside; at the mercy of historical and economic forces we can neither resist nor control nor fully understand. This is a gilt-edged crock of shit. We are not rootless, not powerless, not alone. Working-class people have acted with agency, autonomy, creativity and resilience. We have suffered, but we have also survived, and each act of survival is a blueprint and a banner for the next act, and the next. The more we work to understand our own legacies and legends, the stronger our armour against the grand narratives our elites would feed us engravage, where the dead body of a working-class soldier, for example, sent to die in an illegal war, is worth more than a living working-class citizen engaged in unlovable labour, or, worse still, unemployed.

This collection means to honour memory, the act of remembering, and to interrogate with honesty the often unpretty processes by which histories are uncovered as we develop, collectively and individually, like a Polaroid photo, a sense of ourselves.

Ruses and Fuses is available here.

Ruses Travesties poemwatch

Travesties, by Steev Burgess: from Ruses and Fuses

National Poetry Day: you ask us why we fight
Thursday, 04 October 2018 09:46

National Poetry Day: you ask us why we fight

Published in Poetry

you ask us why we fight

by Fran Lock

you can make an inkblot of your nosebleed if you want to. talk and tsk and suck
your teeth. conspiracy and crucible, and last of all is cliché: fighting irish. Tell me
how my fist offends propriety, then name me one good thing on earth was ever
given freely. i’m a joke to you, but i have known a place where mothers make
a theme song of their grieving. i’ve seen men kneel, not pious but defeated; seen
them keen, with doffed caps and tied tongues, and tugged forelocks, far too long.
girls in gingham tabards, thin fingers rag-picked to an angry spasm; our young
bucks buckled like broken ploughs after hard graft and heavy lifting. you don’t
want to know. so i swing, at gin-sickness, pittance and piecework; flick-knives
and switchblades, imperfect contrition. i swing at the pitchy stink of the barges,
at the pinch-penny portions of leprous bread; at itchy armpits, scarlet fevers, at
scavenging, navvying, flimsies and chits. because this is your world: bald men
dragging their knuckles across the middle distance. men with tattooed dewlaps,
goosebumped in bermuda shorts, flying their stomachs and half-mast, screaming
a sieg heil! into my face. there is nothing to eat, offal and porridge and free
school meals. there’s nothing to do, so brothers go obnoxious, unwashed,
prodigal. or get themselves dead behind heritage. bygone pogrom, bad-debt,
self-doubt and ethnic cleansing. they took it to heart when you said you was better
than them. you took it too far when you said they belong to this doldrum squalor
and tenement dread, amphetamine pestilence, out of their heads, forever amen.
so i swing, i swing at the diesel and grease of an air we dare not breathe.
i swing at the mean-featured foremen, cussing and cursing and nursing their
two ton grudges; at all the self-made men, who expect us to pull ourselves up
by our punchlines, a racist slur with cowshit on our boots. i swing because
i’m sick of paedo priests and hanging judges; acid casualties, psycho-killers,
crouching like gargoyles in unlit stairwells, all straight razors and skinny
wrists. no one believes we are better than this. aspirant suicides, ceasefire
babies. brave new world, pimping its pockmarked acres of flesh in the shit-
witted gridlock of closing time, where patriots haggle for snatch in an alley,
and mullet-cutted absolutists traffic in retaliation, tracksuits and black-market
meat. deadbeat dads, slack-jawed and confecting endless fear against
the sloping dark. oh, brave new world, of custodial no-hopers flogging stolen
stereos in multi-storey car parks. jerusalem. i swing, for little girls slurring
their homework. you called them sluts, you said they weren’t worth

the sweat off satan’s back, and now they believe. and now, those scallies
sharpen their hand- me-down swagger to a cutting edge. they’ll cash your
cheque then spit in your shadow, leave you for dead. and you act surprised,
ask yourself why, while colicky longing fills the pigeon-chests of children.
while widows with twisted faces amplify bereavement with burlesque. a black
dress contriving tactical malady. i swing, for the gaunt blunt-force of a pain
that breaks your back, for our remedial belief, the queasy bloated grief we march
in step with through the rankled light, the racing rain. born by summer’s histamine
psychosis; bearing our fierce, inflexible shame. i swing, with my seldom succoured
brothers, sucker-punched, and always stuck somewhere between our conscience
and our cunning. jerusalem, of dirges and of lurgies, sluggish nightmare, fumbling
drudgework, men like you. justice, is a thin soup supped with a long spoon. small
wonder we fight, it’s all we can do.

 

Don't mention the word class! The theft of working-class culture
Monday, 01 October 2018 20:55

Don't mention the word class! The theft of working-class culture

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock exposes the hypocrisy, classism and elitism in contemporary liberal attempts to edit, erode and police working-class participation in the arts, and she calls for the radical, systematic democratisation of culture.

Here she goes again!

Over the last few months I have been asked to contribute to or participate in four separate projects exploring working-class creativity and voice. Being the Millwall FC of the London poetry circuit (no one likes me, no one likes me, no one likes me, I don’t care) it’s a rare pleasure to be taking part in anything, but these projects are exciting in very particular and important ways, in that they are conceived and driven by working-class people, and that they extend the possibility of an expanded and polyvocal concept of community. This is timely. And it matters to me enormously on a personal as well as a political level. It should matter to you too.

It’s timely, and it matters because the old rhetorics of representation and cultural inclusivity have often led to a selectively edited picture of working-class identity in literature and the arts; a situation in which one or two – usually white, usually old, usually male – voices become icons and ambassadors for a complex network of cultures and experiences. To give a recent example close to my heart: it didn’t matter shit one to me that Simon Armitage became Oxford Chair of Poetry. Nothing against Simon Armitage, as a poet or a person; he’d more than earned his right to be there as far as I’m concerned. What is troubling about his appointment is the way in which it has been uncritically trumpeted as a triumph of working-class representation. And it’s not, it’s really not. A post-war northern male version of working-classness is one of the few acceptable faces of working-class identity permitted to proliferate across mainstream media platforms. This is deliberate: the poetry’s distance from the material realities it describes presupposes and encodes a nostalgia, a looking back that defuses potential threat (social or poetic), softens the language of experience, and makes safe what might otherwise be challenging to the cultural status-quo.

Don't mention the word class!

This creates a dangerous situation, and here I think about something that the trade union leader and activist Bob Crow once said in response to a shitty tabloid heckle about how his taking a holiday in France was somehow antithetical to his left-wing politics and his working-class “credentials”. What do you want? Crow asked, for me to spend my holidays crouched under a bridge reading Das Kapital? This makes us laugh, but it’s also telling about the bind in which working-class cultural creators continually find ourselves: expected to conform to and to constantly perform a very narrow, very specific version of working-class identity. Power elites pick their icons and ambassadors with care, using them as standards against which to weigh, measure and validate our authenticity. We are expected to relentlessly enact somebody else’s idea of what we should be. And if we’re not being and doing that, then we are found to be “inauthentic”, we are dismissed, and our exclusion from any meaningful cultural conversation about class is effectively engineered.

This matters, because the people traditionally holding the purse strings, controlling the presses; the people responsible for funding us and publishing us, are the same power elites who decide what constitutes a valid working-class voice, and an acceptable working-class identity. Arts Council England, for example, has nothing to gain from supporting people and projects who challenge or threaten their traditional business model, and most major publishers are wary of a working-class poetics that openly and explicitly acknowledges the politics of its own oppression. To have your work “out there” in any meaningful sense, to secure the invaluable financial assistance by which a creative project lives or dies, is to accept that your work, and that you, as a person, will be mediated, filtered and enmeshed, by and in the machinery of a grossly unequal hierarchy. By this method we are compromised. We tailor and shape our voices and ourselves to fit their image of us, and our working-classness is depoliticised and de-fanged through an act of caricature. By this mechanism is the triumph of working-class representation transformed into the tool by which working-class participation in the arts is edited, eroded and policed.

When I hear arts and poetry organisations talking about the importance of “accessibility”, and of writing in “the language of the people” it drives me absolutely bat-shit. Firstly, because who says “the people” shouldn’t find poetic difficulty stimulating and inspiring? And secondly because my poetry is perfectly fucking accessible; it’s the way in which education circumscribes and abbreviates working-class imagination that’s at fault, the way poetry is taught in schools, hand in hand with a hidden curriculum that tells kids like me this is not for you.

The onus shouldn’t be on the poet to limit their field of expression to cater to the imagined ignorance of people who were never given the opportunity to understand or enjoy poetry in the first place, particularly not when the poet herself is from those same social margins. The pressure should be on governments, funding bodies, and on the same organisations making these asinine pronouncements, to implement real, radical systemic change to the way resources are allocated, to the way poetry is taught, to the provision of not merely equal but fair access to creative cultural participation.

Co-opt their language before they win the argument!

When I hear organisations and publications bigging up the “accessibility” of a particular artist, text or movement like that’s the be-all and end-all of existence, what I hear is the desperate attempt of an out-dated and culpable power elite to absolve itself of responsibility for the grinding inequality and misrepresentation that faces working-class people as a class within the arts and literature. What leaves a truly special cat-shit taste in the mouth is when the language of radicalism is used to prop up the status-quo, usually at the expense of the communities and movements whose fearless campaigning and artistic activism generated this language. What is worse is when they use the deployment of socially conscious buzzwords as a way of silencing criticism.

