Fran Lock

Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.

Culture Matters Presents: Online Poetry Reading
Sunday, 21 November 2021 12:24

Culture Matters Presents: Online Poetry Reading

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters is pleased to invite you to the third date in our monthly series of online readings. It will take place on Saturday November the 27th at 7:00 PM GMT. The event is hosted by Fran Lock and features two Culture Matters poets alongside two guest poets from a fellow independent press.

The idea behind this reading series is simple: to build solidarity between small presses and emerging artists. We feel there is far too much emphasis on competition within contemporary poetry, and we want to push back against this trend. Poetry is big enough for all of us, and we are stronger together.

This month we are proud to be hosting poets from Nine Arches Press, and our readers are Wendy Young and Peter Raynard from Culture Matters, with Nine Arches' Jane Burn and Daniel Sluman.

Our readers:

 Picture1

Jane Burn is a poet and illustrator based in the North East, author of the hotly anticipated and recently released Be Feared (Nine Arches Press). She has won many awards, including the Silver Wyvern at the Poetry on the Lake Festival, and first places in the Wirral, PENfro, Bailieborough and Wolverhampton Literary Festival Poetry Competitions. She is a working-class bisexual with a late diagnosis of Autism. Her poems have been published in numerous magazines and appeared in various anthologies, including Writing Motherhood (Seren, 2017), #MeToo (Fairacre Press, 2018),The Valley Press Anthology of Prose Poetry (2019), and The Anthology of Illness (The Emma Press, 2020). Her work has been nominated for the Forward and Pushcart Prizes. In 2019, she co-edited Witches, Warriors, Workers, a volume of contemporary women’s poetry and essays with Fran Lock for Culture Matters. Her illustrations have also been used as covers for many books. She lives with her family for eight months of the year in an off-grid wooden cottage as she cares deeply for nature and the environment. Poetry is her true love and the only place where she feels confident, fluent and able to express the unique way she sees the world.

Picture2

 

Peter Raynard is Editor of Proletarian Poetry. His books of poetry are: Precarious (Smokestack Books, 2018) and The Combination: a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto (Culture Matters, 2018). Rumbled will be published by Nine Arches Press in 2022.

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Daniel Sluman is a poet and disability rights activist. He co-edited the first major UK Disability anthology Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back, and his second collection the terrible was published by Nine Arches Press in 2015. He has appeared widely in UK poetry journals and his third collection of poetry, single window, about living with disability and chronic pain, was published by Nine Arches Press in September this year.

Picture4 

Wendy Young is a poet/performer who cut her teeth with Survivors Poetry, performing widely in London and beyond, at festivals including Shuffle, and Liberty. She has been published in South Bank Poetry, Anomalie Magazine, I am not a Silent Poet, Poetry Express, Militant Thistles, and Disability Arts Online, where she writes reviews, and has also performed and facilitated workshops as part of daisyfest. Her publications include: Living with Ghosts (Natterjack Poetry, 2015), Ooetry (William Cornelius Harris Publishing/London Poetry, 2015) and The Dream of Somewhere Else (Survivors Press, 2016). Her wonderful poem 'The Time is Ripe and Rotten Ripe for Change' was selected for Handbook for 2021, the anthology of the Bread & Roses Poetry Award 2020 (Culture Matters).

Please RSVP through our Facebook events page or join the reading directly here through Zoom:

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Culture Matters Presents: Readings of new poetry from Smokestack and Culture Matters
Tuesday, 05 October 2021 09:34

Culture Matters Presents: Readings of new poetry from Smokestack and Culture Matters

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters is delighted to invite you to the second date in our monthly series of online readings. It will take place on Sunday, October the 10th at 7:00 PM. The event is hosted by Fran Lock and features two Culture Matters poets alongside two guest poets from a fellow independent press.

The idea behind this reading series is simple: to build solidarity between small presses and emerging artists. We feel there is far too much emphasis on competition within contemporary poetry, and we want to push back against this trend. Poetry is big enough for all of us, and we are stronger together.

This month we are proud to be hosting Smokestack Books, and our readers are Chris Searle and Catherine Graham from Culture Matters, with Smokestack's Anna Robinson and Alan Morrison.

The books and the poets

Over Eagle Pond

Chris Searle was born in Romford in 1944. He has been a teacher all his working life, in East London, Tobago, Canada, Mozambique, Grenada, Sheffield and Manchester. His first book The Forsaken Lover (1972) won the Martin Luther King Award. He has written or edited over 50 books on education, language, literature, cricket and jazz, including six collections of his own poems. For the last 25 years he has been jazz correspondent of the Morning Star, and a member of the editorial advisory committee of the international journal Race and Class for 40 years. His most recent collection of poems, Over Eagle Pond, illustrated by the artist Martin Gollan, is forthcoming from Culture Matters.

Chris will be joined by Martin Gollan, who will say a few words about the process of illustrating Over Eagle Pond. Martin was born in Edinburgh and grew up on one of the postwar housing schemes built on the outskirts of the city. During the 1980s he studied sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art and has worked in a variety of jobs, though he has continued to apply himself to painting, drawing, cartoons for the Morning Star and other publications, and book illustration, including The Folded Lie (Culture Matters, 2019). He now lives in Co. Durham.

William Blake at The Bridge Hotel Ten Newcastle Poets cover

Catherine Graham grew up in Newcastle on Tyne where she still lives. Her poetry has been published in the UK, USA and Ireland as well as online. Her awards include the The Jo Cox Poetry Award. Catherine has read her poetry on BBC Radio 4 as well as on local radio. Her latest pamphlet, Like A Fish Out Of Batter is published by Indigo Dreams, and is inspired by the work of artist L. S. Lowry. Catherine says, “I was drawn to Lowry’s work because the people in his paintings could be my own proud working-class family.” Catherine's work features in the recent Culture Matters anthology William Blake at The Bridge Hotel: Ten Newcastle Poets, edited by Paul Summers.

Anxious Corporals 


Alan Morrison
has authored ten poetry collections including A Tapestry of Absent Sitters (Waterloo, 2009), Keir Hardie Street (Smokestack, 2010), Captive Dragons (Waterloo, 2012), Shadows Waltz Haltingly (Lapwing, 2015), Tan Raptures (Smokestack, 2017), Shabbigentile (Culture Matters, 2019), Gum Arabic (Cyberwit, 2020) and Anxious Corporals (Smokestack, 2021). Poems and monographs in journals such as Culture Matters, The Fortnightly Review, The International Times, The London Magazine, The Morning Star, Stand. Joint winner of the Bread & Roses Poetry Prize 2018. He edits webzines The Recusant and Militant Thistles and is an Assocviate Editor of Culture Matters.

 Wahtsname Street

Anna Robinson is a poet, tutor and editor from London. Her pamphlet Songs from the flats (Hearing Eye, 2006), was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice. Her first full collection The Finders of London was published by Enitharmon in 2010, and was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Poetry Centre Prize for Poetry in 2011. Her latest collection, Whatsname Street was published by Smokestack earlier this year. Anna has recently been awarded her PhD for the work that features in Whatsname Street: poems that explore working-class history in her part of central London. She also leads poetry workshops as part of Pen to Print in the Borough of Barking and Dagenham.

You can RSVP the reading through our Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/1352772331804088/ ....and you can connect to the reading through the link below:

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The Cry of the Poor
Monday, 20 September 2021 09:37

The Cry of the Poor

Published in Books

The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty, is selected and edited by Fran Lock, and features poetry, short stories, life-writing, essays and art by over one hundred contributors from around the world.

This ambitious anthology asks urgent and compelling questions about what poverty is, who it affects, and what it feels like. In doing so it carves a little space for many voices and experiences not often heard within mainstream contemporary literature.

The Cry of the Poor approaches poverty from many different angles, exploring the fraught intersections of poverty with family, labour, gender, disability, race, ethnic and cultural heritage. Throughout each of the five sections of the book, poverty is presented in its various manifestations, be they material, emotional, political or spiritual. The reader is offered provocative and unsettling glimpses of poor and working-class life, but there are also moments of tenderness and joy, ribaldry and resistance, as in Zach Murphy's finely honed vision of escape, 'Rose Knows', or Jane Burn's ultimately triumphant hymn to jumble sale scavenging in 'Jumble Sale Rider of the 80’s Cheap Clothes Apocalypse'.

The work is rich and varied because the cry of the poor is rich and varied, never merely abject, begging or downtrodden. There are stories of hope and inspiration here. There are moments of quiet reflection and rigorous thought. There are flashes of humour and of anger. There is mourning, pain, protest, and love—a chorus of voices expressing and demanding the kind of love that could power the transformation of society.

The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty, selected and edited by Fran Lock, ISBN 978-1-912710-41-6. For addresses in the UK and Republic of Ireland, £12 inc. p. and p.....

For the rest of the world, £12 plus £5 p. and p......

The Cry of the Poor
Monday, 20 September 2021 09:33

The Cry of the Poor

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters is proud to announce the publication and launch of The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty, selected and edited by Fran Lock.

Featuring poetry, short stories, life-writing, essays and art by over one hundred contributors from around the world, this ambitious anthology asks urgent and compelling questions about what poverty is, who it affects, and what it feels like. In doing so it carves a little space for many voices and experiences not often heard within mainstream contemporary literature; for the “unseen, the in between” ('My People', Tracey Pearson, p.22).

The Cry of the Poor approaches poverty from many different angles, exploring the fraught intersections of poverty with family, labour, gender, disability, race, ethnic and cultural heritage. It is divided into five sections: 'Who We Are: Writing about daily life'; 'What we do: Writing about work, working, and not working'; 'A Place for Us: Writing about home, homelessness, exile and belonging'; 'With a raised fist: Writing in rage, protest, and defiance'; and 'In solidarity and in sorrow: Writing about loss and despair, hope and faith'. 

Throughout each section, poverty is presented in its various manifestations, be they material, emotional, political or spiritual, so that James O' Brien's grimly topical 'The Suicide Sanctions: “A parish bier burdened with the ghosts of capital,/ Eking out a funeral pace to the food bank” (p.162) shares space with Sarah Wedderburn's melancholic and subtle 'Sleeping Pilgrim': “Paths are my grace,/ their end a cathedral of stars” (p.199).

The Cry of the Poor offers the reader provocative and unsettling glimpses of poor and working-class life, as in Neimo Askar's beautiful 'Dua for Black boys': “this world holds/ an awaiting cemetery for Black bodies” (p.26) and in the vivid and arresting extract from Karl Parkinson's The Blocks: “Neighbours on top uv ya, each side uv ya, underneath ya. Weird single men wit beards n stinkin hallways, dirty curtains not washed in ten years, windows always gettin broken. Small grey concrete pram-sheds wit wooden doors dat held bikes n prams in dem, sum turned inte pigeon lofts n dog sheds n smoke dens n sex dungeons” ('Georgie', p.179).

But there are also moments of tenderness and joy, ribaldry and resistance, as in Zach Murphy's finely honed vision of escape, 'Rose Knows': “From this view, the falling leaves look like fluttering butterflies. Rose knows that when she comes down she’ll be in a lot of trouble. So she squints up at the sun and gives the balloon some more power.” (p.198), or Jane Burn's ultimately triumphant hymn to jumble sale scavenging in 'Jumble Sale Rider of the 80’s Cheap Clothes Apocalypse': “Poverty made you thrill at the mining/ of a table top’s rummaged vein eyes out/ for Taccini Tammy Girl Sweater Shop Squashed pixie boots/ Something a bit Bananarama Something mohair/ batwing stonewashed Something nice” (p.19).

The work is rich and varied because the cry of the poor is rich and varied, never merely abject, begging or downtrodden. There are stories of hope and inspiration here. There are moments of quiet reflection and rigorous thought. There are flashes of humour and of anger. There is mourning, pain, protest, and love—a chorus of voices expressing and demanding the kind of love that could power the transformation of society.

Poverty is not a tragic accident or a force of nature. It is caused by a lack of love, the love, care and compassion we should feel for one another as suffering mortal beings, which is the foundation of both true communism and basic human decency. Heed The Cry of the Poor, for it is the cry of all of us.

