Fran Lock introduces Witches, Warriors, Workers: An anthology of contemporary working women’s poetry, in the run-up to IWD on March 8th. The image above is by Fran's co-editor, Jane Burn; the images below are from creative commons and Steev Burgess. The book is being launched in Newcastle and London, see below for details.
A friend of mine asks about the title. And so I tell her: no act of naming is neutral. A name may confer status, or summon solidarity. It recruits a web of cultural and historical allusions which it draws upon to support and create meaning. A name is an intertextual fragment, gathering around itself a constellation of accretive associations. No act of naming is idle.
…In my street a family was kicked out of
their home for being Catholic, and every July a bonfire
would be built at the top of our street from wooden crates.
Everyone got drunk and the flames melted the windows…
- The Turning Point, by Carolyn Jess-Cooke (p. 22)
They call our survivalist pride, vanity…
- The Future is Queer, by Golnoosh Nour (p. 78)
When we say ‘Witch’ we invoke the spectres of Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles and Susanna Edwards, hanged at Bideford in 1682, women who were elderly and indigent, a continuous and obtrusive presence in the streets or at the doors of local residents, begging for food, or for milk, or for alms. When we say ‘Witch’ we do so understanding that an accusation of witchcraft was a brutal mechanism of social cleansing throughout the 17th Century. And we express our sorority with our undesirable foresisters, condemned to die for being old and without resources or support.
When we say ‘Witch’ we acknowledge that ‘witch’ is a word that has been used to expunge the powerless, and to remove power from those who seem on the cusp of claiming it. Joan of Arc was tried as a witch. When we say ‘Witch’, we do not evoke some distant echo of white European history alone. Witchcraft is a present and pressing accusation, horribly alive in the so called witch-camps of Ghana; well documented in India, and in Saudi Arabia, where women have been convicted of witchcraft in the courts. In the last decade United Nations officials have reported a rise in women killed for witchcraft across the globe.
When we say ‘Witch’, we call to those for whom the word has become a rallying cry against the capitalist patriarchy, a secret source of power. We call out in imaginative transgression and material abjection. We know what is at stake when we say ‘Witch’.
The night they blew life into me, I clung
bat-like to the womb-wall. A girl golem…
- Girl Golem, by Rachael Clyne (p. 124)
When we say ‘Warrior’ we do so in the spirit of women as radically different as Boudicca and Harriett Tubman. We do so conscious of the fact that what makes a warrior is not the damage they inflict, but the sorrows they endure. When we say ‘Warrior’, we draw upon a lineage of survival, of women finding strength in grief. Boudicca led the sacking of Colchester, St Albans and London following the rape and torture of her daughters. Tubman escaped slavery to rescue over seventy other enslaved people through the Underground Railroad. She was an armed scout in the Union Army, and in later years a prominent and articulate activist for women’s suffrage. History is thick with the stories of women violently dispossessed, who went on to accomplish astonishing things.
suffragettes, by Steev Burgess
When we say ‘Warrior’, we understand how that word has been twisted and debased, held up as proof of a woman’s unnaturalness. Joan of Arc was a warrior, so Joan of Arc was not a real or legitimate woman. She was something uncanny, something extra. So when we say ‘Warrior’ we point not to acts of individual exceptionalism alone, but the ordinary struggles of women to exist, to persist, and to resist in the face of immense opposition. We do not conjure ‘Warrior’ as some two-dimensional fetish of omnicompetent bad-assery. We use ‘Warrior’ for the suffragettes and for the veterans of the Gateways Club, we use ‘Warrior’ for the weavers of Peterloo, we use ‘Warrior’ for the women at Greenham Common, and for the mothers of Grenfell holding power to account. We say ‘Warrior’ to acknowledge our own battles, those we hold in common, and those we face internally, alone. We say ‘Warrior’ because we understand that to live as women often requires of us a continuous re-dedication of enormous effort: to be heard, to be seen, to feed our families, to love, to grieve, and to carry on.