For a prime-rib example of the former we need look no further that ACE’s recent publication of the mildly nauseating “Cultural Democracy in Practice”, which appropriates and misapplies the language and concepts of the Movement for Cultural Democracy without ever once acknowledging the relationship of cultural value to the exercise of power and authority.

MQ pi 04 2016 map

ACE's vision of Cultural Democracy in Practice

Despite Cultural Democracy’s absolute embeddedness in ideas of class struggle, ACE’s document ignores class altogether and minimises the relevance of race, gender or age to cultural participation. It has been suggested that ACE’s paper is more about shoring itself up against probing questions surrounding equity, distribution of power, and the redistribution of funds, than it is about challenging or changing these things. In other words, ACE has co-opted community engagement in order to perpetuate the economic and cultural status quo.

There’s a wonderfully perverse bit of manoeuvring here, and it’s typical of the systems inside of which art and literature are expected to operate. An organisation – in this case ACE – pays vocal and public lip-service to the idea of “cultural democracy” or “social inclusivity”, or any the hell else other thing, without ever acknowledging or altering the inherent inequality at the heart of its deep structures. Rather, the language of radicalism and social justice is cynically exploited to legitimate that organisation’s attitudes and behaviours, and any criticism of the way they interpret or deploy this language becomes a de facto criticism of the things for which those words and phrases stand. An organisation that wants to present itself as progressive, equal and inclusive, can then wheel out one of its safe icon-ambassadors as a kind of human-shield: look, we can’t be institutionally racist, sexist, or classist because here is a black, female working-class spokesperson, and if you criticise us, you criticise that person, and if you criticise that person it is you who is racist, sexist, and classist.

Pretty sneaky. Sticking with poetry and class it’s easy to see how figures like Armitage function like the One Black Friend of the idiot who just made that unspeakably racist joke: his mere presence categorically proves there is no problem with systemic classism in the arts, and that absolutely no one has to take any responsibility for the shit they say or the things they do.

But there are so many difficulties inherent in bringing any kind of systemic critique to bear upon either the arts in general or the “Poetry Community” in particular. It’s a small community, after all. Insular, pretty incestuous even, and the exercise of applying analysis has a way of making waves few at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder can afford. Dissent is neutralised by creating dependence (the elites run everything from major presses, to courses, to competitions) and ensuring complicity (we need to play nice to get our work out there, to keep our heads above water), which ultimately compromises our credibility as critics.

Either that, or the act of criticism in invalidated via the expedient route of dismissing the individual critic. There’s an awful Catch-22 here which goes something like this: if you are un- or under-published, if you have little by way of formal education, then you forfeit your right to be taken seriously and your criticism amounts to nothing. However, if you are published, and you are educated, then you have no right to complain, your criticism is so much empty histrionics – worse, you are biting the hand that has so consistently fed you.

We need more acceptable faces of feminism!

We see evidence of this tactic in the media’s treatment of “instapoet” Rupi Kaur, and the serial twitterstorms and social media fallout that followed her publication by Simon & Schuster late last year. Because Kaur was continuously touted and positioned as the “voice” of young women of colour, her work single-handedly credited with making poetry “accessible” and exciting again, removing it from the “ivory towers of academia” and giving it back to a hungry general populace, to criticise Kaur’s poetry was to be racist, misogynist, or some kind of grotesque elitist snob. But it requires only the bare minimum of analytical effort to unpick this tangled tapestry of bullshit. Who, after all, was doing all this touting and positioning? Kaur’s agent, maybe? An elitist mainstream media? Her publisher? Look closer and Kaur’s publication and subsequent rise to stratospheric poetry-stardom emerges as a manipulative marketing exercise.

To acknowledge that doesn’t make a person a snob, or a racist, or a fucking misogynist. It makes a person somebody who cares deeply that marginalised women and girls have better representatives and poetic role-models than Kaur and her pallid, directionless pap. True, her subjects are vital, necessary and engaging, but that doesn’t make her poetry good. If we don’t demand rigour and richness of ourselves or our so-called “representatives”, we impoverish ourselves as cultural creators, we promote a dangerous underestimation of ourselves as artists. We have to ask ourselves why Kaur is picked up and promoted at the expense of other, better young women writers of colour, of which there are so, so, so many. Go to Rap Party, or to one of Out-Spoken Press’ live nights; take a casual scroll through the archives of Peter Raynard’s Proletarian Poetry, read Arshi, Mahfouz, Shire, Osman, Minamore, Lola, Allen-Miller, Miguel, Sur. And understand that what Kaur represents is the co-opted and compromised “acceptable face” of feminism, a commodified, consumer-friendly feminism with the edges rounded off, a feminism that nods vaguely in the general direction of all that besets us without ever offering a meaningful challenge to or analysis of those forces.

Typing the above has made me feel extremely uncomfortable. I understand the importance of sisterhood and solidarity, and I don’t particularly enjoy trashing other people’s work. But I’ve been wondering lately if a desire to be “nice” or “supportive” isn’t killing the necessary work of criticism. Should the fact that there are so few working-class women poets, and even fewer working-class women poets of colour mean that I’m bound to support even those writers whose poetry is hackneyed, misguided or unhelpful? This isn’t a rhetorical question, it’s a genuine and pressing one. And I understand that art is subjective, and that Kaur’s poetry isn’t for me. It has a right to exist, and I’m glad, I guess, if there are young women out there who get something from it. But – and this is a big but – isn’t it possible that young women would get more from any of the other artists I just mentioned? What would happen if they were given the opportunity to meaningfully choose? If media coverage and publishing trends did true justice to the sheer depth of diversity that exists in contemporary poetry, rather than fastening on to one or two commercially viable cash-cows and milking them dry? It’s the disproportionate emphasis on a couple of big safe names that bothers me. It’s tokenistic and it’s patronising, and it’s limiting to our collective voice, and it’s diluting to our collective dissent.

Let Coke democratise culture! Let them eat McDonalds!

Discomfort abounds for me in poetry. Discomfort abounds for me in other areas too, but poetry has the upmost sweetness and meaning to me, it’s the sea I swim in, and so those anxieties are the most vivid and acute. Poetry fulfils this role for me largely because – and this is another of my oft trotted hobby-horses, so bear with me – poetry, as an artistic medium is so sublimely suited to the material conditions of working-class existence. Growing up, to do literally anything else: paint, act, sing, learn an instrument, play a sport, required time and resources neither myself nor my family could afford to commit. To write a poem all you need is an eye, a voice, and something to scratch your rage out on.

Fran Lock unlovablelabour 2

Unlovable labour, by Steev Burgess

Its method of production suits a population mired in the wretched life-consuming hell of poverty and unlovable labour. It can be practiced alone, anywhere; you don’t need pricey tuition, you get better by doing it, and who, after all, is more attuned to the music of your own experience than you? Growing up, I also felt a tremendous need for poetry, its immediacy and urgency spoke to me in ways prose could not reach; it bypassed the banality and circumlocution of everyday speech and made me feel emotionally connected to people and places far beyond the narrow confines of my life. It was both a way of expressing and understanding my daily experiences, and of escaping them to somewhere different, somewhere better. And so I feel powerfully that poetry is ours, by right and by necessity both.

Which is why this sense of discomfort pervades. In the past year I have seen poetry used to advertise everything from building societies to mobile phones, from Coke, to McDonalds. Fucking McDonalds. And I’ve followed the online debates about how this is actually a good thing: poetry is the language of the people, it’s not some precious, rarefied medium that needs to be kept, protected and unsullied from the grubby hustle of commerce. It’s democratic, I’ve been told, and anyway, who died and made me moral arbiter of “the scene”? What right do I have to judge the decisions of others? People have got to eat, and you can’t claim to support working-class poetry then shit on working-class people who are selling their art to survive. Right?

Yeah, okay, up to a point, but I don’t know whether reducing art to a shitty little cash-nexus is really such a staggering victory for cultural democracy. And look, I guess it’s fine if you want to contribute a poem to an institution or a product that manages to avoid abject moral bankruptcy, but, and I feel this is true in the case of the Nationwide ads especially, what you’re selling isn’t just the poetry, it’s yourself, the poet, it’s your working-classness; you’re allowing this building society to co-opt your “credentials” as a signifier of their authenticity and integrity. You’re using your heritage, your history, your bloody accent, on someone else’s behalf. Nationwide isn’t us. It isn’t grossly exploitative, and it’s owned by its shareholders, but it still isn’t us. It’s £2.3m in chief executive pay’s worth of not us in fact, and this in a time of mass unemployment, stagnating wage growth and in insanely hyper-inflated housing market that’s making it difficult for most of us to eke out an existence.

MH the employed poor

The employed poor, by Martin Hayes

I think what bothers me most, though, is the way in which the ghosts of working-class history are summoned up in the service of this financial product. Unfairness is acknowledged, but in the most cursory way possible, as if poverty and suffering were a force of nature, something that just happened to people in the bad old days, not something done to people systemically and systematically, deliberately, continuously, still.