The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty, selected and edited by Fran Lock, ISBN 978-1-912710-41-6.

For addresses in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, £12 inc. p. and p.....

For the rest of the world, £12 plus £5 p. and p....
Sisterhood, Socialism, and Struggle: Poetry and the Work of Solidarity
Tuesday, 14 September 2021 09:49

Sisterhood, Socialism, and Struggle: Poetry and the Work of Solidarity

Published in Poetry

As I sit down to write this column the 40th anniversary of the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp is fast approaching, with hundreds of women planning to retrace the 130 mile march from Cardiff to Greenham in order to honour the legacy of those who founded the camp, and who spearheaded one of the biggest – certainly one of the most culturally conspicuous – women-led protests in the UK since the campaign for women's suffrage. A number of discussions surrounding the march have framed it as an act of solidarity with both our radical activist foresisters, and with women living under conditions of armed occupation, conflict, and the threat of war globally. The anniversary provides an opportunity to reaffirm the aims and objectives of the original camp, the ultimate goal of which was not only the removal of missile silos from Greenham Common, but a radical dismantling of the military-industrial complex worldwide.

While this last ambition remains unrealised, the legacy of the Greenham Peace Camp has continued to serve as an inspiration to future generations of activists and artists, offering a powerful model for non-violent direct action, and for collective creativity. From the earliest months of the camp, the women at Greenham Common produced their own newsletters, booklets and broadsides, incorporating and merging an array of forms from analysis to anecdote; to sketches, songs, drawings and poetry. These publications served a variety of purposes both inward and outward-facing: to circulate information, to generate discussion into demands and tactics, and to persuade and inspire new participants. These various projects also provided the women with an opportunity for creative expression often lacking within other contexts. They situated and prioritised the women as a cohort of thinkers, artists and makers, fostering a sense of shared identity.

Poetry was integral to this creative outpouring. One of the most iconic and arresting images to emerge from the camp is 'Dancing on Silos' by Rassia Page. The photograph features a ring of women in silhouette, holding hands and swaying on top of the missile silos while two police cars idle ominously in the foreground, and a cordon of barbed wire stretches off beyond the edges of the image. Page's poster appeared in City Limits magazine with the poem 'Life Against Death' by Dinah Livingstone superimposed onto the picture. Livingstone's poem juxtaposes the prosaic details of camp life: 'soggy sandwiches, brandy, ox tail soup' against the enormity of the threat of nuclear war: 'seeds of destruction whose sorrowful journey/  is speedy doomsday'. Faced with the might of the military industrial complex, the women in the poem appear immensely vulnerable, and yet it is the 'uneasy personnel' in 'sinister looking vehicles' who are 'protecting themselves from the women'. Livingstone's poem shares an intimate and detailed experience of camp life; it also provides an eloquent rationale for the actions of the protestors. It contextualises Page's photograph, offering a visceral and immediate insight into what it was like to be at the camp and exactly what was at stake for the women in protesting. It communicates both the shared vulnerability and the collective political power of the protestors in a way that straightforward reportage may have struggled to articulate.

Women and war

Throughout history women and girls have suffered – and continue to suffer – disproportionately at the hands of the military-industrial complex. The experience of women during and after war is particularly grim: existing inequalities are magnified as social institutions break down, rendering them ever more vulnerable to numerous forms of exploitation. Among the most traumatic of these is sexual exploitation and gender-based violence, which have profound and long-lasting psychosocial consequences. Other gendered effects include the recruitment of girls as child soldiers, girls and women becoming internally and externally displaced refugees, and the collapse of public health services rendering reproductive health care inadequate or unavailable.

Because of the central role of women in maintaining the fabric of family and community through times of war, they become tactical targets of some significance during armed conflict. Owing to their unequal status within the majority of patriarchal societies women and girls of all ages share a uniquely sharp experience of displacement, loss of home and property, the involuntary disappearance of relatives, poverty, rape, sexual and other forms of slavery, and sexual abuse. All of this while their responsibilities toward family and community remain formidable. Armed occupation and economic sanctions hit women hardest, while their gendered suffering is symbolically deployed as the justification for both these strategies.

With the Taliban now firmly in control of Afghanistan, the immediate future for women and girls in the country appears monumentally bleak. This bleakness is not unfamiliar. Following the overthrow of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan in 1992 by the western-backed Mujahideen, the situation for women and girls in the region deteriorated rapidly: treated as second-class citizens by successive regimes, women continue to be the foremost victims of western aggression.

It has always been with us, across the globe and throughout recorded history, in Western Europe past and present, as well as the Middle East. Talk on social media turns on the need for feminist solidarity with the women of Afghanistan, but what does that look like? And how do we meaningfully and practically manifest this solidarity through cultural activity? In broad-left discourse, the notion of solidarity is everywhere invoked, but what do we actually mean when we use that word? And how might we achieve a measure of it through poetry?

These are big questions, without one single easy answer, although every so often I am fortunate enough to glimpse a possible route through the fog. For example, I have recently completed a project, working with Hari Rajaledchumy, for Poetry Translation Centre, to translate into English a collection of poems by the Sri Lankan Tamil poet Anar. Anar was born in 1974 in East Sri Lanka, and her early childhood was marked by intense outbreaks of ethnic violence that would later push the country into civil war. During this period education was not considered a priority for women and girls in general, and for the daughters of orthodox Muslim households in particular. Anar’s own education was interrupted when her home town of Sainthamaruthu was caught up in the chaos of the Indian Peace Keeping Force’s withdrawal from the region.

Her family’s attempts to obtain the necessary paperwork for Anar to sit her O Level exams were consistently thwarted by military-imposed curfews and civic disarray. As a result, her schooling stopped, and she became confined to her home from the age of sixteen. Throughout these difficult and precarious years Anar’s one outlet was the radio, on which she would listen to poetry being recited. It stirred something in her, and eventually she began to work in secret on poems of her own, submitting her work under pseudonyms, gathering inspiration and encouragement from an emerging cohort of writers.

I don’t intend to share Anar’s biography in its entirety here, but it does feel important to talk a little about her life and work in the context of ‘sisterhood’, because it offers proof, if any were needed, that the oppression of women and girls is a global continuum. How many girls like Anar are now living in Afghanistan? Or in Palestine? How many girls throughout the world and throughout history? It is enough to make your head spin.

I also wanted to share something of Anar’s story because it speaks very specifically to poetry: what it can do for us, and what we can do – through poetry – for each other. It speaks to the idea of solidarity, and how this might be forged and encountered on the space of the page and within the breath of the poem. To talk about this, I'm going to invoke one of feminism's most radical and compassionate foresisters, the black lesbian activist and poet, Audre Lorde.

A communion of compassionate subjects

Lorde insisted throughout her life as a writer, thinker, and political activist upon sustained attention to the granular particularities of women’s experience, and upon the recognition of “the fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic”. It is a demand for otherness and diversity of voice within activist cohorts and within art and poetry as a precursor to radical change, and it stands in defiance to the homogenising inclination of mainstream white feminism, which used a white, western subject-position unreflectively as a model for all human experience.

Crucially, this does not mean that Lorde foresaw feminism’s collapse into a morass of oppositional interests, but rather that she dared to envisage feminism as a network of varied experiences and positions, coalescing around the common goal of liberation for all women. Lorde’s writing about her own struggle with illness is telling in this regard:

The women who sustained me [...] were Black and white, old and young, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual, and we all shared a war against the tyrannies of silence. They gave me strength and concern without which I could not have survived intact. Within those weeks of acute fear came the knowledge – within the war we are all waging with the forces of death, subtle and otherwise, conscious or not – I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior.

Lorde’s suffering becomes an occasion for discovery, a kind of self-revelation within a community of female fellow sufferers, a communion of compassionate subjects. To speak and act out of our experience of suffering, acknowledging that this is something we share – this is the measure of true solidarity.

From casualty to warrior

Which is all well and good, but how do we transform this feeling from a vague rhetorical gesture into meaningful practical action? How do we move – in Lorde’s words – from casualty to warrior? This is a timely and pressing question. Speaking to a Palestinian friend over social media we got into a conversation about how “solidarity” had become the left-wing equivalent to the Christian right’s familiar “thoughts and prayers”, ie aimed in the general direction of any person or group experiencing hardship, as a substitute for actually having to do anything. Solidarity as a noun, my friend said, is no use to anyone. For solidarity to be meaningful, to be worthy of the name, it has to be a verb.

And for poetry this raises a difficulty. In recent history, at least in the west, poets have not had a great deal of political or economic power. We cannot impose sanctions or meaningfully withdraw our labour. Our work is largely solitary, our wider “communities” disparate and scattered. If we went on strike nobody would notice or care. Our ability to affectively mobilise and protest is limited. Our field of cultural activity is so specialised, subjective and personal, that we often fail to form recognisable labour cohorts. This is not to say that poets are not politically engaged and active as individuals, but that collectively the pressure we are able to exert is minimal.

Or is it? I find myself returning to the work of Anar, to our translation project, and to the story of Anar’s girlhood, listening to poetry on the radio, the volume turned down low to avoid detection. Poetry was not inconsequential for Anar, and the act of writing poetry was not for her an absorbing hobby, but a life-sustaining necessity that grew out of the particular pressured context of a country in tumult. There might have been grave consequences for her daring to write, but she wrote nonetheless, and in turn inspired others. None of this would not have been possible had she not apprehended first, through the airwaves, that community of compassionate subjects to which she could aspire and belong. I also find myself thinking that translation at its best can enact a form of reflective solidarity: furthering the reach of voices and experiences that might otherwise have been excluded from national poetic canons. This matters because it allows us to understand ourselves as women as part of a global struggle. It allows us to see each other and ourselves in all our difference and collective strength.

Preservation, relation, radial witnessing

Poetry, and literature more broadly, may also work through archival research to construct counter-narratives, undermining the willed collective amnesia that attends both the history and rights of our most vulnerable and exploited citizens. The University of Glasgow’s interdisciplinary centre for the study of historical slavery is a fine example of such a project, but we might also consider the work of Jenny Mitchell, whose previously unpublished poem 'Shades of Jamaica', I am sharing today. Mitchell's work combines patient historicity with intense lyric writing to create a work of preservation, relation and radical imaginative empathy. Her 2019 collection 'Her Lost Language' (Indigo Dreams Publishing) traces the impact of British transatlantic enslavement on black lives and family dynamics. As Helen Hayes MP has noted of Mitchell's work, her poems “articulate the deep and long lasting impact of the horrific and shameful history of slavery on individual families, communities and relationships, and especially women.”

Mitchell and Clare Shaw, whose poem, 'Information for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Rape', I am also sharing today, are united by a belief in the power and potential of language not only to express the self and make sense of the world, but perhaps also to liberate and heal. In 'Information for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Rape' Shaw expands the definition of 'information', embroidering the unadorned rhetoric of the institutional guide, with arresting lyric images; using metaphor and rich figurative language to broach an experience that often feels resistant to articulate disclosure: 'There are many reasons/ survivors do not tell.' writes Shaw, ' Most whale song cannot be heard/ by the human ear, yet it travels for/ ten thousand miles, which is more than/  the world, and it sounds like dreaming.' Shaw's poetry is underpinned by her work as a mental health educator, and across both contexts her faith in language – and poetry in particular – as a transformative tool for individuals, communities and societies is paramount. Hearing 'Information for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Rape' for the first time I was reminded of the Adrienne Rich quote that “Every poem breaks a silence that had to be overcome.” I am also reminded of a quote from Anar that Hari Rajaledchumy shared in the introduction to our translation project: “My poetry is about that fire known as language, which a woman carries under water.”

Poetry can offer support and form alliances. It can also be a tool in and of itself. Anthologies in particular create a diverse and intersectional poetic commons. Solidarity, frequently, is less about the noise we make than the space we afford for the stories of others to be heard.