When there is talk of warriors
rarely do they mention the keepers of secrets
or how whole cities have been moved
under the cloak of night
what tiresome work it is
to carry lineage…
- Packing Two Gold Necklaces, by Hibaq Osman (p. 117)
When we say ‘Worker’ we hold up both the work that women do, and the work of being women. That is to say that living as a woman under the multiple oppressions of late-stage capitalism demands and extracts something particular from us, quite apart from our daily labour. To be a woman is to live beneath the objectifying gaze of an omniscient and omnipotent Other, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
This objectification is porous and all-pervasive, it begins in legislation – as political decisions – and filters down through culture; it exerts a constant pressure to conform to prescribed values and embodied forms. It is not enough that we are nurturing mothers, or brilliant scholars, or skilled craftswomen, or life-saving first responders, we must be so while strenuously performing someone else’s idea of what an ‘acceptable’ woman looks like, how an ‘acceptable’ woman behaves.
unloveable labour, by Steev Burgess
To be a woman is to live in a world where your own body is routinely enlisted against you by the patriarchy, where your body becomes an argument for its own subjugation; where what you can and can’t do, from economic opportunity, to your chances of survival, are directly related to your body’s capacity to be victimised, to menstruate, to gestate, and to reproduce. Wherever we come from, as women we carry this in common. Gender inequality is an inherent and structural feature of capitalism, which both demands and creates an economic underclass to harness as a source of domestic, sexual, and reproductive labour. It uses social coercion and cultural norms to trap us in subaltern roles. We negotiate this, every single day. This is work, invisible and unacknowledged.
…i was never more than when i was nothing. i was never i never
did all shhhh and no. i was a pen from melting. objectivity
teething on gobstopper lust i couldn’t give away but i gave it…
- every girl knows, by Amy Acre (p. 86)
As I am writing this, the full impact of sweeping Tory cuts to legal aid is still only just beginning to be felt by women who now find themselves trapped in abusive domestic situations through economic dependency on violent partners. And it will get worse. This current government is operating with a value system so bizarrely warped it does not trouble to distinguish between ‘unskilled’ and ‘poorly paid’ labour; its current immigration reforms systematically undervalue and decimate jobs traditionally held by women. Many women are already prevented from accessing paid work by the sheer weight of unpaid work — child and elder care for example — that successive governments have relied upon them to do. Women are more likely to work in sectors like home and senior care that are poorly compensated even though the skill levels of such women are high. Care work is not ‘low’ or ‘unskilled’, it is undervalued because eighty-percent of its workforce is female. Imposing the salary requirement on migrants would mean discriminating against women who preform difficult and vital work in Great Britain; it would also mean piling pressure upon non-migrant women to take on yet more unpaid care; restricting our collective movement to the detriment of all.
Sometimes on a Friday I work late,
padding the corridor like a forgotten queen,
the classrooms ragged and empty,
my filthy kingdom laid to waste.
- You can’t have weeping in a poem, by Katherine Ayres (p. 104)
‘Work’ is a vexed issue, and it intersects in fiendish ways with gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, health and age. For this and many other reasons, we believe this anthology is timely; it focuses on themes which reflect the texture and preoccupations of working women in contemporary Britain. It explores women’s complex relationship to the environment, to our families, to our bodies, and to each other. It does so particularly through the lens of labour, through the many modes of work – waged and unwaged, material and emotional – in which we all must engage.
The anthology features contributions by sixty-five women of all ages, working across a variety of poetic and artistic traditions. We offer it not as a manifesto, as some Grand Unified Theory of Women Workers’ Art, but as a network, and a conversation, a site and occasion for celebration and for grieving, a space in which questions are asked and thinking occurs.
You and I will hang our thoughts, each in our own place. And we will meet.
- Low pressure, by Sarah Wedderburn (p. 135)
Putting together the anthology has provided a rare opportunity to think about ‘work’, and how the dynamics of literary production in particular intersect in often awkward ways with dailiness. As we began with our contributors the process of pulling the book into shape, we gave not only our work, but portions of our lives: interactions and encouragements, conversations about what it meant to be ‘working’ as opposed to strictly ‘working-class’, what we shared and where we differed. In this way the anthology became a very practical mechanism for fostering solidarity; a sense emerged from this work of collective struggle and mutual achievement. None of us ever rise alone, but for many of us this anthology has enacted in a hundred small ways the sorority it dares to imagine.
This is a big thing, mighty. To acknowledge and to relate to each other first as creators feels powerful and important. It allows us to take the imaginative leap across all that divides us, while striving to uncover the hidden affinities that exist across our different lives. It is an inclusive expression of sisterhood, offering a vision of feminism that is porous, egalitarian, and mutually responsible. It is also a vision that accounts for us as creative practitioners, first and foremost.
Forgive my knots and maladies,
the litany of bad days.