But shit, Nationwide are not actually terrible, so who am I to pick holes in other people’s choices? You’ll grant me I’m on safer ground with my other examples, right? McDonalds, I mean, catch yourselves on, what a crock. If I read one more article about how “populism is good” or “it’s bringing poetry to a wider audience” I swear I’ll blow a gasket. Firstly, because this isn’t poetry, it’s something cooked up by an ad agency pretending to be poetry, and secondly because this isn’t populism, its cod-populism, it’s a corporation riding poetry’s coat-tails to position itself as your mate, in order that it might more effectively peddle its deep-fried patties of eyelids and arseholes, sawdust and spit.

Poetry, the way its rhythms encode and invite intimacy, its direct address, its person-to-person quality, these things are hijacked by the God-awful “just passing by” ad. The rhymes are reminiscent of McGough or Mitchell without being written by either, delivered by Neil Morrissey in a suitably blokey brogue. These signifiers of working-class identity, working-class poetics are tactically exploited to legitimate this shitvert, and position McDonalds as essentially inseparable from everyday working-class experience. As a working-class person I call bull-crap. We deserve better. Even if you can bypass the animal cruelty, and their stellar contribution to world-wide deforestation (I can’t, but that’s just me), McDonalds are still incredibly exploitative of their working-class employees, and historically one of the most aggressively anti-union chains in the fast food industry. Their food is also linked to malnutrition and obesity among the poorest communities worldwide.

And yeah, I will eventually stop flogging McDonalds, but as a corporation it’s just so beautifully illustrative of the way not only working-class culture, but working-class identity is appropriated, distorted and exploited by corporate capitalism.

I think what grinds me most about that crappy advert is its chummy tagline: “There’s a McDonalds for everyone”. Everyone. Like there’s not a version of my existence that isn’t bound up with and tied to their substandard fast-food. As if they’re somehow emblematic of, or synonymous with my culture. I don’t know, you can over-think these things, but that “everyone” still grates. I fear it’s probably the same “everyone” that thrilled to the Olympics and its community-disrupting corporate-sponsored descent upon London, and the same “everyone” that lined the streets to wave flags with feckless abandon at the spectacle of another Royal spawning. “Everyone”. Because if they can’t co-opt you and manufacture your consent, they edit you out of the picture, out of the dominant narrative. I am so entirely sick of being edited out.

The middle class is just better at acting!

This brings me back – somewhat less than neatly – to the arts and literature in general, and to poetry in particular. There’s a vision of working-class culture at work in these spheres that I can only describe as blinkered, monolithic and homogenous. Sorry, I’ll rephrase that: blinkered, monolithic, homogenous, and ubiquitous. This shit is everywhere. And once you’ve seen it, you cannot unsee it, it’s in every advert, every book or television show. It follows you around out the corner of your eye, a very bad case of Baader-Meinhof complex.

I noticed it first in the vox-pops, those little segments of the news where some poor beleaguered reporter has to go out and canvass the general public, get their take on the burning issues of the day. Why were the working-class people they picked to interview invariably inarticulate? Or ignorant? Or prejudiced? Maybe because most populations are inarticulate, ignorant and prejudiced in ways and for reasons entirely unconnected to class? At first I was able to tell myself I was being paranoid. But then came that slew of shit social-safari television: Benefits Street, Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away! and my own personal bête–noire, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. Here we come, the undeserving poor, an eternal cast of either criminals or victims, an undifferentiated mass of scrounging, skiving profligates. I’d see this and I’d think about my childhood, about the lives of my family and my friends, and I’d think: okay, but where’s the rest of it? Where are we?

Programmes like Benefits Street and Big Fat Gypsy Weddings are problematic in so many ways, but chiefly, I think, for the way in which they present carefully – and highly selectively – edited footage as documentary fact. Because how do they choose which families, which “characters”, and what stories to film? And how is the way in which these stories are framed, and cut, and scored contributing to a skewed and generally inaccurate representation of working-class people? Further, and more germane to this discussion, what kinds of narrative are these portrayals propping up? Whose interests do they serve?

Let’s face it, when we appear in the mainstream media at all it’s generally in the form of cynical copy-paste poverty porn, and this is absolutely strategic. It’s a way for our cultural elites to have their cake and eat it: they’ve included working-class characters and working-class voices, they’ve included working-class lives, and working-class experiences, and for this they earn a nice big box-ticking pat on the back. But they’ve included them within very narrow, tightly circumscribed parameters: striver or scrounger; the bluff northern male or the brassy cockney blonde; the swaggering black yout’ in a gang, or the fist-fighting congenitally sexist pikey.

This kind of phoney representation extends to fiction too, and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve sat through some middle-to-upper-class actor doing us pikey in different voices until I wanted to punch holes in concrete. They put us on like working-class drag in order to to flex their hip credentials, to win awards and plaudits for being socially aware, and worse, they do this at the expense of real working-class actors with just as much talent, who don’t have the recourses to compete in the incestuous, nepotistic snake-pits of film and television. Further, cultural expectations of the working-classes have been so successfully engineered, that we are no longer trusted to be the authors, spokespeople or archivists of our own experiences. Instead I’ve got Brad Pitt in Snatch, Michael Fassbender in Trespass Against Us, and the always heartwarming news that everybody’s favourite posh twit Benedict Cumberbatch is going to play Mikey Walsh’s father in a forthcoming screen adaptation of Gypsy Boy.

And poetry’s the same. And I spent such a long time hearing that my voice and my background were unacceptable, that they were things I’d have to minimise in order to “get on”, only to catch people doing me back at me, ventriloquizing me and my life, rocking up to my stages squatting in my postcode, forcing the rent up, garnering right-on points from my edgy poverty but bearing absolutely no responsibility towards the communities and cohorts they’d come crashing into. It pissed me off so much, in fact, I wrote a poem about it.

And you know, there’s what you’re allowed to say, and then there’s the way in which you’re allowed to say it. It isn’t that poetry has a problem with the working class, but it only wants us in certain venues, in particular enclaves whose borders it can effectively police, keeping us away from the business of “serious” cultural labour. “Slam”, for example, is increasingly hyped as “the poetry of the people”, imposing a false dichotomy between page and stage, and drawing an ugly, somewhat arbitrary dividing line between “elite” and “street”. This is patronising, disingenuous and gross. For all the paraded “right on” status of slam and spoken-word, it too has its regular staple of middle-class practitioners. And to assert that it accurately or completely represents working-class poetry is to pretend that there is one singular definitive voice of working-class experience. This is arrant nonsense.

Nothing wrong with slam, of course, and there’s so much about its ethos of community engagement that’s laudable, vital and exciting, but its over-emphasis as somehow exemplary of working-class poetics risks irreparable damage to the complexity, diversity and nuance of working-class poetics and working-class voice. A great deal of the slam I have encountered is – and I’ll admit, my experience might not be typical – samey, in terms of its thematic concerns, syntactic structure, delivery, and in the rhythmic formulation of the work. This only bothers me because the “poetry of the people” label is often used to sententiously confer moral status on personal, stylistic choices. Further, I think there’s an argument to be made that a strong moral agenda is sometimes used to legitimate or excuse lazy-arsed writing.

slambassadors

SLAMbassadors

Again, I’m not lumping all slam poetry together, or saying it’s lazy and bad. SLAMbassadors, for one, is a mad-exciting project, full of promising, talented young poets from every walk of life writing and performing hair-raisingly good material. What I am saying is we have to be so wary of any attempt to homogenise working-class poetics, or any other aspect of our cultural production under this or that banner, particularly when it risks dividing us from wider cultural participation and contribution, and especially when it means uncritically feting work just because it ticks the right boxes. What I am saying is we need to be on our guard against attempts to regiment and codify working-class poetry under the guise of challenging the dominant culture – page is x, so stage is y – it weakens working-class imagination and sets proscriptive limits on the way we are allowed to access poetry.

The working class mustn't become class-conscious!

But what even is “working-class culture”? As a phrase I find it condescending, dismissive and descriptive of nothing. At best it lacks nuance, at worst it becomes a way of corralling together a disparate collection of traits and customs, reducing them to a few tired tropes, and kicking them to the kerb, out of sight, out of mind. This is one of my most recursive and enduring rants, so bear with me while I hammer this sentence out again: there is no single “working-class culture”, and the idea that there is is a deliberate and insidious lie.

Working-class experience is, rather, characterised by its hybridity, its intersectionality. It is a melting and merging of cultures and customs under the impetus of overwhelming economic and social pressure. It’s what drives our creativity and resilience, our flair, our beautiful shoe-string inventiveness with language, with fashion, with music, with food. And it’s this that’s under threat: our image of ourselves as capable of embodying all of these things, and our right to know them and claim them as ours.

During my teenage years one of the hardest things for me was understanding where I fitted in, feeling mongrel, partial, neither one thing nor the other. At school my image of myself oscillated wildly between the belief that I was some kind of sub-genius, and the paralysing certainty that I was fraud, a fuck-up, and a failure. This is because the adults I encountered in the institutions I passed through either wrote me off as soon as I opened my mouth, or were so astonished that I could so much as string a coherent sentence together they immediately began weaving my fairly mediocre abilities into a narrative of individual exceptionalism. Reason being, neither side could accept someone like me had exactly the same capacities and potentials as the assimilated middle-class kids. Nothing they had seen or read or allowed themselves to experience had prepared them for the surprising possibility that I was a normal adolescent with a fairly decent brain. It just did not compute. So, when I bollixed something up it confirmed the worst suspicions I had about myself, and when I did something right I felt like a freak. Two years into a Ph.D. and I still struggle with this. What helps is understanding how this situation was engineered. How cultural elites operate to exclude, omit or erase the stories and voices of people like me, to wipe out our sense of ourselves as active participants in the cultural sphere. How these elites create self-loathing, how these elites create shame.