The poems I am presenting today stage an important act of witnessing, offering an opportunity to connect and to be inspired through the empathetic reach and lyric energy of three very different poets who nevertheless share and articulate an experience of oppression as women. In sisterhood and solidarity,

Shades of Jamaica

by Jenny Mitchell

1. negro: dark, sable, dusky

sun licks me in the master’s field like fire whipped down by their god       my hands are blood from chopping cane till day turns rock          we women in a row              all starved to work 

the overseer shouts you slaves are devil made         i the blackest prey beneath him in the dark he has the nerve to kiss my mouth          his skin is shaped like death              black he calls again hush said to my child left in the shade with other pickney to grow wild            she calls him sir when she is his still       my body smiles to see her cheeny face    she’ll serve the master under his red roof like flame                    i pray he learns her books                                cave headed girls who scribe their english words are close to free           i pray she sees me wave bent in the crop

2. mulatto: mixed breed; young mule

House maid like it doesn’t hurt cleaning all of master’s rooms.
Ornate he calls a cuckoo clock, red sofas and a walking stick.
I have to clean ornate with care or feel the stick across my back.
This English man is dirty skinned though money laden.
He has me on my knees to polish marble stairs into a looking glass.
I see my mother’s face, too fini-fini though she smiles.
When polishing the banisters, I whisper how he names my legs
good thighs, strong calves. Red meat chopped for his larder
can’t breed a child as pale as him. He named her at my breast.
Raised to a dandy girl, serving gift for his new wife.

3. quadroon: a quarter negro; offspring of a mulatto and a white

Preparing mistress for her bed, she cries
Your hands do not look clean when they’re scrubbed raw.
I show my palms, begin to brush her hair.
She slaps me hard. I know the reason why.
My shining locks outrank limp curls.
I dare not call the master to be saved.
He always says how beautiful I am.
She takes it out on me when we’re alone,
prays for God to save my half-breed soul.
I want to scream a quarter black, no more.

….

Information for Survivors of Sexual Abuse and Rape

by Clare Shaw

Though sexual abuse takes many forms,
salmon will find their way home, I have seen them
leaping up falls, there was nothing calm
about them, the current and cold
could not stop them, they were sky-born
and silver. There are many reasons

survivors do not tell.
Most whale song cannot be heard
by the human ear, yet it travels for
ten thousand miles, which is more than
the world, and it sounds like dreaming,
like wolf and bird.

Flashbacks are recollections from the past
and in Tromso, the sun will not rise from
November to January.
You may feel you are going crazy
but the worst is over,
and though you are very afraid

when their oxygen tank blew apart
a quarter of a million miles from earth
the crew of Apollo 13 made it back
unharmed. Remember to breathe.
The Shaman travels beyond the ordinary
and an animal walks beside you,

you are power
and though you couldn’t remove yourself
from the situation you were in,
there are 7.422 billion people in the world
and rising, you are not alone.
The sun will not set in Tromso

between May and June
but it’s the winter that people love
when the ice glows blue
and the night is a colour of its own.
Sometimes lights will dance in the sky
and though it’s minus thirty

it will be enough to warm you,
to sustain you, enough
to convince you to stay.

Taken from the forthcoming collection Towards a General Theory of Love (Bloodaxe, 2022)

….

Killing a Woman

by Anar

Here is a battlefield,
a convenient clinic, a silo
of superabundant supply,
a permanent prison.
Here is a woman's body,
a sacrificial slab.

The heart’s ache, the pulse
of life, belongs to us both, but

for women it will not take root.

Before my eyes
my murder is happening.

Translated by Hari Rajaledchumy and Fran Lock from the forthcoming collection Leaving (Poetry Translation Centre, 2021)

Jenny Mitchell's debut collection, Her Lost Language, was joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Prize 2019. Her second collection, Map of a Plantation, was published this year. She recently won the Folklore Prize and the Ware Poetry Prize.

Clare Shaw is a co-director of the Kendal Poetry Festival. She has three poetry collections with Bloodaxe - Straight Ahead, Head On and Flood: her forthcoming collection was awarded a Northern Writers' Award and will be published by Bloodaxe in 2022.

Anar (Izzat Rehana Mohammed Azeem) is a distinguished voice in the Sri Lankan Tamil poetry scene with 5 critically acclaimed collections to her name. She has been contributing her poems and articles to literary magazines and national media since the early 90s. Her books have won several awards, most notably the Government of Sri Lanka's National Literature Award, the Tamil Literary Garden’s (Canada) Poetry Award, Aaathmanam Award (Chennai), SPARROW Award (Mumbai), and the Vijay TV Excellence in the Field of Literature (Sigaram Thotta Pengal) Award.

Hari Rajaledchumy is an artist/writer currently based in London, UK. Some of her recent writings have appeared in Manalveedu (India) and Aaakkaddi (France). She previously worked as a translator on Kim Longinotto’s 2013 documentary film ‘Salma’, based on the life and works of Indian Tamil poet Salma. In 2021, she co-curated the inaugural edition of QCSL study programme aimed at strengthening queer cultural production within Sri Lanka.

Culture Matters presents: the launch of Cry of the Poor
Tuesday, 07 September 2021 15:27

Culture Matters presents: the launch of Cry of the Poor

Published in Poetry

'Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.' –  Matthew 25:29

We need to change the system. We need to overthrow, not the government [...] but this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering  Dorothy Day

Culture Matters invites you to the digital launch of Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty on Thursday the 23rd of September at 7pm GMT. The Facebook link is..... https://www.facebook.com/events/281283190143482 .....and the zoom link is.........                                                                                 https://us02web.zoom.us/j/82139040768?pwd=TG9iekhwSjZsQ2ZDNUlxNTdhSnRPQT09

The event will be hosted by Culture Matters and will feature readings by a number of contributors from around the world, and the book will be available to buy from our Books section after the launch.

The anthology contains work from over one hundred writers and artists, responding with urgency and vigour to the cry of the poor. Poverty is not a tragic accident or a force of nature. It doesn't just happen. It is done to people. Poverty and inequality are inherent and structural features of capitalism: they are an inevitable result of the unfair exploitation of working people, based on the unequal ownership of economic resources, both in this country and across the globe. The Covid pandemic has sharpened and exacerbated poverty among many of the already poor, while enriching many among the already rich.

This anthology of writing is about what poverty is, who it affects, and what it feels like. It is a little space for voices and experiences not often heard within contemporary literature, and the work in this collection is rich and varied because the cry of the poor is rich, varied and resilient, not just abject, begging and downtrodden.

There are stories of joyful hope and inspiration here. There are moments of quiet reflection and rigorous thought. There are triumphant flashes of ribaldry and humour. There is mourning, pain, protest, anger and joy—a chorus of voices expressing and demanding the kind of love that could power the transformation of society.

Read and heed the cry of the poor, for it is the cry of all of us.

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Culture Matters Presents: A New Monthly Digital Reading Series
Monday, 30 August 2021 10:40

Culture Matters Presents: A New Monthly Digital Reading Series

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters is excited to invite you to the first in a monthly series of online readings on Saturday the 4th of September at 7:00 PM. GMT. The event is hosted by Culture Matters and features two Culture Matters poets alongside two guest poets from a fellow independent press.

The idea behind this reading series is very simple: to build solidarity between small presses and emerging artists. We feel there is too much emphasis on competition within contemporary poetry, and we want to push back against this trend. Poetry is big enough for all of us, and we are stronger together.

This month we are proud to be hosting Verve Poetry Press, and our readers are Culture Matters' own Rebecca Lowe and Jim Aitken with Verve's Rushika Wick and Golnoosh Nour.

Our Father Eclipse

Rebecca Lowe is a poet, singer and activist based in Swansea, Wales. Her first collection, Blood and Water, was published by The Seventh Quarry in November 2020. Her latest, Our Father Eclipse, published by Culture Matters in 2021, is a visionary response to the strange world we find ourselves living in - a post-Truth political world of pandemic and looming climate catastrophe, where neoliberal capitalism has demonstrably failed. Part socialist vision, part dystopian nightmare, it challenges the reader to image new words and envision new worlds.

 Kist of thistles

Jim Aitken is a poet, dramatist and essayist. He also tutors in Scottish Cultural Studies in Edinburgh and works with the Council's Outlook programme for people with mental health issues. He has several literary and cultural essays on the CM website. Last year he edited A Kist of Thistles: radical poetry from Scotland and this year a companion prose version called Ghosts of the Early Morning Shift, is also due to be published soon.

Picture2

Rushika Wick is a poet, doctor and children’s rights advocate who is interested in how social structures and relationships impact the body. She has performed with the Cold Lips Magazine collective in London, Rough Night Press (Amsterdam) and Skylark (Norwich) communities. Her work has been published  in literary magazines including Ambit, Datableed and Tentacular and within anthologies including Fool-saint (Tangerine Press), Alter Egos (Bad Betty Press) and Smear (Andrews McMeel). Her debut collection, Afterlife As Trash was published this year by Verve Poetry Press.

Picture3 

Golnoosh Nour is the author of The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories– recently shortlisted for the Polari Prize. Her poetry collection Rocksong will be published in October by Verve Poetry Press. Golnoosh teaches Creative Writing at the University of Reading. She’s the co-editor of Magma 80 and the anthology Queer Life, Queer Love forthcoming with Muswell Press.

Please RSVP the reading through our Facebook event page:

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The event itself is free, but we will be passing the virtual hat (see below) on the night in support of the series. Please do share among your networks, and feel free to make a donation in support of the series. We hope to see you there!

 

Anxious Corporals: Fran Lock interviews Alan Morrison
Monday, 30 August 2021 10:25

Anxious Corporals: Fran Lock interviews Alan Morrison

Published in Cultural Commentary

Fran Lock interviews Alan Morrison about Anxious Corporals, a polemical and poetic history of post-war working-class culture, which can be ordered here

Fran Lock: Hi Alan, thanks for taking the time to talk to me about Anxious Corporals. The term ‘anxious corporals’ was first coined by Arthur Koestler to describe working-class servicemen with a need to ‘satisfy some/ Vitamin deficiency of the mind’, not for the purposes of self-advancement, but to fill some kind of existential void or to make sense of the fragile and threatening world around them. I wonder if you could start by talking a little bit about this feeling of anxiety, which is communicated in the language and restless lyric flow of the poem. Do you have any thoughts about why, at a contemporary moment that is surely ever more precarious and insecure, there doesn’t seem to be a corresponding drive or thirst for knowledge?

Alan Morrison: Anxiety is underneath everything I do, particularly creatively, it’s the conductor of my thoughts and words and ideas; also an obsessiveness, which very much comes through in the obsessional pull of this poem, of the phrasings punctuated only with commas, giving a breathless almost panicky quality.

Creativity and self-expression are essentially anxious acts. Arguably life itself is a state of anxiety, of anticipation, apprehension, excitement, dread, I take quite a Kierkegaardian angle (which can also be exhausting). But on a more personal level, I’m a lifelong sufferer of anxiety so I suppose this comes through in what I write, and what I write about.

My tendency to compose in an almost stream-of-consciousness outpouring of lines and phrasings with only commas is something that’s crept into my poetry in the last couple of years. It’s not really a conscious thing, it just feels natural to me now, and more liberating, to write in this way, for some reason I’ve come to hate full stops, even to the point that I end stanzas and poems with ellipses (i.e. dot dot dots) – full stops look too final, and it feels absurd to me that any thought or thoughts, often profound, especially as expressed in a poem, for example, ever have a definitive end as signified in a full stop: thoughts and feelings and sensations are continuous or recurring, they are tortuous, they loop, they collect and disperse and collect again, like starlings, hence for me it feels completely inappropriate to end a verse or a poem with a full stop.

Within verses and poems I find commas less intrusive, and occasionally I use semi-colons as stitches between different trains of thought; but commas seem to me the most poetically accommodating of punctuation marks, helping the poem keep a constant cadence and flow, each line, phrasing seeping into the next, like thoughts, like feelings…

On the other part of your question, I think the irony today is that with ever greater resources for communication and information the novelties in those areas have diminished rather than expanded, the sense of curiosity blunted, it’s as if a kind of generational ennui has set in, you see perhaps the ultimate triumph of commodity-based consumer capitalism in the sight of families and friends sat at cafes scrolling through their phones rather than conversing properly, the ultimate individualisation, almost a form of mass-solipsism - but which ultimately is just another form of conformity. 