And praise the sheepdog mind
that twitches awake
at two a.m. to round up
stray words into a pen…
- Our Lady of Malaise, by Joanne Key (p. 139)
We all face at some point in our lives precarity, exclusion, or simply the fight to define ourselves on our own terms. This pressured attention to life and language shines through the poems in a variety of ways. There are moments of hard-won lyric beauty, and there are moments of stress and rupture at the level of structure and syntax.
oh England thy fruit in the fields in the trees rotting thy work and pensions
pressed on borrowed time wrong word stollen sugar and butter this year
foreign merry christmas surge in spending drone takedown pray for us…
- form ever follows function, by Kimberly Campanello (p. 20)
The sharp end of capitalism and climate change
What each of the poems demonstrate in common is that our embodied experiences contour and texture our imaginative lives. To be a woman is to live at the sharp end of capitalism, the sharp end of climate change, the most extreme edges of sorrow and desire. This sharpness shapes us, and the poems prove that it is not merely something to be surmounted, but is often intimately connected to our springs of inventiveness, our fraught yet dexterous relationship with words, our intensity of perception.
The fire finds its own voice...
- Swaling on Boscathow, by Katrina Naomi (p. 44)
These poems are not confessions then, but testimony, which is an act of radical witnessing, to each other, with each other, to the world. They enumerate that which besets us, that which we are at the mercy of, but, more than this, they show how words can provide a path through these experiences, and toward each other. They do so with acuteness and with humour, with honesty, both savage and searching.
The speaker in ‘The Last Time I Got Hysterical in The Middle of The Night’ by Rosmary McLeish offers a frank account of what it’s like to ‘bear the unbearable,/ unthink the unthinkable’, to feel the ‘fear and rage’ of accommodating your own mortality within the ordinary intimacy of a well-worn relationship. In ‘Move Along Now’ by Maya Horton the reader is immediately disarmed by the question ‘What was it like to grow up in a cult?’ These stark vignettes frame the extraordinary within the everyday, proving in fact that the everyday is extraordinary, that we, as women, are extraordinary, and that in our variety and difference we have great strength, and much to teach each other.
This is, we believe, a generous book. Generous in its extent, and in its scope and intensity. We believe it makes space for lives, for histories, heritages, and experiences not commonly accounted for by contemporary poetry. We hope it makes some space for our readers too.
…thank you for listening. lay a wreath where the two roads pleat.
photocopy my photograph. return to me once a year. tell them a story.
make me live.
- poetry reading, by Joelle Taylor (p. 61)
The book is being launched in Newcastle and London. The Newcastle launch is on 7th March, at 1pm on 4th floor, Commercial Union House, Pilgrim St. NE1 6QE. Jane Burn and other contributors will be reading, it's free, and everyone is welcome. The London launch is on 14th March, at 1pm at the Poetry Society, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BX. Jane Burn, Fran Lock and others will be reading, it's free, and everyone is welcome.
The launches will feature readings from some of the contributors, who are Maya Alberta-Horton, Amy Acre, Deborah Alma, Catherine Ayres , Julia Bell, Becky Bone, Alison Brackenbury, Jane Burn, Carole Bromley, Kimberly Campanello, Geraldine Clarkson, Jo Clement, Rachael Clyne, Jane Commane, Michelle Diaz, Imtiaz Dharker, Sarah Doyle, Nadia Drews, Cathy Dreyer, Carrie Etter, Sally Flint, Rosie Garland, Raine Geoghegan, Jackie Hagan, Nicki Heinen, Julie Hogg, Helen Ivory, Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Lisa Kelly, Joanne Key, Laura Lawson, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Pippa Little, Fran Lock, Hannah Lowe, Kirsten Luckins, Char March, Lisa Matthews, Beth McDonough, AJ McKenna, Rosemary McLeish, Jessica Mookherjee, Kim Moore, Katrina Naomi, Golnoosh Nour, Hibaq Osman, Abigail Parry, Kathy Pimlott, Wendy Pratt, Lesley Quayle, Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, Clare Saponia, Jacqueline Saphra, Pauline Sewards, Clare Shaw, Natalie Shaw, Hannah Shelmerdine, Joelle Taylor, Angela Topping, Denni Turp, Serafina Vick, Julia Webb, and Sarah Wedderburn. Artworks inside the book are by Jane Burn, Fran Lock, Natalie Sirett, and Mary Lou Springstead.
Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.