When I listen to a lot of the conversations about the “theft of working-class culture”, I feel this is an element that’s missing. It isn’t that the middle-classes or any group of power elites want to monopolise a particular uniform territory or set of traditions, it’s that they appropriate and cherry-pick arbitrary elements across a broad set of cultures and practices, exploit those elements for kudos and cache while telling us that we, our cultures, our lives, are the shit that’s left. Scrap. Offal. They sneer at us for not speaking well, but selectively adopt our linguistic ticks and flourishes to enrich their own verbal excursions. They steal our music and our clothes, they gentrify our dancehalls and our mosh-pits and our open mics, then they sell the resultant mess back to us at inflated prices, forcing us off of our stages, out of our mouths, out of our own skin.

Long live mainstream capitalist culture!

To take a non-poetry example that’s still very near to my heart, look at what happened to punk, to ska and to two-tone; look at the way in which the music was stripped of its radical political message, how the low-budget nuttiness and fevered invention of working-class kids was hoovered up, homogenised and returned to us as white male junkies in studded leather jackets. Same with hip-hop, how intense, socially conscious lyric flyting of kids with jack shit was sucked in and spat back out as slick misogynist crap, underscoring the same acquisitive, competitive, toxically masculine values as main-stream capitalist culture.

Caravaggio Taking of Christ rev

The Betrayal of Christ, by Caravaggio, c. 1602

And here, on this weird cultural margin, as a working-class, culturally “other” poet, you’re told there’s a part of you that’s defective or offensive, and if you want to get anywhere, you need to scrub that part out. I tried, I really tried, to my eternal shame. When I first come to London, because my image of myself and any pride or joy I might have taken in my heritage – ancestral or familial – had been so effectively destroyed, I negated myself: I wrote these terrible, monumental Fruit & Fabre-y poems, and I poshed my voice when I went on stage and read aloud. When this became too great a schizoid betrayal of everyone and everything I ever loved, and I started to write and speak as me, I was told I was “fetishizing” and exploiting my past. In time I realised that there is no version of my work that would be acceptable, that wouldn’t be used as a stick to beat me with. If I write my culture then I’m “playing the race / class card”. If I choose to write about anything else then I’m inauthentic, failing in my duty as ambassador apologist for “my people”, a sell-out and a fraud.

This is how elites and their cultural structures and institutions contrive to obliterate working-class voices, and tactically remove working-class people from the arena of literary and artistic participation. If they can’t control or co-opt you they make the effort of expressing yourself so exhausting, confusing and dispiriting, you just want to give up. And I have really wanted to give up this last year. Academia is horrible, exclusionary, alienating and fatiguing. My life is hard in material and emotional ways ninety-nine percent of my peers have absolutely zero hope of understanding, and the loneliness of that, of being a statistical freak inside a system designed to exclude me is really starting to take its toll. Nevertheless –

Oh no, they're waking up!

I will keep going, because working-class people are waking up to the urgency of this situation, because for the first time in a long time it feels as if we are galvanised and primed to become the authors and the archivists of our own experiences and stories. I am excited to be a part of this. I am excited to show people the sheer breadth and depth of what we can do. I’m excited that this could mark a genuinely significant turning point: no longer obsessed with defining or defending some invented and illusory idea of “the culture”, singular, we’re expanding, extending, exposing and evolving the notion of what that might be.

A gorgeous, shameless, hybrid beast.

B and R award

A gorgeous, shameless, hybrid beast, by Anon.

first amongst monsters: Trump comes to Britain
Monday, 09 July 2018 21:58

first amongst monsters: Trump comes to Britain

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock responds to Trump's visit, in prose and in verse. See here for some of the ways President Trump has described immigrants.

I laughed until I cried

I don’t find Trump funny anymore. I used to. Or rather, I used to laugh at him, which is not quite the same thing. I laughed at his chip-shop saveloy complexion, his aerosol cheese hair, his Neanderthal attitude, his asinine pronouncements. There’s a lot to laugh at, on the surface, and in any case, isn’t laughter supposed to be a weapon and a remedy? A tool, a sword, a cure? Sure. “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand” says good ol’ Mark Twain. Which sounds fine, but I’m willing to wager, had Twain lived to witness the long cross-continental shadow cast by Trumpnado, he might have felt differently.

Because we laughed at him, we laughed hard and long, and yet, lo and behold, here he is, a self-important perma-tanned juggernaut bearing down on the sick and the poor; on immigrant children, on people of colour, on women, on women of colour especially. And where did our laughter get us? Maybe it’s the thing we use to get us through, to let off steam, and that’s okay, it’s cathartic and it’s neccessary. But we need to stop kidding ourselves that humour on its own is an effective substitute for radical action. Laughter has value as praxis only when it’s used to reach people, to educate, to give us a positive spur to coalesce around and from which we can move forward. Otherwise, it robs its target of threat, of real, material menace; it reduces in scale that which faces us. Worse, it makes us complacent, and a little bit smug.

I saw this reflected not only throughout the American election and Trump’s already-too-long tenure as president, but also during my somewhat Londo-centric social media interactions during the run up to Brexit. And yeah, I laughed at the Facecrook posts knocking seven shades of satirical shit out of the diehard Brexiteers too, but laughter has its limits. We were talking to ourselves, congratulating ourselves on being clever and nice and not massively racist, and trusting that our being so, without actually doing anything would be enough. Wrong.

Same with Trump. And this one is personal for me. Actually, scrap that, it should be personal for all of us, especially now, in the wake of Brexit. Where America leads, Britain will follow, not just in terms of disastrous sabre-rattling foreign policy, environmentally suicidal climate denial, and a privatising nightmare we’re only now beginning to taste the poisonous fruits of, but in terms of the wider culture, the attitudes and ideas Trump’s bigotry legitimates. This should scare us all. Look at the parallels in immigration policy alone, the respective actions of both the Trump and May administrations in splitting up families through either detention or deportation. It’s enough to make you a little bit sick in your mouth.

But it’s personal for me in a specific way, in that somebody I love is an American citizen without the financial security to access the health care he needs either to treat his condition or to allow him to die without pain, and with dignity. Not that Trump created this situation, but his rhetoric embeds and enshrines the free market economy and the privatised for-profit health care system that is killing an entire uninsured underclass of American citizens. This is beyond shameful. This is beyond disgusting.

So I don’t find Trump funny anymore. I dread him. And I don’t find it funny that a large proportion of that very same underclass are the ones responsible for voting him into power in the first place. I find that nothing but sad, tragic in point of fact, and a massive indictment, not only of the competing political elites in America, but of us all.

“I’ve always made more money in bad markets than in good markets” gloated Trump in 2007, stating at the time that he was “excited” about the impending sub-prime mortgage crisis, because it afforded him the opportunity of personal enrichment. His first book, the ever-nauseating “The Art of the Deal” contains many other such gems, in which the tycoon describes the stock market plays that built his personal fortune, capitalising on catastrophe, exploiting the misery and misfortune of others, and cannibalising the repossessed properties and businesses of those less lucky than himself. Just in case anybody was in doubt: Trump couldn’t give shit one about you, and Trump couldn’t give shit one about poor white America either.

So why did anyone vote for him? And why would anyone who lived through the Big Society vote Tory twice? And what in God’s name is the deal with Farage, while we’re about it? A friend of mine has a phrase for it that often emerges in response to this question: TVC, or Turkeys Voting for Christmas. And there is a grain of truth in this, but it’s problematic too. It gives a name to the what, it doesn’t answer the why, and it’s frankly supercilious, at least it is perceived to be. This perception is a large part of the problem.

Because Trump’s election to president wasn’t a victory for the Republicans, so much as it was an epic failure by the Democrats to engage with or even acknowledge an entire swathe of the voting public. Clinton in the States and the liberal left in Britain treat the white working-classes as an inconvenient embarrassment, with the act of going out into their communities a hazard to be gone through, or, if at all possible, utterly avoided, their interactions stage-managed, choreographed, curtailed. Politicians seem to think that ignoring a prejudice means it will go away or, at the very least, be rendered irrelevant in the grand scheme when the votes are tallied. Nobody in mainstream politics is making the effort to reach these people, to have the difficult conversations. It’s hard to listen, and having listened, challenge. It’s easy to life, to sneer, to write people off as bigoted or ignorant without ever having to examine where that ignorance is springing from, how that bigotry was socially engineered. The difference between the right and the liberal left at this moment in history seems to be between pandering to a prejudice and pretending that it doesn’t exist.

Trump, Farage, and May to a lesser extent, all of their poisonous ilk, at least give the illusion of listening. It’s cynical and it’s manipulative, but it is permitted to thrive because it does so in a vacuum. Generations of politicians have impoverished education, and stripped analytical thinking out of successive curriculums because it was politically expedient to do so. And now there is a working class, a mobile vulgaris, it’s safe to hate, safe to laugh at, because they – we – are nasty and racist and uncouth and ignorant.