It’s impossible to generalise of course. No doubt there are sections of society, certain types of people who do still thirst knowledge, but a lot of the time the knowledge sought might not be the most enlightening. But ultimately what such vast archives of easily accessed knowledge such as on the internet seem to have achieved is an increasing craving for instant gratification, an impatience, a poor concentration, an attitude that seems to expect everything to be immediately explainable at the touch of a button. But most things aren’t instantly explainable, many things require very active application, long studied reading and processing.

FL: Related to the last question, it occurred to me that we have unprecedented access to all kinds of knowledge today, and that in theory at least, education – both formal and informal – is more readily available to us than ever before. Despite this, Anxious Corporals is excoriating about the demise of critical thinking among working-class cohorts, and I think one really significant aspect of this book is its understanding of this demise as something that is also done to us, deliberately, politically, over time.

I was particularly struck by your critique of relativist or postmodern discourse, which tries to ‘prove/ Everything is relative, ultimately subjective, intrinsically/ Ironic, endlessly reductive’.  I’m reminded of the ways in which these ideas were used cynically within the space of the university to re-establish the status quo, following decades of radical ferment during the sixties and seventies. Throughout this period there was a great deal of on-campus activism, but also a profusion and merging of solidarities inside and outside of the academy, with a huge rise in worker-student alliances.

Postmodernism was deployed in this context to convince students that nothing is true. If activism begins with the basic assumption that some ideas and actions are right, and that others wrong, then undermining this conviction removes the motivation to protest. Being heavily jargonistic, postmodernism also undermines the ability of those inside the academy to speak clearly and coherently to those outside, reinforcing a sense of elitism and hierarchy. Finally, there is the attack on kinship through an absolute insistence on identity-driven subjectivism. Nauseating, and I think one of the things Anxious Corporals is really acute on is articulating how this toxic creed spills out of the academy and is deployed by neoliberal culture more broadly.

Could you say something about how this kind of neoliberal postmodern malaise has affected the way in which working-class cohorts understand ‘knowledge’, how we access knowledge, and how postmodernism has whittled down and shaped the value placed on intellectual curiosity, education, and ‘facts’?

AM: Yes, absolutely, when we think of the internet and its vast repository of information readily available for pretty much anyone to access today (bar maybe those families at the lowest economic scale who perhaps can’t afford phones or computers), a greater democratisation of knowledge if you like, then the past arguments that whole sections of society are unable to access these areas and are thus significantly handicapped in attempts at self-education (though there have always been libraries!) would seem less credible, ostensibly.

I say ostensibly, since of course one has to some extent to know or have some clue as to where to look for certain types of knowledge; okay, so Wikipedia is very prominent and easily accessible on pretty much any subject today, but there still might be barriers of literacy, and domestic demands on time and concentration in those families that are materially impoverished; as I learnt myself as a teenager struggling to learn anything much at school, poverty is not very conducive to learning.

However, in spite of growing up in relative poverty, which had been the result of lots of bad luck on my parents’ part, I had other advantages that many of my working-class and disadvantaged schoolmates didn’t have: my parents were both essentially middle class, they’d not been educated at public schools, but my father had been to a good quality grammar school, while my mother, though from a more working-class background originally, had been partly educated at a convent school, and then had had elocution lessons when she was a young aspiring actress (though she didn’t in the end pursue that career, instead deciding to settle and have a family; she had at one point been a teacher at a fairly prestigious primary school but thereafter had worked as a dental nurse, dinner lady, auxiliary nurse).

So my brother and I grew up in an atmosphere of educational and cultural aspiration, encouraged by fairly well-educated parents, and in my father’s case, well-read. The atmosphere of our upbringing was bookish. But materially we were pretty impoverished for the entire period of our secondary education, during which my father through no fault of his own suffered periods of unemployment. After leaving the Royal Marines in 1967 (AC is part-dedicated to him since he was a Corporal, and an anxious one at that!),he had gone into the civil service and worked in London in different government departments, but after our move from Worthing to Cornwall he had found it extremely difficult to get back into the civil service and eventually ended up working as a security guard for the rest of his working life; he was what sociologists would call a ‘skidder’, someone who has skidded down the occupational ladder. My mother worked as an auxiliary nurse in an old peoples’ home. Both of them were on very low wages and worked punishing shifts.

I suppose I’d describe my family background as lapsed middle class, one of faded gentility, the perennial shabby-genteel; financially and materially we were very much on the working-class level, if not actually below that at various periods (sufficiently poor that I have memories of often going to bed hungry).

So it wouldn’t be entirely accurate for me to claim to speak on behalf of the working classes since mine was a mixed-class background: I think this is a category that even sociology has yet to fully get to grips with. It meant that our kind of poverty was particularly severe in terms of social isolation, since we were not part of any broader and similarly disadvantaged community and lived in a small hamlet which only added to our sense of remoteness from everything. But suffice it to say that I agree that much of this cultural deprivation is ‘done to’ people and of course we see this mass effort of ignorance-promoting misinformation deployed daily through the right-wing red top press, which also completely corrupts our democratic process through its mass hypnotism of vast sections of the population towards voting Tory or the nearest equivalent. Tabloid editors would argue it’s patronising to say so, but what could be more patronising than the presumption that the working classes want to read the anti-intellectual, culturally philistine and politically reactionary tripe that they spoon-feed them?

When I wrote AC I was very angry, perhaps not completely fairly but I felt I’d lost a lot of sympathy with certain sections of the working classes for voting for Brexit in the Referendum. Back in the Eighties many had fallen for the false promises of Thatcherism, which resulted in the spiritual crippling of our culture and society and lasting scars that have still yet to heal; so when so many seemed to fall for the xenophobic populism of Farage, Johnson and Vote Leave, I just felt so frustrated, betrayed and, well, just angry, angry at what I saw as seeming mass ignorance. And then the final nail in the coffin was the ‘red wall’ in the Midlands and North turning blue in December 2019 – how could such huge swathes of the working classes vote for someone so transparently dishonest, unprincipled, unscrupulous and out of touch as Boris Johnson…? How on earth could they perceive an upper-class narcissist like Johnson as representing their interests…?

Of course the red top press has much to do with this, targeting the working classes as it does, but does there come a point when the Left has to stop and ask, to what extent can we blame the tabloids for proletarian attitudes and voting choices? Is there an element on the Left of our sometimes infantilising the working classes by perceiving them as constant victims of circumstances, and assuming to abdicate all responsibility on their behalf, treating them like overly impressionable children who are easily ‘taken in’? (I say working classes as opposed to working class since they’re/we’re not a homogenous mass of course). The Sun and the hard-right Daily Express might well be daily appealing for their attention in every newsagent, but there is also the Daily Mirror, also a tabloid, but a Labour-supporting one, which has a similar ‘celebrity gossip’-pulling power as its right-wing competitors; and the Morning Star, though not available everywhere, is ostensibly presented in an accessible tabloid format. These are just things I’m throwing in the air, they’re open for debate, I’m ultimately still in a quandary about it all.

The study in working-class Toryism, Angels of Marble, which I excerpt extensively in AC, provides us with many depressing and uncomfortable answers to the conundrum of blue-collar Conservatism, and it really is vital information which still applies today and is something so fundamental to British society that it has to be understood and combated by the Left into the future if we’re ever to break the right-wing hegemony of our political system (though personally I think the only real solution to neutralising the Tory monopoly in the long term is proportional representation – something which might come in time through petition, protest and perhaps an electoral referendum, and maybe one day will be rooted out just as rotten boroughs were in the 19th century).

FL: I also wonder to what extent you think that capitalism – and Thatcherism in particular – has succeeded in devaluing education in and of itself, if it is not connected to some kind of quantifiable economic ‘success’?

There’s a kind of grotesque instrumentalisation of intellectual effort at play within capitalism, which goes hand-in-hand with a carefully cultivated suspicion of – and hostility towards – ‘knowledgeable people’ from those organs and institutions supposed to represent working-class interests and ideals. This is beautifully and bleakly communicated by both yourself and Richard Hoggart, who you quote from extensively throughout Anxious Corporals, in section XII. In this section you also talk about the general distortion of working-class values by capitalism and through culture. Hoggart published The Uses of Literacy in 1957, but this process is horribly ongoing.

Could you speak about this process of distortion and some of its most recent manifestations? Is it a trend that you also see reflected in contemporary poetry?

AM: Oh absolutely, the primary preoccupation of capitalism and all capitalist governments is economic productivity and this is why there is such lack of interest in and low tolerance of Tory ministers towards the Arts and Humanities in academia, as these areas are not perceived to be particularly productive economically nor geared towards capitalist/Tory notions of societal progress which they see as almost solely invested in the sciences and technologies – this betrays the philistine materialism of much Tory and capitalist thought (if it can be called thought at all).

This is why we’re now seeing governmental disengagement with the Arts and Humanities, not only in terms of funding in the universities but also in wider culture. Moreover, the Tories tend to also see the Arts and Humanities as an intellectual threat to capitalist dogma and hegemony, particularly subjects such as Sociology and Cultural Studies. To use the old adage, capitalism ‘knows the price of everything but the value of nothing’.

There is definitely a cultural hostility towards ‘knowledge’, to some extent there’s always been a philistine seam to the British mentality, but our society became very actively anti-intellectual since the Thatcherite revolution, neoliberalism is the ultimate bourgeoisification of culture in terms of promoting mediocrity and banality (e.g. celebrity culture), imagination is distrusted, everything is trivialised to the lowest common denominator, individualism encouraged but individuality mystified and even stigmatised.

I think this anti-intellectualism and, indeed, anti-idealism, has permeated contemporary poetry for some decades now in the postmodernist mainstream, there’s long been a culture of stylistic policing which increasingly homogenises the medium, and so one has to look elsewhere, to the fringes, the small presses, to find the most interesting and authentic poetry being published. For a long time, certainly through the Nineties and Noughties, political poetry was generally frowned upon and belittled by the literary establishment and shunned by mainstream imprints (notable exceptions were presses such as Smokestack, Five Leaves, Flambard and a few others).

It took the financial crash and the onslaught of Tory austerity, then Brexit, then Trump, to jump-start the poetry mainstream into more active political consciousness, but even then it’s been on catch up. As I’ve written before, in a polemical monograph ‘Reoccupying Auden Country’, published at The International Times in 2011 (http://internationaltimes.it/reoccpying-auden-country/) and then reproduced in The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity, postmodernism is peculiarly ill-equipped to tackle socio-political topics.

But there has been a slow continuing politicisation of poetry over the past few years, something like a depth-charge, which is has infiltrated the mainstream to some extent, though nowhere as markedly and authentically as through such auspices as Culture Matters, Smokestack Books, the Morning Star, the Communist Review, poetry journals such as Red Poets and The Penniless Press, and other such politically engaged outlets, that have been doing this since long before the mainstream picked up the scent. Nonetheless, at the upper echelons of the poetry scene, the trend is still, stubbornly and increasingly towards social irrelevance, individualism, poetic solipsism, and attitudinal narcissism – selfie-poetry.

FL: Following on from that last thought, I wonder to what extent you see poetry as a potential site of resistance to this distortion of working-class values by capitalism; a kind of redoubt against mass or – to quote Hoggart  ‘synthetic culture and intellectually-vetted entertainments’?

AM: Yes I think poetry can be a form of creative resistance, of polemical response through poetic self-expression to political events, but at the same time it can also end up being co-opted by the capitalist powers and upper echelons, and there are excerpts I include in AC from Ken Worpole’s exceptional polemic Dockers and Detectives that specifically touches on this phenomenon. Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy, too, is an extensive polemic about the dumbing down of mass culture which he documented way back in the late 50s, which was still well within the post war social democratic consensus. I’ve yet to read any of Hoggart’s later writings but I can only imagine his sense of complete despair at how things sped up in these respects through the Eighties and beyond.

But to return to poetry: in a sense, being arguably the least economically productive or enriching artistic medium, it has nothing to lose in being as political, as oppositional as it can be (and yet so much of it is so conservative!); it’s a medium belittled by the capitalist establishment, if not openly despised for its impecuniousness, and thus deeply distrusted. Poetry can be weaponised, more spiritually than politically I think, in the sense that it is something materially transcendent, since it has such little material incentive, and this gives it an unpredictable power all its own. Most of this power is in metaphor – metaphor is both weapon and camouflage. 