My hope for Corbyn’s Labour is that he / they will listen. And I mean really listen, not just parrot back a few stock phrases and tell people what they think they want to hear. To be a good politician, a good leader, is the same as being a good friend; it’s having the courage to say I hear you, and I understand, but I think you’re wrong and this is why. It’s to trust people with the truth, to empower them to make their own choices, even if they’re wrong, even if it fucks your career. More than even we need a selfless human, not a career politician, and definitely not some narcissistic Day-Glo tycoon.

I kind of like the Trump baby blimp, and I enjoy constructing elaborate streams of invective. Fun is fun, and sometimes we need it, because the fight, and the reality of that fight is pretty grim. But it’s also real. Trump isn’t as harmless as a baby, and he isn’t some amusing Clouseau-esque buffoon. He’s a predator, in every sense, and an arch manipulator. We deserve better, all of us. Even those who voted for him. Especially them.

 

first among monsters

his face is fighting itself on the slim, convex
tv. supremacies and syndromes, telescoping
salaries, a loan-shark in a camel coat. i’ve seen
him before. eats medical waste. his home alone
cameo. dry hump and humvee and nonplussed
pussy. spasm in the hand in a parking garage.
advancing his havoc in hotel lobbies. tiepins
redouble their diamonds when he walks by.
a whiplash lust in daterape heels is blotting
her mouth on a monogrammed towel. she slips
inside a gideon bible. she cannot hide. he has
greased the big idea, and now he’s snapping
on the latex glove. the dagger dipped in butter,
saturated fats. the consistency of silence is
fries, is coke, is foie gras, fillet of risk. cracked
gasket, holocaust denial. his name a blister
on your lip. a round, white pain you pick at,
repossessed, persistently ill-starred. decipher
this wayward light, entangled or refined. glows
like a desktop monitor. a private light he
reinvests in cancer. and now he’s twice
his teeming size, trailing success like the stink
of fish. you are the meat he profits off. a vile
star flounders, the sky cannot contain such
omens. your pockets repurpose another
stone. a gravel-desperation. an aggregate,
a currency. these arteries constrict, teeth
erode like empires. meshback cap. the klan.
the slang. the threadneedle whispers
of politics. his lapels are rehearsing a flag.
each suck of air is a new, less graceful
theft.

 

our mother's day will come
Sunday, 11 March 2018 16:43

our mother's day will come

Published in Poetry

our mother’s day will come

by Fran Lock

my mother’s face exists in the space between
kaijū and sphinx. she’s wearing clothes that hold
her body in contempt. her breath, imperfect
peppermint. she has to go to work. her earrings
are obols, shorn of their funerary usage. palest
flirtation of dubious gold. unclaimed merest
flick of skin, the seldom-surfaced self. our
mother holds down several jobs, like righteous
men might trample serpents underfoot. she
works in the kitchens of holiday parks, spiting
her wrists with the ambergris of hot fat; salt
in the cut to her thumb. she works, waitressing
tables, while little kids scream with tactless
joy, engineering ice-cream headache, on
and on. our mother’s scanned your hummocks
of steroidal meat for hours, her hands making
a dumb-show of séance. she cried like a tangled
cassette in the night when she thought we
couldn’t hear. our mother worked lates with
the cold coiled inside like a sharpened spring
at the twenty-four seven garage to tight to pay
for heat. she gritted her teeth through gregarious
sleaze in the small town slur of the local bar.
and she came home and kneaded the bread
like she was thumping breath back into
a stopped heart. she held me through all my
recalcitrant havoc, the voices we heard in
our heads between god and the vomit, our
gremlins and lurgies and rages. my mother
studied. in those hotbed-of-non-event towns,
she dug in her heels, and she bit back her
anger. not a shoulder to cry on, a human
shield, her backbone a needle of lightning.
she studied, defended, and cleaned on her
knees till she bruised. my mother, our mother,
unfolding the joke from a book that the world
had kept from her. my mother, coming
sudden on the mind’s reckless hieroglyphs:
i finally understand. my mother’s face exists
between the strange and the wise. and we catch
her sometime, when she’s only herself, dreaming
her private tumult. my mother works, tilling
the stony earth until a word strikes water
and everything wickedly greens for a moment.
this is the grace that shit is grist to. it’s thanks
to her we are free.

Votes for Women
Wednesday, 07 March 2018 12:07

Creativity unites us: poetry for International Women's Day, 2018

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock has curated this year’s compilation of poetry for Culture Matters, to mark International Women’s Day. There are poems by Jane Burn, Sogol Sur, Joanne Key, Julia Bell, Anne Pelleschi, Beri Allen-Miller, and Fran herself, ending with a prose piece, On Fighting the Disconnect.

Introduction

When you put out a call for poetry submissions, you never know what you’ll get back. It’s a dangerous game, like asking questions of the Ouija Board, inviting a strangeness into your life, something maverick, haunting and twisted. This time was a little different, though; the women I reached out to being writers I’d admired for long time, and people I knew would have something to say on a subject that’s extremely close to my heart.

In the approach to International Women’s Day I started thinking about poetry’s potential as a kind of counter narrative, a way of exposing the hidden histories of women, stories and experiences that are erased or ignored by the general discourses of everyday life. When I asked these poets to contribute to Culture Matters, I suggested they send something that speaks to the material reality of being a working-class woman, of the struggles and joys that are uniquely ours, of the headspace those struggles create, of the ways we find to navigate the world and understand ourselves.

Which is easier said than done. What does it even mean to be “working-class” and a woman, here and now, when “work” itself is a vexed notion? How does gender interact with labour? How does labour interact with sexuality, ethnicity, disability, and with the hundred-billion other ways the world has of defining us?

These poems don’t answer all those questions. What emerges instead is a polyphony of voices across a wide range of cultures, experiences and generations. These poems, I think, exist as a proof that imagination takes root here, in us, in however inauspicious or infertile seeming the ground of our daily grind. Creativity unites us, and creativity is our best form of resistance and resilience.

 

Jane Burn

 Jane Burn has had poems in The Rialto, Under the Radar, Butcher's Dog, Iota Poetry as well as anthologies from The Emma Press, Beautiful Dragons, Emergency Poet & Seren. She is the author of three books: Fat Around the Middle (Talking Pen), Tongues of Fire (BLERoom), and nothing more to it than bubbles (Indigo Dreams).

Jane writes:
The seed of this poem, Let me tell you about, was sown late last year when I attended a local poetry night. One of the open mic poets was a young, very well-spoken man in his early twenties. His poem was about a sexual encounter he had had (for real or imaginary, I do not know) with a woman he considered less than himself. They did what he imagined were the usual 'roughing-it' things like going to Lidl. I became increasingly uncomfortable with the ideas in his poem and when he spoke the line, 'chav girls need love too' which was meant to justify his 'slumming it', I walked out. I have been so angry about it ever since - the very idea that someone is to be treated thus because of where they were born is abhorrent. That they are just a 'girl'. As if there is a better class of person that can dabble with those who are lesser human beings. Oh yes, you can screw the common women for a laugh but you sure wouldn't take them home to meet the folks.

There is still a divide - there are still children growing up with less opportunity than others and judging by people like the man I mentioned above, there are still people growing up with the attitude that they are a better class of person. Perhaps he thought his poem was a witty little joke - perhaps he would be suprised to discover how offensive I found it to be.

Let me tell you about

potatoes bought by the sack
leaving school still not being sure what a noun is
trying to fill the gaps left by a crap education
hand-me-downs from them up the street
Jan’s, where you asked for a bob and came out looking like your nan
licking the back of Co-op stamps
paddling in the slipway at Thorne, avoiding a floating shit
dipping in Kayli’s rainbow and puckering at the taste
auntie’s handbags full of copper-filth tuppence smell
contemplating the scrapyard’s matted dog
my mother selling her rings
the cliché of three inches of bathwater each
knowing absolutely nothing about wine
the uncertainty of pasta
the raw song of the siren’s end of shift
being made to wait on doorsteps while other people went in
a boy with fists
the oompah band and how I loved The Floral Dance
the horse with strangles on the dealer’s yard
how my parents were never sure if they should take off their coats
curdles of Artex on every ceiling and wall
Skegness
the fear that I might end up in the sewing factory
how a lathe is softened by a fascination of swarf
how I felt when I discovered that anyone can be an archaeologist
the first time I ate a courgette
calling lunch, dinner and dinner, tea
how it feels when someone mimics the way you speak
being good enough to fuck but not good enough to date
ending up working a supermarket till
feeling the smoothness of others snag upon your scuff
being haunted by your rough-built self
watching people hide what they really think
knowing there is nothing more ahead than there is behind.

*
Jane writes:
Horses have been the most important thing to me for as long as I can remember. At four years old I used to balance on a precarious stack of buckets and try to scramble upon the fat roan back of a pony who lived on a nearby farm. I walked for three miles to where the local show was held throughout the summer and stood until the last horse had gone. From the age of twelve I worked evening and weekends in a dealers yard - I was not paid for the huge amount of work I did but I got to ride and be with the creatures that were the most important things to me.
One of our 'treats' was to sometimes be taken to Pannal Sales, Yorkshire. I had such fantastical ideals when it came to these beloved animals. The reality of the sales was something I have never fogotten.