FL: My own take has always been that poetry requires of us – both as readers and writers – such deep, sustained attention to the operations of language, that it offers a kind of antidote to the passive content-imbibing we’re encouraged to participate in by other forms of literature and media. This leads me with a numbing inevitability to Insta-poetry, and the commercially successful pap that’s pumped out in its name.

One of the things I love about Anxious Corporals is that it is the absolute opposite of Insta-poetry. It’s knotty and complex, rich, allusive, rigorous and dense; it demands and rewards the reader’s non-trivial attention. It doesn’t offer these neat little parcels of peaceable catharsis. It’s troubling and difficult on the level of ethics and ideas. I suppose what I want to know is to what extent you see the cynical and sinister operations of capitalism through the rise of Insta-entrepreneur figures like Rupi Kaur and ‘Atticus’? Do you feel that the commercial ascendancy of such figures under the banner of ‘poetry’ is capitalism’s attempt to colonise or absorb the one form of literature it hasn’t yet successfully assimilated?

AM: I’ve no problem with accessibility and even simplicity in poetry, when it is appropriate for the subject or the tone or purpose of the poem, but I think people have the right to expect from apparently simple poems that, like Blake’s Songs of Innocence, there are other levels which the closer reader can discover under the ostensibly accessible surface.

Complete simplicity in and of itself in poetry –and any medium– inescapably morphs into the commonplace, quotidian, banal, into truism or platitude; there needs to be something else to it, engagement with language, symbol, metaphor, aphorism, something that lifts it beyond the trite or trivial. Ultimately I’m much more exercised by dumbing down or casualisation of literature.

But yes, capitalism absolutely tries to absorb or colonise any artforms that otherwise might pose some sort of threat such as becoming widespread or popular outside of its control. You see this increasingly in bank and building society adverts using spoken word artists, often from BAME backgrounds, in order to give the impression these corporate organisations somehow stand for inclusivity and are there to serve ordinary people, as opposed to profiting out of them.

FL: Connected to this last idea, I wanted to ask you about the notion of ‘accessibility’, both in terms of literature in general and poetry in particular. One of the beautiful things about the Pelican imprint – which is evoked throughout Anxious Corporals as both an emblem of working-class intellectual curiosity and a visual metaphor for the loss of this vital drive – was that it placed the tools of education within the working man’s material reach. These books were readily available in places working people were likely to frequent; they were easily identifiable, they were portable, and they were cheap. In other words ‘accessible’ in the truest sense.

One quietly disturbing trend in contemporary culture has been this shift in emphasis from ‘accessibility’ as equality of opportunity in terms of affordability and distribution, to being ‘accessible’ in terms of content, style or form. This has allowed any work that is challenging or nuanced or risk-taking to be positioned as ‘difficult’ or wilfully ‘alienating’, and this stance meets demands for richness, rigour and innovation with accusations of elitism. Is this something you feel aware of, maybe even write against? Could you tell me if it is something you have experienced in terms of the critical reception of your own writing? And to what extent do you see publishers like Smokestack as inheritors of Pelican’s mission?

AM: Yes, as AC pays to tribute to, Pelicans were originally sold in outlets such as Woolworths, purposely to target working-class readerships – this was a huge part of the Pelican ‘brief’, it was at the core of its publishing mission: to make knowledge, and mostly that hitherto perceived as ‘highbrow’ knowledge, readily available to the masses, cheaply priced, and accessibly communicated, but in no way that meant dumbing down, Pelican books were usually very well-written, often by leading thinkers and intellectuals of the time, but they were presented in an accessible and affordable format so as to attract the ordinary person on the street and give them access to hitherto cordoned-off rooms of information. Pelicans gave opportunities for true self-education on a wide variety of subjects. I agree with you that the perception of what ‘accessibility’ seems to mean today is in terms of over-simplifying. Crucially Pelicans still required intellectual effort from the readers, but glossaries elucidated all jargon.

Yes I suspect that much of my poetry is perceived as a bit ‘difficult’ at times, and on precisely this subject there was one review of AC which was generally positive but in which the reviewer took me to task for not making the poem a bit more accessible, mostly in terms of its presentation, density and, presumably, the absence of any glossary or notes. So perhaps with AC I didn’t quite hit the ‘accessibility’ mark of the very Pelican mission it’s partly paying tribute to.

If so, this was not a conscious thing, but basically down to space restriction, page count limit, and having already practically cut the poem by around 50% believe it or not – it was originally of truly epic proportions, now it’s a mere epic poem

And yes, absolutely, presses like Smokestack, and Culture Matters, and a handful of others, are indeed the poetry-equivalent to Pelican in many respects, and of the Left Book Club, while in the wider polemical field there are presses like Zed Books, Verso, Pluto, Lawrence & Wishart et al, and, indeed, a newly resurgent Pelican and Left Book Club. And online we have Prole, Proletarian Poetry, Poets’ Republic, Culture Matters, and of course my own The Recusant and its imprint Caparison, and Militant Thistles.

FL: Something else I’d like to ask about is the lack of funding this project received. I mention this because a bugbear of mine over the last few years has been to witness a number of poetic projects that were researched and written with assistance from ACE or like organisations. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but I always end up reading the declaration that ‘This book could not have been written without the generous support of blah-de-blah’ and thinking ‘Really?’ Because I think very often working-class writers are performing that work totally unacknowledged and unsupported because it doesn’t even occur to us to ask for help, or because we wouldn’t know who to ask or how to apply. And there’s a sense in which this is totally unfair, but there’s also a sense in which it produces rare, exciting and autonomous thought.

It proves that we can be the archaeologists, archivists and explorers of our own history and collective experience, without any mediation between ourselves as writers and the knowledge we seek, and the community of readers we are striving to reach. And in that sense, I think Anxious Corporals is not only a didactic work, it is also a hopeful example of what we can learn and what we can create under our own steam. Can you tell me something about your process for writing and researching this book, and share any thoughts you have about the differences between funded research projects and the kinds of self-directed autodidactic research you were engaged in with this book?

AM: I know exactly what you’re getting at here. You’re right, this particular work wasn’t funded in any way, it was a long-standing labour of love researched, written and painstakingly redrafted (over 100 times!) throughout the last three or more years. Having said that, I have received funding for some of my previous poetry books, two Arts Council G4A Awards in consecutive years for Blaze a Vanishing and The Tall Skies (Waterloo, 2013) and an online-only epic polemical poem Odour of Devon Violet (2014-) which has been an ongoing work-in-progress.

I’ve also over the years received grants from other bodies such as the Royal Literary Fund and the Society of Authors, not to work on particular books but as general subsistence support, and I did also acknowledge the Oppenheim-John Downes Memorial Trust for its financial support while I finished Gum Arabic (Cyberwit, India/US, 2020). But certainly for my earlier collections I was fairly unaware of any opportunities for support and it took many years of completely unfunded writing before I came to find out about some of these, mostly through tips from other poets and writers more adept at finding and applying for such things. But it’s not really a creative instinct, I think, to seek out support and funding for your work, even if it becomes a financial necessity (such as ‘time to write’ grants) – poets are perhaps particularly ill-suited to anything so rational and practical as filling out funding applications (though you might be surprised just how adept at this some are!).

It’s also difficult not to be sceptical about the poetry prize culture, since for so long it appears to have been monopolised by a relatively small grouping of perceived ‘top’ presses, which stretches credibility, the best work can’t always be being published by the same six or so imprints (out of tens of dozens), surely…? But there are pecking orders. Certain expectations. Self-fulfilling prophecies. Less than transparent protocols. There’s also the Oxbridge dimension which has never gone away and which has if anything become much more prevalent in the past decade (in every area of culture).

These prizes not only bestow prestige on recipients but also in some cases considerable financial reward, so it can be a double bitter pill for those struggling working-class and marginalised poets who feel they keep missing out on them. (And when I say ‘marginalised’ this also covers those with disabilities, whether physical or mental health issues, which significantly impact on their access to opportunities; ‘underrepresented’ is the term applied today, and I myself have been described before as an ‘underrepresented poet’). Then there’s the domino effect whereby scooping one prize seems to act as a passport to scooping more, often in fairly quick succession. One of the things I’ve observed over the years is that the best networkers, the pushiest, tend to get the best opportunities; it’s all as much to do with first come, first serve as it is with merit. Many of the most gifted poets I’ve known have often been the least pushy and thus the ones who have languished the longest in obscurity with few breaks or openings – perhaps that’s because they’re more focused on their craft than on its marketing.

Walter Gallichan (writing as Geoffrey Mortimer) in his brilliantly witty The Blight of Respectability, which I excerpt extensively in AC, coined some excellent adages on precisely this theme, one which touched on the ‘shy genius’ being shunned by the establishments while the ‘author of mediocre ability’, the ‘adept of claptrap’, gets all the opportunities and plaudits, just as in, as I also mention at this point in AC, the characters of Edwin Reardon (impoverished authentic writer) and Jasper Milvain (networking hack-writer) in George Gissing’s New Grub Street, a novel Gallichan would have no doubt been aware of and probably would have read. So little has changed since their time of writing in the 1890s!

AC was created out of self-directed research, it’s one of the ways I come to poetry, as a response to wide reading on certain subjects, the sources are books I largely sought out or discovered by chance, one of them was on my father’s bookshelves, he being a keen amateur genealogist with a strong interest in social history, and particularly that of the lower middle classes – I might point out here, too, that AC is not only or entirely focused on the historic working classes, it also takes in the lower middle classes, particularly clerks, much of the information sourced from David Lockwood’s rather dry but informative and compendious The Black Coated Worker. As mentioned before, I’d describe my own background as mixed class: materially and financially working-class (even at times underclass) but educationally and attitudinally middle-class, if that makes any sense.

FL: One of my favourite passages from Anxious Corporals contains these elegiac lines for the Pelican imprint:

Turn at ever more frequent intervals to silent trickles
Of the written page, and in those captivating lakes
Of meaning-making, of careful thought and crafted phrase,
Empathetic pools of escape, come to expand their mental plains

There is so much of note in these lines, which read in the first instance like both an elegy for and a celebration of print media itself, for a particular tactile experience of reading. There is also the real sense of the Pelican imprint’s value being in its empathetic reach, its capacity to expand horizons and connect working people in a kind of felt mutuality. This is exactly opposite to the cynically exploited ‘brand’ value of Pelican as a fetishised commodity, a hollow simple, emptied out of meaning, deployed in the service of a weaponised nostalgia.

What I really relish about this final section of the text is how the old Pelicans, surviving in ‘charity shop surplus’ become sources of solidarity and sustenance for the ‘amputees of new/ Imperialism’, for a new vanguard of ‘anxious corporals’.  There is deep sadness towards the end of the book for a loss of Pelican, and for the aims and aspirations of an intellectually curious working-class, but I also have a sense of hope: Pelican – like the working classes ourselves – persists, endures by other means. This is also something that is communicated in your muscular and resistive use of language. Would you mind finishing by talking about this germ of hope, and where – if it is coming from anywhere – you see it as coming from?

AM: Where there’s humanity, compassion, and spirit, there’s always hope, in the spirit of poetry, of creativity, of giving, of unconditional love – in this spirit of compassionate opposition, whether it manifests politically in socialism or communism, in liberation theology at the fusion point of Marxism and Christianity, in Christianity as the religion of the poor and oppressed as it was originally, and all other likeminded religions, where there’s imagination and compassion there’s always hope for something better to come, and if we are to save humanity and, indeed, the world on which we depend, then we need to become more compassionate, empathetic, communitarian and, of course, more nurturing of the planet which supports us.

Capitalism, materialism, consumerism all stand in the way of this, and so they must be swept aside, in time they will have to be, simply, if humanity is to survive into any future worth having, whether through human means or those outside of our control.  

FL: Thanks so much for talking to me, Alan! I hope that wasn’t too painful.

AM: Not at all, it was a pleasure answering such incisive questions.