A Day at Pannal Sales

These are not the horses of your dreams.
These are pens of steaming piebald hides,
tangles of splaying legs, shit-spattered hocks.
Ears back, too afraid to come to you over the gates –
throats raw with heaved wind, bellies fat with worms,

ridge tile spines, a din of screams.
These are not the horses you usually see.
These are hunters, jumpers too long in the tooth –
foundered ponies, sadly outgrown mother’s dreams,
cuckoo bolters, biters, buckers, lame ducks

doped on bute. Stallions, cresty, frothed and raked
about the lorry park to flash a high-kneed step.
You will sit at the ring and wish you were rich.
Guineas are bid over whipped-up hides
and the gibberish hubbada hubbada dubbada

auctioneer’s talk litters the day with hope
or hopelessness, depending on whose hand is raised.
You will not forget the gated ramp
of the meat man’s truck, nor the weanling Shetlands,
small as dogs, furzy as teddies, eyes like

portions of God walking mildly up it.
You will not forget the sound of a mare’s grief,
udder bagged for a foal’s milky crave.
The hat-rack shire with a Father Christmas beard.
These are not the horses of your dreams.

*
The witch who lives on the hill

Maybe there is something of the wanderer in me –
I have this problem with rooting. Not tree but tumbleweed,
rolled into corners, bumping its fragile netted head.
Dust settles on me, weighs me down. I wish I knew
my history – I wish I knew who I was. I don’t fit –

my dogs are cut from patchwork cloth, bite slow fingers.
My ponies is feathered and splotched with white.
He only needs a wagon, Tommy-The-Tooth-Man said –
he ran racehorses in Ireland, is bones like a bird, fears nothing.
I’m always after seeing their souls – horses will show

them to you, given time. You ought not to be on their backs
until you are in their hearts. I see those neighbours,
clocking my trousers, muddy-wet bum from sitting
low, learning their unicorn talk. I hope their curtain twitching
brings them what they wish for. Her garden. Looks like

a rubbish dump. Why would you want rusty things?
I got to keep my eye out for the scrap-man, sneaky bastard –
he’s got a right lust for my stuff. Bucket rotted to its scaffold form,
horseshoes, iron rabbit, old pot-belly stove. This clutter,
in its corrosion was a shiny something once. The beauty is in how

it changes. Shells everywhere, bleachy bones, pebbles.
Badger skull in a plant pot – I’m a-gonna use ‘em
for casting spells, come round yer ‘ouses, sell you pegs.
My gay abandon of lavender bothers them. Her
with that camper van parked on the street. Like a gyppo.

I lost count of the times folk have tried to insult me with this.
I’ll wish on clover for them – fuckers. I know they peep
through my windows, mutter at my Dead Man’s Swag.
I crave cabinets, the kind that you filled with china birds.
I have to scrub the stink of ciggs from, smelling like memories

of failed lungs and death. Roam the car-boots for bits
to fill them – then they are bright as bowtops, spangle of chintz,
porcelain birds. I look at a plate on a stall. Bloke says
hurry up and buy it – if you won’t, the Syrians will.
They pause to tut outside my house. Pretty soon

they’ll be genuflecting, spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch,
calling to the Saints to preserve them. Why don’t you park
down your own end? The phone-wire box on the street corner
is opened, wires spilled – this man in his fluoro tabard,
crouches in front, confused at the spew of guts. At the tip

of every one, a voice – if you could press your ear to the mass
you need never be lonely again. There’s Betty, face like a wasp,
pressed to the glass, wishing me ill and I am meant to be the witch.
Her mouth is a poisoned bud. This used to be a nice street.
Starlings roost on her ridge tiles. Kids kick balls in her hedge.

 

Sogol Sur

Sogol Sur is the author of  the poetry collection, Sorrows of the Sun (Skyscraper, 2017). She is currently undertaking a PhD in creative writing at Birkbeck, and working on her debut short story collection.

Inheritance

One presumes one has everything to lose
One enters the office, the bureau for bureaucracy, an embassy, a ministry, a roomful

You have to prove to them why
you exist; why you need your inheritance
although the term and the concept soil your mouth
newly-shed blood in a lucid lake spreading, an indestructible virus
this money, two-thirds of a professor’s salary is the only thing you have inherited
from your mother - apart from her lust for the impossible,
unacceptable ambitions, and sudden-death genes.

You need the money, you tell them, your mouth
churning, turning, withering, a diseased flower in garbage.
Your father has sent you. He is pulling invisible strings.
What strings? What country? What inheritance?
Why do you think you exist? What mother? What father?
They don’t utter this, but you can hear it
for by now you know a motherless woman is not a woman
but a rootless tree, carved and scarred by a myriad of artless passersby,
its branches cut and thrown in a deep swamp.

They shout at you without uttering a sound:
Your country does not exist. It died with your mother.
We don’t owe you any money. You don’t have any power
How would you pull strings? Which strings? Why do you think
you’re special? All the strings were buried with your mother
in that grave. In that crowded cemetery where your body bent
without your involvement and you heard a man - a far relative - say,
‘she’s okay, it’s probably just stomach ache,’
and you were surprised by your lack of desire to beat him to death.

But you did wish god or something like that
existed and could resurrect your mother instead of
ordering you to look chaste and you glanced
at your mother’s sister in her black chador, praying
at her sister’s tomb.
And for the first time in your life you envied her
you needed something, anything to hold on to
but there was nothing.

When they collected you from your
mother’s grave, you couldn’t hold on to them because
you knew they were nothing. And there was nothing again to hold on to.

And every time you go to a sweaty office to claim
her money you wish you were buried
with her in that grey cemetery
for you know there is nothing to claim, nothing
to hold on to when you’re a motherless woman
in your twenties with a painful passport and
you hear voices in your head that logically you are aware don’t exist,
yet they are as deafening as the rain knocking on your window during
Tehran winter showers. And the vociferation:
Take off your fake hijab
Who do you think you’re fooling?
We know you
You’re not meant to exist.

 

Joanne Key

Joanne Key lives in Cheshire where she writes poetry and short fiction. She recently returned to university as a mature student to complete an MA in Contemporary Arts at Manchester Metropolitan University, Cheshire. She has previously been shortlisted for The Bridport Prize, Mslexia Poetry Competition and The Plough Poetry Prize, and her poems have appeared in magazines including The Interpreter’s House; Ink, Sweat and Tears; and Nutshells and Nuggets. She won second prize in The Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition 2014.

Sleepers

At fifteen, my wires trailed
behind me like loose shoelaces.
Despite the cable, snaking
under my ribs, the feathers
started to poke through the cuffs
of my school jumper. A danger
to myself, the men said
I could take off anytime
and should be sent to the factory
where my mind would be occupied
with minding the machines,
tending them, mending my ways.
The factory and its banner:
Set Aside All Thoughts of Flight.
My father gave it the green light
as he sat on his rusty throne,
flexing the hinges of his fists,
smoke and booze flowing
through his steel tubes.

And so they squeezed me
into line with the other women,
side by side, forced in
as tight as batteries.
The siren howled.
A door clanged shut.
That was that.
The machines ate everything:
days, words, music, news.
I watched them swallow
some women whole.
We called them Sleepers.
I saw my mother slip away
until all that was left
was her voice humming
in the drum of its stomach.
The factory took the sun,
the doves cooing on the roof,
the chatter and laughter
and pitter-patter of rain,
leaving us only with the sound
of crying on fire escapes
and the moaning of Sleepers
trapped deep inside the machines.

Nothing lasts forever.
Many years have passed,
but on lonely nights like this
my mother often flits back
into my life. Owl-eyed
and full of light, she sits
on the windowsill,
preening her feathers,
before disappearing again,
her shape fading from view
as she circles the ruins
of the factory, picking over
the bones of those old
worn-out systems.
So many times I have tried
to call her back, my face
at the window – pale
and plain as a blank clock.
Mouth clicking. Open. Shut.

 

Julia Bell

Julia Hephzibah Bell is a writer and Course Director of the MA Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She is the author of three novels and the bestselling Creative Writing Coursebook. Currently she is working on lyric essays and poetry. Hymnal is a verse memoir about growing up in a religious family in Wales. And she is currently working on a sequence of essays about Berlin. Two of these essays will feature in forthcoming editions of Wasafiri and The White Review. She currently divides her time between London and Berlin.

The Visiting Speaker

But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? - Luke 10:40

Typical. The minute there’s a man about the house
she’s off, leaving me to get on
with the gutting of fish, the buttering of bread.
Sitting there, simpering, playing with her
beads in that idle, flirty way that makes her look cheap.

Five loaves and fishes and then some
piled on the table, there’s at least fifty people coming,
it will take a miracle to get this done in time.
And all she cares about is boys, boys, boys,
turned into a simpleton the minute they arrived.

Our hands butterflied across the table,
slicing, dicing, picking bones, tossing salads,
while we debated the various defences of Kierkegaard,
and the finer points of the theories of mind,
and then when he arrived she emptied like a drain

quite the coquette, while I sit here steaming
Pollack, getting grease stains on my blouse.
So many exceptions: Peter who’s vegetarian, Matthew
the wheat intolerant, Mark who can’t stand fish.
Wet drips together dripping. Especially him.

When I went out to complain all he could say
was there were more important things than cooking
in that kind of hippie, dreamy way that she believes
is a substitute for thinking. See here, he said,
picking a flower, consider the lilies of the field.