 

Summer Poetry Round-Up
Friday, 09 July 2021 16:27

Summer Poetry Round-Up

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock reviews some recent poetry collections

Ox, by Martin Hayes (Knives Forks And Spoons Press)

It has been written elsewhere that Ox marks something of a departure for Martin Hayes, who is perhaps best known as an outspoken poetic witness to the multiple indignities and oppressions of our cruel and increasingly unsustainable “gig economy”.

Ox has been described as an “extended metaphor” or “allegory” for the dehumanising treatment of workers under late-stage capitalism. This is true, up to a point, but when speaking about a book that has a blistering indictment of our economic system at its heart, the word “allegory” makes me a little squeamish. Certainly Ox is an allusive book, referencing prior texts, drawing on strands of myth, and working in and through the tradition of the fable. Certainly Ox is a figure for the suffering social subject within neoliberal culture. But the grim, arbitrary, and brutalising experiences that beset Ox are not allegorical. They are specific and real. They are happening now, to animals and to humans, and we lose sight of this at our peril.

It is also worth noting that this recourse to poetic conceit is, in itself, another form of tradition: in creating Ox Hayes manifests the difficulties inherent in writing about our material conditions under any aggressively surveilled system. As Fred Voss has already noted, writers who live and work within totalitarian regimes “have had to create allegories to escape detection by control-freak authorities.”  Hayes’ strategy, then, is not merely a free literary “choice” but a necessary negotiation around the strictures, limits, and ugly punitive logic that govern Ox's world and his own. His innovation is driven by the social and economic forces that are his target, and this pressured  invention has produced a bravura lyric performance of real wit, depth and intensity.

A particularly striking example of this is 'Ox Witnesses Yet Another Birthing' (82), a short poem worth quoting in its entirety:

here it comes the new born
with nothing in front of it
and everything behind it broken
who can predict what this fresh sun will investigate
its brightness is not for us but ours to devour
hot blood has already knitted the words of its poem
warming up not only its mother but other planets also
there is a depth to this deeper than known soil
it sits somewhere in darkness wearing darkness
we are resigned unknowing how it all works
no blueprints survive
we must go blind into the waters every time

The use of 'birthing' as opposed to 'birth' in this poem is significant: emphasising the agonising mechanics of the process (of giving birth) rather than the hallowed specialness of the end result (the baby) Hayes signals the way in which the natural reproductive cycles of both animals and humans are exploited and distorted under capitalism. Aside from the title, Hayes deliberately avoids using species-specific language, inviting a reading across both literal and figurative (human and non-human) axis; such a reading reveals subtle shifts and shades of meaning. Is the 'nothing in front' of the new-born the literal concrete wall of a leaky barn? Or is it the blank and circumscribed future of the labouring poor? Is the 'everything' that is broken behind the new-born a reference to the dilapidation of their immediate surroundings, the pre-fuckedness of the environment and society into which they are born? Or is it the physically exhausted body of its birth mother, hollowed out by hard use as a source of reproductive labour?

Without ever once using the word, the poem nevertheless merges both forms of “labour” in ways reminiscent of Ariana Reines' The Cow (Fence Books, 2006). As Reines’ text reminds us, both women and animals are similarly objectified under capitalism through the metaphor of “meat”, which allows both to be perceived as something “edible”, and ripe for different kinds of consumption. Reines' book connects the animal industrial complex to the treatment of women, exploited as mere bodies for their reproductive capacities, or for their flesh. For real-life cows and oxen, tied to the demands of both the meat and dairy industries, birth and death are hideously intertwined: male calves are born simply to be slaughtered for veal, cows are artificially inseminated and kept in a constant state of pregnancy. Often they are separated from their calves, their milk siphoned off for human consumption.

Animals are people and people are animals

This world of pain is explicit and constant throughout Hayes' collection. But Hayes also excels at the subtle and troubling lyric moment: 'there is a depth to this deeper than known soil / it sits somewhere in darkness wearing darkness', hints at a dimly perceived and not necessarily benevolent mystery behind the immediate real. Birth and death still have the power to stir and disturb. Ox cannot comprehend, but deeply feels the immensity of the 'birthing'. A sense of futile miracle hangs over the scene: I found it one of the most haunting passages in the book.

There are other “difficult” moments in Ox. As a lifelong vegan of the old school, I found some passages harder to read than others. What is both horrible and compelling about, for example, the visceral description of unblocking the “chute” in a meat-processing plant that opens 'Ox at the Gates of Heaven' (74) is not the graphic extract itself, but the way Hayes links the bland affect of the slaughterhouse worker to the genocidal consequences of human fascism globally. Each itemised part of the process of death is linked to a human tyrant, so we have 'the silver hooks of a Torquemada', 'the white ceramic guttering of a Pol Pot's throat', the 'lullabies of Marine Le Pen' in a long historical chain of oppression, dismemberment and terror.

We cannot, Hayes seems to say, separate the way we treat animals from the way we treat people. More importantly, in order to treat either animals or people with such shocking and casual violence, you first have to morally anaesthetise those who will carry out such acts. The most surprising thing about this piece, and the about the collection as a whole, is the empathy Hayes extends to the slaughterhouse workers of this world. An ambivalent empathy, perhaps, but still an important acknowledgement of our mutual exploitation.

As I read the collection I was reminded of Joan Dunayer, writing in Animal Equality: Language and Liberation (2001). Dunayer talks about the process of dehumanisation, and the inherent speciesism necessary for this process to work: to reduce the human to the level of an animal, we must first account the animal as nothing. The brutalising treatment of animals, then, is not merely cruel, but a necessary precursor to fascism, and to all kinds of human atrocity. As a culture we become accustomed to cruel acts by perpetrating them first against animals. Specisism also creates the language in which it is possible to dehumanise the “other” amongst us: the black man is a monkey, the Jew is a cockroach, the “gypsy” is a rat, etc. The figure of Ox is perhaps so unsettling because he serves as a hybrid between the animal and the human, because he demonstrates that the distance between animal and man, self and other, is not as great as some would like.

There is so much more to say to about this book: the poignancy of 'Little Ox'(85), which cuts the reader with the mediocrity of even our ambitions: 'Little Ox wanted more and more / of what he was being told / he wanted', a state of stunted imagination only possible when neoliberal elites have colonised even our imaginative space, and have naturalised their own shitty desires as the model for all aspiration. I could also talk about the eventual death and dismemberment of Ox, and the way the book takes us through his deconstruction into units of saleable product, while also showing us with an unflinching eye the impact this death has on those who cause and those who experience it.

I should also talk about the illustrations by Gustavius Payne, the softened lines of which often work provokingly against their disturbing content, or, in other places, such as 'Ox and Cow Under Moonlight' (77) or 'Little Ox' (85), catch you off guard with their tenderness and vulnerability. These pictures are an essential component of the book's relationship to fable and its implied moral lesson, accessible to children. But they also transmit their own meaning, extending and complicating the way we read Hayes’ words, not merely repeating or emphasising them.

This book is an intelligent and passionate work, the product of long experience and rigorous thought. It reveals Hayes as a exciting poet who still has more to reveal to us. If we're smart we will heed him, and follow where he leads.

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Afterlife As Trash, by Rushika Wick (Verve Poetry Press)

I must begin this review with a confession: I did not want to like Afterlife As Trash. My friends had been throwing so many superlatives at it that by the time it arrived on my desk I was quite prepared to find it overwritten / annoying / unworthy of the hype. But it isn't, not at all. As the extensive endorsements promise, it is 'pyrotechnic' and 'exhilarating' in its use of language. Wick conjures phrases that arrest and intrigue; her images, selected and choreographed with great care, are possessed of a beguiling strangeness and humour.

In the first three poems alone we find the speaker, rising above ordinary concerns, described as a 'swallow filled with helium' ('Diaries Of An Artist In Hiding', 11), sex 'like a multi-pack of Salt 'n' Shake, / each packet with its own blue sachet / containing exactly 0.6g of salt' ('ULTRAMARINE PINK PV15', 13), and sunflowers as 'velvet toys' (Deus Ex Machina', 14). Indeed, I could go through the collection happily stabbing out favourite lines and lauding their brilliance, but this would be to do Wick a disservice. This collection is far more than a trinket tray, it is probative and thoughtful too. It is also, I suspect, more political than it has been given credit for.

In 'Diaries of An Artist In Hiding', which opens the collection, the speaker conducts a 'social experiment' that sees her imaginatively incarnated as – among other things – 'the president', 'Matisse' on his sick bed, a 'love letter from Camille to Rodin', and 'a badger'. Each improbable transformation is a pleasure to read, full of the relish and the texture of language: 'flowering fingers, fractures, / scatters of light' etc. (12). It is a joy to meet with a poet so confident and accomplished in the practise of loading every rift of their subject with ore. But more than this, each leap has an aura of fugivity and flit about it; of small but necessary escapes and feints. The speaker is 'in hiding' after all; the 'experiment' takes place in 'the car / on the way to work'. These experimental selves inform a greater work of concealment and evasion, necessary to preserve whatever constitutes the artist / self from the car, and from work, and from the machine that sets cars on the road to work in the first place. 'Really', the speaker muses in the second stanza, 'the experiment is myself', and later, 'the experiment is boundless'. None of her disguises seem more essential or more “true” than any of the others. Instead, Wick seems to use them to interrogate the very notion of identity – to ask questions about how it is constituted, and more subversively, how it might be countered.

In 'Deus Ex Machina', the subject 'wonders how to make her money stretch / beyond rent and a bag of happy-face waffles', compressed like the poem's sunflowers 'in the hard corridor / between the road and tower block.' Within this space, Wick's gorgeous lyric lines function as units of resistance against the cramped precarity in which their subject is caught. The 'machine' in question is identified as an instrument of punishment or torture; it 'whirs without end' moving 'walls and ceiling' closer together like some kind of enormous trash compactor.  Inside this tiny space, Wick's subject 'writes on scraps of paper as night crumples the sky', or she sleeps, having taught herself 'how to wake up just in time, / gasping'. By literalising the vague semantic gesture of 'the machine', Wick solidifies the dangerous and often fatal consequences of late-stage capitalism upon the bodies and minds subjected to its horrible logics. 'God' in the context of the poem is the just-in-time awakening the subject performs, but it is also the subject herself: a creator nevertheless condemned to exist inside the endless circuit of whirring and crushing. Here the act of writing, or the work of the imagination, is not an “escape” as such, but an act of preservation.

In 'The Party' Wick contrasts a timeless scene of exhausted and endangered solidarity with one of contemporary neoliberal privilege, so that 'To stand together, united against the dragging through fields, the hangings, the spitting on children the taking of women like property' sits uneasily beside 'It was the kind of conversation where people living in comfortable homes full of art and fruit bowls confess that the time is such that they would be able to kill their political leader, should the opportunity arise, for the greater good.' (15).

The effect is disconcerting on a number of levels. The italicised section in a which a crowd gathers 'in the burning sun, in belief' is written in the active present tense, so that the speaker is part of the moment she describes. It feels immediate and urgent. The contemporary section is written in the third person, past tense, and encodes the very kind of ironic distance that could be said to characterise its subjects. From a position of relative safety they indulge in extreme political declarations. This 'creates some solidarity at the party but also deep discomfort'.

Here the use of 'solidarity' is defanged and depoliticised: the guests at the party cannot mobilise to form any kind of meaningful dissenting collective; their gestures (that of killing their political leader) are individual, grandiose, and hollow. Wick's use of commas to break up the “confession” create qualifying or rationalising pauses within the statement itself, a syntactic signal towards a deep lack of political commitment. Because the phrase 'The Party' merges political and social worlds, the reader is invited to consider the limits and intersections of both, and the way in which the latter often usurps or comes to stand as a substitute for the former.

Witches on a field trip

In the final stanza we are told that 'Others said that finally they had been allowed the time (because of reaching a certain stability or point in their careers) to become fully practising witches and what a joy this was.' There is a wonderful piece of Wicksian strangeness here, with the “witches” organising a field-trip to Mexico to 'scrape gilt off Madonnas at night.' But behind the enjoyable oddity of this image seems to lurk a searing criticism of those who, owing to the privilege and stability of their own positions, are able to ape, participate in, and appropriate the resistive tactics of  marginalised and persecuted “others”.

None of which captures the formal daring of this collection, or just how deft and supple these poems feel on the page. It is worth mentioning here that this kind of lively innovation is something that has come to characterise Verve Poetry Press, which has been steadily building a diverse stable of poetic voices, representing a wide variety of positions and approaches, publishing work by Geraldine Clarkson, Sean Wai Keung, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, and Charlotte Lunn (collections by Golnoosh Noor and Emily Rose Galvin are eagerly anticipated).

Indeed, Verve feels like the natural home for Wick, whose engagement with the blank space of the page is mercurial, curious, and unafraid to take risks. In poems such as 'The Pill' (40), 'My Identical Twin' (48) and 'Vocal Tics' (51) Wick proves herself an adept at manipulating the kinetics of the text to achieve a number of poetic effects. These poems evince an understanding of text as substance, structure, and stuff: the shape and placement of words on the page are used to complicate or extend meaning. In 'The Pill', the left edge of the text extends outwards in a convex parabola; the right edge recedes and impresses raggedly: the poem performs the pill dissolving, or the dynamic arc of the “high”, or the retinal lens across which intoxicated images rapidly jump and flicker. On the opposite page (41), Wick lists italicised 'side effects', which include 'taking control of stress that is structural in cause'. The interaction between these two sets of text might best be seen as the relationship between our subjective bodily experience, and the external (and structural, and systemic) forces that govern that experience.

Wick's work, then, is playful but with purpose. What impresses about this collection is that it wears its obvious intelligence so lightly. The connected soliloquies from 'The Dog' (19) and 'The Flea' (20) are both witty and charming, while still pushing language and logic to strange new places. My personal favourite piece is 'THE THOUGHTS OF VALERIE SOLANAS (in the minute before shooting Warhol and the minute after)' (30). This is a deeply convincing character poem without becoming a burlesque on Solanas' signature style. Both Wick's poem and Solanas' own writing are spaces in which thinking occurs; important thoughts strained through coruscating language, full of profanity, clotted alliteration, surprising metaphor, and brute fury. Wick gives us 'the oppression of pressed paper', 'being fucked roughly / like islands in storms' and lines of heartbreak and insight such as: 'I think of what makes you a success, / and me a sideshow, an extra' and the gunshot as: 'a hysterectomy / of sorts, the language of violence / has its own vowel sounds'. Solanas under Wick's care is ranting, frustrated, but brilliant. Wick writes with both energy and empathy.

The collection is linked by a series of short italicised vignettes, which treat of ephemeral and fleeting moments. These moments work well, they introduce space into what is a rich and generous debut. They also demonstrate that Wick is not a one trick unicorn: behind the fireworks there is a poet of brevity and silence. I sense Wick may need that silence sometimes, to gather her strength for whatever comes next.

Apricot Sun cover 

 

Apricot Sun, by Trisha Heaney (Culture Matters)

Trisha Heaney's impressive debut brings to fruition the mentoring package offered by the Bread and Roses Poetry Award, founded and facilitated by Culture Matters, and kindly sponsored by Unite. The package supports unpublished poets with their first collection, pairing them with an experienced editor and mentor. In the case of Apricot Sun, Heaney received mentorship from Jim Aitken, and this feels like a natural fit: both Heaney and Aitken have backgrounds in education and community outreach work, work that informs and infuses their writing. Both poets excel at the evocation of place –  geographical, social, and historical – an evocation achieved through strategies both painterly and dramatic, so that the teasing appeal to the eye contained within 'mushrooms bulbing in bunches; pears fattening / like bottoms' ('Bukra Insh'allah', 53) or the wistful lyric 'Traffic lines smudge / apricot sun tones to magenta. / Soon the city's poor / will be drawn here to sleep / in the feathering of doves / paracletes of Picasso.' ('Sketch', 81), are balanced by a virtuoso conjuration of voice: 'Decantit, tene-dementit, / in a botched experiment / we pour ontae thi fields / o South Nitshill' ('In the Scheme of Things', 17).

Heaney deploys dialect and demotic throughout the collection to superb effect. Nowhere more so than in 'Ghazal, In Sudan' (21), where the Arabic verse form holds a powerful expression of loss in Scots dialect. What impresses about this poem is that Heaney does not, as so many poets do, adopt the mere shell of form; there's no awkward shoehorning of ideas and images into a container they were never designed to fit. Rather, voice and form work together to produce a layered and complex interaction between strong vocal identity and inherited poetic tradition. The different sets cultural expectations associated with the speaker's voice and the Arabic form create a fruitful friction in the text, provoking questions about what it means to mourn, and the ways in which loss is contained and transmitted through accent and grammar on one hand, and poetic structure and tradition on the other: 'Ma soul at hame in tacht alignment wae Islam / ma hert forfeit, ablo zodiac signs, in Sudan.' Heaney's love of Sudan, where she worked for a number of years training teachers to teach English, is also palpable: 'Wae ilka letter woven we're entwined, in Sudan.'

Apricot Sun reflects a broad and serious concern with voice throughout: with who is given permission and space to speak, and who is listened to. The epigraph that opens 'In the Scheme of Things', the first poem in the collection, is taken from A Social History of Glasgow Council Housing 1919-59 by Sean Damer, and tells us that the testimonies of council tenants have been 'a strategic lacuna in the history of Glasgow.' 'Strategic' is the operative word in this sentence: silence doesn't happen to people, it is done to them. Heaney keenly understands that silence, as a consequence and structural component of poverty and neglect, is a form of violence. In places this understanding is politically explicit, such as in 'Dropped' (29), 'Ria Formosa' (76), or 'As You Lie Sleeping' (33) where workers brilliantly 'shrug the shiver off / the morning / [...] carrying the world.'

In others this idea is the dark and troubling undersong beneath everyday interaction. In 'Street Theatre' (22) Heaney places a beaten and bedraggled woman at the centre of a Shakespearean sonnet. Through repeated references to stage-craft –  'alley stage', 'she might have been an actress in distress / miscast ingenue', 'set a cardboard mess', 'She stammers lines' etc. – Heaney emphasises the complicity of both the onlookers within the poem, and the poem's readers, accustomed as we are to female degradation as a staple of popular entertainment, and to the odd conjunction of aesthetic pleasure and human suffering within art and literature. The closing couplet: 'The audience directs the final act: / conduct her safely home or see her whacked?' serves to sensitise the reader ('the audience') to their responsibilities toward the suffering “other” whose safety and survival are often dependent upon the choices we make; the extent to which we are willing to acknowledge our shared humanity.

On one level this poem is an exhortation against indifference and disdain. But it is also about allowing this abjected “other” the space to speak and to be heard, even if her speech can only approximate the 'lines of threatened violence' that have been repeated 'grunted' at and into her. By using a form enshrined within canon literature, the subject is afforded both legitimacy and care. The menace of the final couplet contains also the threat of forcible eviction from the elite space of literature and the precincts of human attention.

Radical solidarity

Heaney's signature gift is this attention, and whether it is directed at her own family, or at her playground peers in South Nitshill; with exploited and exhausted workers, with prisoners, or with the victims of global misogyny, her poetic gaze illuminates whoever she holds within it. By focussing with particularity and tenderness on the lived experiences of diverse individual subjects, Heaney reveals not their differences but their (and our) deep interconnectedness. This notion of radical solidarity feels authentic and inhabited within Heaney's work because her own experiences inform and intertwine with her writing about others. There is a great sense of vulnerability and risk within these poems, which form a rich seam of lyric memoir. This poetic vulnerability and exposure is not merely the “price of admission” for collecting the experiences and testimonies of others, but a metonym for the vulnerability that besets all women, but especially poor and working-class women inside neoliberal culture.

Vulnerability is one of Heaney's most persuasive themes: workers are vulnerable in literal and bodily ways, as in 'Sweat Shop Sojourn' (27), where blades 'chop down' and a machine operator may go 'in fear of losing fingers or / a red right hand'. Wives are physically vulnerable to husbands, as in 'Christmas Spread' (70), where a man brutalised by work (or lack or work) and drink, metes out violence to the woman in his life. Women are vulnerable everywhere: to men with power, to those without any real power and angry about it; to the endless arbitrary cruelty of the law, as in both 'Dirty Linen' (47) and 'Vale of Tears' (63), where intimate violence is compounded at institutional and structural levels, further victimising those the law purports to help.

An experience of poverty leaves you emotionally vulnerable too; this may be our greatest risk and biggest strength. It is certainly a strength within Heaney's writing, where empathy and compassion combine with real technical gift to create a compelling and inspiring debut.

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Crucifox, by Geraldine Clarkson (Verve Poetry Press)

It feels unjust to describe Crucifox as “slight”, although at a mere 37 pages, it is certainly brief. It is not, however, an inconsequential collection, and each individual poem is possessed of Clarkson's trademark riddling intricacy and zinging lyric flair. Where else could we expect to encounter lines of such audacity and flourish as 'glimquist and sunkissed on a burgandy chaise lounge / she turns phrase after phrase on the lathe of her tongue' ('lemonjim hour: brittle england', 24)? Or 'consonants mimicking kisses', 'myrrh mired-in-my-memory, passing gold' ('Labials of a Half-Remembered Lover', 30)? Signals of excess, indulgence, and abundance are shot through this collection like lamé thread. Although Clarkson's poetry is always linguistically rich, Crucifox feels pleasurably super-saturated. This is Clarkson with the dials turned up to 11.

The collection seems to mark a point of departure or change for Clarkson, and the opening poem, 'Janus' (7) feels like an apologia or manifesto of sorts for the unrepentant lavishness that is to follow. The speaker in 'Janus', having endured: 'a hateful hagiography of dragging winters / with incipient springs, word-ugly / and black-fasted, on the poorer side / of my life' assures us that 'now the worm was feeding / at the lintel, ready to rear up.' The use of 'hagiography' and 'fasted' are significant here: containment, enclosure, and worldly withdrawal– especially as these apply to religious life – were the signal preoccupations of Clarkson's previous collection, Monica's Overcoat of Flesh (Nine Arches Press, 2020). Although Monica's Overcoat of Flesh featured moments of flat-out fugivity and freedom, the poems and their speakers felt continually caught in a compromise between restraint and flight: raw lexical energy imperfectly held within the strictures of form. It gave the poems a restless, edgy quality, while in Crucifox that energy is a allowed to surge forth with strange new vigour.

Throughout the collection there are numerous instances of escape, revolt, or turn. Not merely within the lives and psyches of Clarkson's individual poetic subjects, but within the order of commonplace logic itself. In 'THE BOOK OF BLUE' (31), a monk 'glad from Nocturns', succumbs to the urge to illuminate a 'slippery and impure' (“blue” in the sense of “profane”) manuscript, 'extemporising nipples, buttocks, quim' at the stroke of a quill. While 'Apple Snow' (12) and 'FILTH' (17) are marked by moments of overrun and ruction in the fabric of daily life.

Pert mounds of blancmange

In 'Apple Snow' the speaker is gifted a 'big-chinned baby', left on the doorstep by her neighbour, my Grandet. After 'much shuffling of official forms' the speaker is informed that 'the girl' who grows prodigiously and quickly, 'will live with me, hereafter'. An illogical sequence of events the counter-spell to which is an equally illogical (poetic) solution. The situation rights itself in the following not, not in resisting the surreal surrender of sense, but in committing to it:

'she occupies herself in compiling an index of domestic magic, and will answer to the ancient English name Wigga. In return for board and lodgings she will source a daily breakfast of fruit, variously foraged and prepared: whiskey-poached pears, plum fritters; devilled figs, pert mounds of blancmange topped with apple snow'.

In 'FILTH' the chaos consumes an unwary emissary of the outside (rational) world. The 'mult' in 'Bella Langley's' closed-up home multiplies while the 'deranged house' urges the man inside and swallows him. No sign for ten days until 'the sirens, the lights.  / A blue suit stained.' There is ambivalence here, and threat, reactivating and filling with ominous portent the dead cliché of “behind closed doors.” As Clarkson writes, the collection traffics in 'female desire and feral impulses behind polite exteriors […] the silent and marginalised aspects of women, their masking and unveiling...'