And she lay next to him, giggling, rococo,
as if posing for a Titian. God, that made me mad.
Here I am up to my eyeballs in dishes,
and all she can think about is sex. What good are flowers
when the clock is ticking on the Sunday roast?

He’s no idea what it’s like pulled every which way,
clean this, cook that, where’s my clean shirt?
He might have time for stargazing, but me,
I have to keep the carrots from boiling over.
A martyr? Don’t be soft. I’m losing my mind in here.

 

Anne Pelleschi

Anne hails from Swansea, South Wales, and her life and work have evolved from her Welsh origins. She is the organiser of international literary events and an international creative writing competition. Closer to home she established Dylan Thomas's birthplace as a successful centre celebrating his early life, and for holding workshops and events, including poetry readings. She is a regular speaker on Thomas' life nationally and internationally. Anne has organised arts festivals in local parks and created 'Welsh Mams' Day. Her work is drawn from her lifetime experiences in which people and place provide centrality to her sense of iterative historical and emotional consciousness.

1832, for a mother

They call me a Murder Stone, though I have killed no-one.
My role was not to take a life but to record one that was brutally shortened.

I am so tired, worn out, worn down,
my once loud voice has disappeared, gone.
I am a pock marked slab of misery where pointing fingers chiselled into me.

They call me a Murder Stone, though I have killed no-one.

I was chosen, hand-picked and quarried in Mawr,
there is no-one alive to remember why now,
so I must tell you before I fade,
before the earth re-claims me and becomes my grave.

My role was not to take a life but to record one.

I am weak and leaning on an old chapel wall.
As your feet pass by or your car engines thrum,
you do not notice me yet I am the one who remembers the truth.

They call me a Murder Stone, though I have killed no-one.

Look for me in Felindre, look for me.
Find me and discover about an unborn child,
about Eleanor, its mother

 

Circles

On that sultry, weeping-cloud day, I watched her sitting room's
furniture be moved and switched, re-switched, re-moved.
I saw pain take control of a face that was drawn, a soul that
was torn between despair and survival.

                        A blank worn canvas
                     outlines of deep silences
                        tears left un-spilled

Gasping breaths were her voice as she paced and twitched,
stood still, sat down, opened cupboards, slammed their doors,
apologised, searched, spinning round and around.

                       Those old training shoes
                      trying to make sense of it
                          a tongue sticking out

Into a quiet, whimpering stillness, words emerged from their
swallowing, smothering cocoon and filled the room.
Whispering into her neckline, she spoke about that morning, the
hat mis-shaped, the ugly morning and the note that was left by her
door.

                                 Now only shadows
                     quick silvered running footsteps
                                 a broken marriage

 

Beri Allen-Miller

Beri Allen-Miller is a poet and photographer currently living in Hertfordshire.

Commuter's Flu

hammering nails into my head to let the pain out
i’m tired of being ice picked
chipping holes into cold
cold cold
melting little drips
into the eyes
of wiser guys

“peanut butter mix it up
mess with me ill kick your butt”
i’m never going to let my heart shed
ive got a brain i hide
use it selfishly
they say i was born in soft focus
a little vaseline on the lens
a little tinsel around the eyes.

i put my hood up
relax my accent
hiss into a blunt little minute
70 70 70
tangled up in my hair
i was rocked by smoke
finding with my fingers
my core centralising light
she a peony
prototype power
i sit with it
let it alight
get off of the brim of my hat
covering my eyes with your tiny palms
i am pushing out noises
in breathy punches
scaling through vowels.

Palpate

There is only so much a voice can do
the girl piercing the old men whispering about her brain
I dart into myself - a bee
a bug
with an eye for contagion
and
keeping my teeth aligned is
harder than holding a drill into skin
- a bee direct but fatally scared
- a bug with a dark glint and quietly amber in
temper and colour
amber in coffin

I can hear the flesh of all of the sewn together men
they don’t fit me well
I can’t speak or talk
Take me in your car
park us near the seaside -
the sea is our bedroom
It’s a chore to roll over if I don’t have two small pulses to encourage
one eye or both
you see in me, a bracing for potency

You strain to make me larger
this splinter is no good
it has ruined to such impossible depths
tweezers will not do they become too foreign at the side of my skin

I draw my family tree on my stomach, it’s all images written in flexing marks and I am told I am lost, love is recycled into threads

 

Fran Lock

 

our mother’s day will come

my mother’s face exists in the space between
kaijū and sphinx. she’s wearing clothes that hold
her body in contempt. her breath, imperfect
peppermint. she has to go to work. her earrings
are obols, shorn of their funerary usage. palest
flirtation of dubious gold. unclaimed merest
flick of skin, the seldom-surfaced self. our
mother holds down several jobs, like righteous
men might trample serpents underfoot. she
works in the kitchens of holiday parks, spiting
her wrists with the ambergris of hot fat; salt
in the cut to her thumb. she works, waitressing
tables, while little kids scream with tactless
joy, engineering ice-cream headache, on
and on. our mother’s scanned your hummocks
of steroidal meat for hours, her hands making
a dumb-show of séance. she cried like a tangled
cassette in the night when she thought we
couldn’t hear. our mother worked lates with
the cold coiled inside like a sharpened spring
at the twenty-four seven garage to tight to pay
for heat. she gritted her teeth through gregarious
sleaze in the small town slur of the local bar.
and she came home and kneaded the bread
like she was thumping breath back into
a stopped heart. she held me through all my
recalcitrant havoc, the voices we heard in
our heads between god and the vomit, our
gremlins and lurgies and rages. my mother
studied. in those hotbed-of-non-event towns,
she dug in her heels, and she bit back her
anger. not a shoulder to cry on, a human
shield, her backbone a needle of lightning.
she studied, defended, and cleaned on her
knees till she bruised. my mother, our mother,
unfolding the joke from a book that the world
had kept from her. my mother, coming
sudden on the mind’s reckless hieroglyphs:
i finally understand. my mother’s face exists
between the strange and the wise. and we catch
her sometime, when she’s only herself, dreaming
her private tumult. my mother works, tilling
the stony earth until a word strikes water
and everything wickedly greens for a moment.
this is the grace that shit is grist to. it’s thanks
to her we are free.

 

On Fighting the Disconnect

The teenage girl on the bus is wearing a white T-shirt with the words I AM A FEMINST printed on the front in stark inch-high black letters. It’s dark outside and she’s travelling alone, so, when a group of boys get on at the next stop and bundle upstairs into the seats behind her, making the usual lewd and nonsensical comments, I swap seats to sit with her. I don’t want to come off like a dick, or imply that she needs protecting, but I want her to know she’s got help if she needs it, so I ask her if I can sit down, and to make conversation I tell her I like her T-shirt. “Thanks”, she says, and drops the name of a thoroughly ubiquitous online retailer whose ethical policies might want a bit of rethink, their supply chain having been linked in recent years to the labour of refugee children; with their British-based warehouses the subject of widely reported exposés into exploitative and dangerous working conditions. I don’t say anything, but it does give me private pause. The workers in sweatshops and warehouses are typically women and girls, and it’s hard for me to imagine anything more cynical than the way consumer culture regurgitates this cosmetic and morally-compromised feminism to idealistic young women.

Somewhere there’s a disconnect. But maybe it was ever thus. Take Rosie the Riveter, that oft-copied icon of female “empowerment”. Rosie was designed by J Howard Miller, and her purpose wasn’t liberation, it was propaganda. Rosie was supposed to mobilise a workforce, and she did: between 1942 and 1945 over six million women in America alone took up new jobs to further the allied war effort, many of whom started work in the factories before their employers had issued standard uniforms and safety equipment. Before 1943, for example, steel-toed boots weren’t made in women’s sizes, and women welders regularly sustained injury working in their everyday clothes without proper protective gear. Agencies that could have stepped in and stepped up to outfit women with safe and appropriate clothing didn’t consider it worth their while. They were only temporary, after all, an expendable substitute for male workers drafted overseas.

In the U.K, the women working in munitions factories turned yellow from exposure to TNT, earning them the euphemistic nickname: the canary girls. Although this discolouration was temporary, other side-effects were far more ominous. Women developed bone disintegration, throat and lung problems, and a fatal liver disease known as toxic jaundice. All this to earn a scant half the amount of their male counterparts, and while being expected to conform to an idealised and unobtainable standard of beauty that was considered as much a part of their “duty” to the war effort as the factory work in which they were employed.

Rosie’s a suspect symbol, the acceptable face of female labour; she isn’t jaundiced or exhausted or malnourished or maimed. She’s a fetish, a wet-dream, she’d working-class drag with the edges sanded off. She obscures not exposed the complex reality of what it means to be a working woman.

Somewhere there’s a disconnect. As IWWD rolls round again this year I find myself dwelling on this disconnect more and more. As a buzzword feminism is everywhere, and I want to take comfort from that, but I’ve seen a lot and I’m naturally wary. When companies and celebrities position themselves as “feminist” in order to encourage consumption or legitimate their views, I am wary. When conversations about equality are reduced to a grubby little cash nexus, I am wary. When the idea of real and necessary systemic change is diverted into the celebration of spurious cultural “gains”, I am wary.

Fundamentally, I don’t give a shit if L'Oreal or any one of its feckless spokespeople think I’m worth it, because “beauty” as an arbiter of personal worth is meaningless to me, especially when “beauty” means relentlessly performing some grotesque notion of exploded femininity twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, something that isn’t remotely practicable for most working-class women with dirty and difficult jobs.

Fundamentally, I think there are more urgent and important issues at work right now than whether a boardroom Tory earns the same amount as her male equivalent. Yes, of course, we should work towards parity of pay in business, but this can’t be the only measure of whether feminism is succeeding. The question of economic equality needs first to consider the working conditions of the poorest in our society; needs to start with the fruit-pickers and warehouse factory packers, needs to understand the connection between the convenience of your next-day delivery and the woman in Grimethorpe breaking her back on minimum wage to make that happen.

Fundamentally, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference if Jodie Whittaker is Doctor Who, or if we have a gender-flipped Ghost Busters, when women in Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre are still on hunger strike for being detained unfairly and indefinitely in demeaning and dangerous conditions; when cuts to Child Benefit coupled with restrictions to access of Legal Aid trap threaten to women in poverty and domestic abuse.

My point, I suppose, is that wearing the T-shirt is fine, idealism is fine, but feminism isn’t a slogan, it isn’t an aspirational brand, and wearing the T-shirt isn’t fighting the patriarchy. Feminism requires something of us, requires joined up thinking and a sense of our responsibility to each other. Feminism requires class-consciousness, an attentive listening to the varied voices of working-class experience.

 

 

universal credit
Friday, 17 November 2017 11:32

universal credit

Published in Poetry

universal credit

by Fran Lock

statues wake, and yawning, scrape
the birdshit from their tongues. london
drags a dirty nail across her fibroid lungs.

the hoodies and the halfwits are disporting
on the green. their smiles are shallow gashes
like the slots of fruit machines.

the silent politicians brush their dandruff
from their suits. rehearsing alternate careers
as undertakers' mutes.

work and pensions perverts, and the l.s.e's
pet boffins, offer thrilling opportunities
in made to measure coffins.

Us Too
Friday, 17 November 2017 10:32

Us Too

Published in Poetry

Us too

by Fran Lock

1:

And at the knackered traffic lights, the lads, led about by their soft-boiled

bellies like pregnant seahorses; regimental maniacs in berets, khaki slacks

and symptomatic tattoos, checking their reflections in their steel toe-caps.

It’s Friday night, and I am walking the tusky ramparts of our beautiful coastal

town. Crossing the road by the fountain, I smile at a bony-shouldered band

of amphetamine featherweights, young boys bitching their brittle Polari in

local parks where broken railings fix their bayonets. I walk, and I’m watching

the women, old women, women in acrylic skin and slit up skirts and circus stilts,

preening their screams in a nightclub queue. Their eyes are dressed in injury,

they wince and strut; the curb becomes a catwalk of hot coals. I have seen

them, squeezing defeat into too-tight shorts. Hey, don’t laugh, the world turns

on its thirst, you know? The world turns, on a thousand fetish devastations. No

word is safe. I heard them say: You’ll be scraping your face off the back of his

hand. I’ll be scraping my face off for years. It’s Friday night, dear God, and there

is a girl, young girl, sucking a hardboiled silence, cut right down to her tight pink

passing-sacred; all thin white arms and long wet hair, who hangs around her

boyfriend’s neck like a broken stethoscope. No, no heart to hear. That girl is

me. I see myself, undoing my smile like the top button of a shantung blouse.

How I court their brawling foreplay. Lose count of the times I heard someone

say: It’ll all end in tears.  A minor vice, a little statutory angst, summer’s giddy

commerce on the corner in the evening. Or, those seasick seaside mornings,

flaunting my disorder by the boat swings, skittish in a miniskirt. A blowjob or

a stick of rock; a loose tooth and a broken nose. Pain is our roseate intercourse.

There’s coercion God, and then there’s force. At the traffic lights, the lads.

Our eyes collide like marbles. I’m leatherette and penny sweets, and sexy.

They said I was sexy. I feel about as sexy as a two-seater second-hand sofa,

a busted spring in my empty belly. So scuffed, I am, so worn. There’s a girl who,

night after night, will polish her most affordable fear. That girl is me. And a lad

looms up once more, a video game glow round him, big as an end of level boss,

he’s swinging his arms through the slutty gloaming. He grabs me by my sleeves;

he drags me past the sagging wrecks of blackened bandstands, wind-distorted

portacabins. I’m on my knees beneath the beer-gut of an old pavilion. The reek

of fish and week old fat. He leaves my mouth a smashed mess of slang and teeth.

Woke up on the wrong side of the war: I’ll school you, you pikey caant.

 2:

 Worse things happen at sea, they said, and what did you expect? And I’m thinking

of you now, ba-lamb, bestie, the ways in which you understood. There are days that

I contain you, my own controlled explosion. The ways we shared the dolorous

geographies of home; the way that home had made a fetish out of splendour,

benediction, reverie. There is no safe word. No word is safe. Bottomless duty, gilded

fate, a beauty we were born imploring. How we adored the Paschal musk and chorus

of Compline; the way the lady Saints inclined their heads, girding a devious grace in

groups like school-gate gossips, how they might blow a scented mercy you could

treasure like a kiss. We knew no better then. There was nothing better for us to know.

Oh, my most Catholic ghost, I still dream about your mouth, succulent and fated

and twice the size of itself against a motley, potholed sky. Your kiss was like pink fairy

lights inside of me. Loss is not the word, not deficit, butwound, this pain, both abject

and succinct, and no I will never drink myself free. Four and twenty blackbirds baked

inside this grief, this keening extremis. No prestige grief we plump like pillows on

a sickbed, but something with yellowy incisors, stripping the meat from a glistered

phrase. Tell me, what did you expect? The Lord moves in mysterious ways. You knew

how it felt and you knew what it meant, and you spent the rest of your empty days

acquainting God with the back of your head. I remember us haunting your bedroom

mirror with our failed symmetries, hollow-eyed, companionably jaded – feral, defiled,

and exiled from the neck down, pushing our ugly consumptive luck. Oh, my bright jinx,

my strictest-shining Catholic ghost, you remembered too well too. Left me what was left

of you. I’m stood in the photonegative light of some shitty hospital corridor, wringing

my hands and rapidly blinking. The tired eye tries to free itself from the shock it

stepped in. Dead.

3:

 I dreamt of it again, lie still until I’m sane. The dream retreats, but leaves its curdled

traces. The school is worst, where boredom makes the minutes swim, where the low

ceilings stunted our growth, where I was a child, lisping and conspicuous to history;

suggestible poppet with braided hair, the barer of a deformed faith that clutched at beads,

a face that didn’t fit. Where you were a child, prodigal of famine and infliction, bygone

pogrom, occupation and eviction. Half breed. Bad seed. Black sheep. Mad cow, bovine

on dopamine, slurring her girlhood, I could not run, could only sweat the dread of barefoot

threat in dusty halls with all the windows  painted shut, a stale and violent light outside.

Inside the proper girls, with crop-circle smiles, who sharpened their collective whisper

like a shiv and smirked my gremlin pedigree: Gyp bitch! You botched abortion! The boys,

aggrandised and Neanderthal, scholars of the picked scab, the sucked knuckle, the untucked

shirt. Tumescent cretins, snickering under their breath. They followed me home. Blighted

desire had tightened their guts, they took disfigured joy in causing pain. Just like their fathers,

brothers, future sons: You slag! You slut! And I was cornered with exhaustion, writhing

like a salted slug. Cher sings Gypsies, tramps and thieves. Big fucking laughs from

the peanut gallery.

4:

And for the longest, dear God, I couldn’t speak of this. My mouth was a glass

house, gathering stones, stoned and phobic on Seroxat and Sertraline. Days

spent redacting a dark eye with liquid liner, losing weight, becoming shallow

as a footprint in wet sand. For the longest time I’d close my eyes and smell

the sea, and brewers’ yeast, and boot polish. For the longest time I’d smell

the lino, chalk dust, desks: dirty grey, and barnacled with chewing gum. I’d

close my eyes and feel the stingy and complicit looks of teachers boring into

the back of my skull.

 5:

Mr B is bad breath and soiled ambition. His face swims like a boiled shirt, his skin

the white of unsigned plaster casts; he has the long front teeth of a talking horse.

In a rank mood he leers and reels toward me. Do you remember how we prayed

back then? To God on his gilded battlements: Sweep ‘em up or strike ‘em dead, dear

God. He never did. Social worker measures out her well worn spite in meticulous inches.

She’s a local girl. Her smile is frowsy industry, coastal erosion, and economic stalemate.

She doesn’t care that a boy has worn me like a secret on his lips; she cannot help me,

can’t tell me how to make a poem from a fistful of wet earth, how to dislocate my

shoulders and keep on swimming. Hey, the world turns on its thirst, you know? On

the scurvy lusts we must remake ourselves from daily. Two young girls, too young,

tricked out in torrential dresses, smiling their slow dissolve into camera.  Savants

of resurrection.

Endnote:

Because for every well-publicised celebrity victim of sexual assault there’s a working-class woman or girl who has suffered the same in silence. I’m writing about girls who were groomed for the male gaze from an early age to survive, because they were taught that’s what they are for, because sexually available is all they’re ever allowed to be. And because they are groomed for this gaze they are considered complicit in their own exploitation, they are chav slags and silly sluts, and what happens to them doesn’t matter. There are millions of us. We matter.

 

 

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