Crucifox, then, is a place of power, but not necessarily a benevolent power. Within its pages flowers and cats speak, and booksellers offer vials of glowing emerald liquid, as in 'Compliments of the Patron' (25). Indeed, enchantments are continually proffered throughout Crucifox, but to enter the space the poems extend with safety one must be canny, fleet, and well-armed with sympathetic magic of one's own, with the 'informal cunning' of Fox in 'FOX NEWS: CREATRIX' (20) perhaps? Clarkson presents this poem as a series of crossword clues. The answers appearing on the opposite page in 'CROSSFOX: CROSSBOX' (21), are all variations on, or sound or sense components of, the word 'crucifox'. Because there is no such word, the ability to 'solve' the puzzle is a tantalising promise without hope of fulfilment. Meaning is illusive or labyrinthine. Here Clarkson is telling us something about language and its dangerous, mercurial potency; its ability to both bind and release us, to liberate or frustrate; to create or destroy.

In 'St Osburga's Surprise' (26), a nun is vouchsafed a vision of the future, and wonders 'Was this destruction or resurrection? Conventrated / re-created'. The same might be asked of Crucifox, and the answer is probably “both”. In the three felicities (36), which closes the collection, Clarkson ends with her subjects 'wreathed impossibly in sudden / lucky smiles, now self-assured and utterly reliable'. Does this poem signal that the charm is at an end? Are we released back into the 'reliable' world which has resumed its usual contours around us? Or is there an implied wink within that line? 'Crucifox is more a state of mind than a particular creature or person', writes Clarkson; having stepped once in Crucifox that state of mind stays with you.

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C+nto & Othered poems, by Joelle Taylor (Westbourne Press)

Although in June it seems early to start talking about The Most Important Single-Author Poetry Collection of the Year, and despite having already reviewed C+nto in depth, I still want to cheer this book here as a strong contender for that title.

C+nto is the culmination of both patient and difficult (in every sense) research, and years of working and reworking the white-hot stuff of the poem through the pressure of performance. Discussions of Taylor's work often describe her as a compelling “spoken word” or “performance poet”, and while this is undoubtedly true, such descriptions tend to elide Taylor's vigour and innovation within the body of the printed text. I do not use the word “body” idly.

A protean and charismatic reader of her own work, Joelle Taylor's poetry is embodied to a high degree; the intimate tactility of performance is a vital element of relish and risk within her work. The body is also Taylor's most vivid subject, specifically the bodies of those whose histories, political destinies, safety and survival are tied to their physical identity: women, and butch lesbian women in particular are variously fetishized, debased, erased, and destroyed by the social and economic systems that govern them. Taylor's texts seem to store the scars of this accumulated bodily experience; standing for the living bodies whose integrity is violated by various kinds of violence.

In Taylor's 2017 collection Songs My Enemy Taught Me, she uses a mixture of oral testimony, found text, and personal experience to bear witness to the trauma of her own sexual abuse, but also to confront the chronic and ongoing sexual exploitation of women world-wide. A similar dynamics of archivism, excavation, and witnessing takes place within C+nto, which is a work of memoir, of fearsome imaginative and creative reach, and of deep historicity. Taylor undertakes this work with love, dexterity, and wit.

You're visible in all the wrong ways

C+nto begins by providing a definition for the title, and its Latin root in the verb 'Cuntare', to narrate, or to recount. Taylor also provides a glossary of words from wildly different lexes: from the coterie argot of LGBT+ occulture, through scientific, legal, and cinematic terminology, to Taylor's own invented slang. Juxtaposing this concern with the origins and precise meanings of words, Taylor frame the poems in highly visual ways, deploying the trappings of cinematography or stage direction to create their 'scenes'. In the preface to the poems Taylor describes the central conceit of the collection in the following way:

Glass display cases appear across the UK outside the old bars, cruising grounds, and squats that once held the LGBT+ community in parenthesis. […]  Each case holds a different scene (13)

These cases are a metaphor for the moments in which LGBT+ history is experienced and communicated. Erased, repressed, redacted, it becomes impossible to identify oneself within any coherent system of “belonging”. The glass offers brittle and ultimately doomed protection for the exposed subject while simultaneously trapping her. This is the contradiction at the heart of being a butch lesbian: you are missing within official history; you are excised from cultural representation even within LGBT+ cohorts, and yet you are visible in all the wrong ways: an obtruding target for ridicule and violence, a medical curiosity, and a sideshow spectacle. Your visibility is politicised and policed. You are dangerously visible, rarely seen.

 Against this willed lack of perception, Taylor creates C+nto with a lyric and militant tenderness. The language with which Taylor holds her subjects performs an elegiac cherishing. In Dudizile, who: '...speaks difficult / rivers knowing too / many bois are lost / in them those rip / tides of sudden belief / the undercurrent of/ language she speaks...' (87) Taylor's poem catches the cadence of thought and tongue particular to her subject. The richness and originality of Taylor's lyric phrase-making gives these figures substance and voice. C+nto understands that the most we can offer the dead is our unstinting vigilance, our attentive and loving witness.

C+nto is also an elegy for place. Not some twee nostalgia for a vanished / imagined past, but a work of grieving, a lament. The Maryville scenes are amongst the most ambitious and exciting within in the collection, offering up an incandescent melancholic 'psalm'; both an evocation and an invocation, a spell:

o, Maryville / let us walk alone at night / & let the night not follow us / let us drink too much / & awaken in each other's mouth / o Maryville / let us be ugly / let us unwash / let us language... (55)

C+nto seeks to create the very spaces that it mourns: however hedged, however temporary. The gold cover glows like a beacon of hope, a hope undermined, at least complicated, by the redacted 'u' of the title. The offence contained within the word 'c+nt' becomes metonymic for the “offensive” and unwanted presence of Taylor's lyric subjects.

Joy is abundant in C+nto: a hard-won joy that knows itself to be fleeting. Throughout, there is a sense of 'bursting' into existence, but that moment never arrives, is never allowed to coalesce and form enduring destinies. As the rainbow signifiers of “pride” are adopted by neoliberalism as a  hollow consumer brand, these truth feel especially necessary. In 'Eulogy' Taylor presents a litany of names compressed into stark columns, barely contained within the form of the text (113). This is the multitude that C+nto carries. These are the book's grieved-for subjects, and its truest audience. These are the voices that need to be heard, and that we need to hear.

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The Brown Envelope Book (Caparison, with Don't Go Breaking Our Arts and Culture Matters, 2021), edited by Alan Morrison and Kate Jay-R.

 A brief disclaimer: because I have work in The Brown Envelope Book I wasn't initially sure if I should write about it or not. It gave me pause, but in the end I have decided that this book is so much bigger and more important than any one contributor. And “should” is a funny word in this context. Are the niceties of writerly “ethics” really more important than maintaining the visibility of a book so rare in its creative energy, and so profound in its political implications? I do not think so.

The Brown Envelope Book collects poetry and prose on contributors' varied (but always harrowing) experiences of unemployment, of the benefits system, and of disability and work capability assessments. The poems were selected and edited by Alan Morrison and Kate Jay-R, and the anthology features an important contextualising Foreword by John McArdle of the Black Triangle Campaign, established in 2011 to advocate for the human rights of sick and disabled people persecuted by the government's work capability assessments scheme.

Thinking about what makes this book so timely and so striking, it occurs to me that we inhabit a cultural moment where literature and the arts are deeply preoccupied with “identity”. Within such a moment it is often the case that the signifiers of identity – working-class identity in particular – are adopted, co-opted, and assimilated by the culture machine, while the social and material contexts under which that identity is forged, and under which our art is made, are wilfully vanished. The Brown Envelope Book feels significant for the way in which it triangulates artistic expression, social experience, and the ideological underpinnings that create and contour that experience. A number of publications deal thematically with “austerity” or “poverty” but by engaging with a specific piece of state apparatus, The Brown Envelope Book renders explicit the malignant functioning and human cost of this Tory government's political agenda against working-class, poor, and vulnerable people.

The title evokes the ominous “Brown Envelope” that brings with it news of sanctions, delays and denials of help, worked out according to some arbitrary and inhuman logic, and relayed in correspondingly inhuman language. When I use the word “inhuman”, I mean that quite literally. Many of the poems in The Brown Envelope Book incorporate fragments of this found text, which feels appropriate, as if, in their awkward construction, their evasive and affectless tone, these phrases have proved indigestible to even the most adroit lyric facility.

Forms must be brought in person

This is captured most starkly and completely in Angi Holden's 'Dear Client' (171), which reproduces the content of a DWP communication in the form of a poem, and in doing so demonstrates the impossibility of artistic recuperation for such a document. The content of the letter confounds the lyric reading expectations of intimacy and catharsis that are encoded within the shape and structure of the poem; the disorientation this produces is chilling.

Elsewhere, the language of these letters is burlesqued and satirised, as in Penny Blackburn's 'Jumping Through Hoops' (98) or Joel Schueler's 'Questions of Validation' (276). I will not say that Blackburn and Schueler exactly “exaggerate” the inherent absurdity of this language, rather they use bleak humour to make both the violence and the Kafkaesque illogic of the letters readily legible. Blackburn does this in subtle shifts and accretions, showing us that absolute nonsense is an ever-present prospect, a question of degrees: 'Each significant piece of information / must be accurately placed / within the correct, identified box / of the specified form — / available Wednesdays, bi-weekly, / when the moon reaches the nadir. // Forms must be brought in person / to our top floor office (no lift) / 3 miles from the nearest road or rail link, / open every 5th Friday (mornings only)...”

Schueler takes a more direct approach, stating nakedly the bigotry and threat contained within these communications sotto (but only just) voce: 'Dear sponger, / No parachute will be necessary. / Move away from the funds / without as much as a day to prepare / for your nothingness.'

Another striking feature of the anthology is the sheer number of times the letters themselves are referred to or described. They initiate or punctuate the poems, breaching and disrupting lyric space; they interrupt, command and coerce. As physical artefacts they have an almost totemic potency. This potency is figured most hauntingly in Rachel Burns' 'We do not know when normal service will resume' (113): 'and the letter unfolded itself like a broken wing / the wrong kind of origami'. The letter 'unfolded itself', it is not inanimate, it has agency and momentum. It is 'the wrong kind' of origami, a malevolent magic, bad juju.

These envelopes are metonymic for and de facto extensions of the brutalising state; they condense the power of that state into one easily recognised symbol (the brown envelope), so that the symbol itself transmits that power and the fear it provokes. The hateful presence of these letters in the lives and homes of vulnerable people serves as a form of remote terror, a kind of distance-bullying. This metaphor is captured beautifully by Fiona Sinclair in 'Fear of Letterboxes' (284): 'Sundays, strikes and snow, she is a school kid / whose bully has been excluded for a few days.' Anyone who has known bullying will understand this feeling: the giddy bitter joy of brief respite; the horrible uncertainty as to when your torment will resume.

Epistolarity itself carries connotations of intimacy; the very act of being addressed, and the spectre of implied response invoked by address render the recipients of letters uniquely vulnerable. When governments and state institutions address their citizen-subjects through letters they mobilize epistolary rhetoric in a variety of ways: to compel the individual and command the public; to coerce cooperation and engineer consent. The dreaded brown envelope is a particular kind of epistolary communication: it speaks not to us, but at us, with an intrusive and imperative address that  demands response but denies our right to meaningful reply. Our subordinate and dependent position is inscribed not only through the language of that address, but through its very presentation. The brown envelope itself silences us.

We're vital, alive and as mad as hell

The Brown Envelope Book creates against this silence a space of reply. In subverting the signifiers of the brown envelope – the cover is designed to mimic the appearance of a DWP communication, the font and typesetting have the look of “official” letters – the anthology attempts to return some of our accumulated fear and distress to sender. By allowing the recipients of those envelopes an opportunity we were never afforded as citizens and subjects, the anthology forms a powerful work of testimony, it gives us back the nuance and complexity of embodied experience, a complexity shaved out of tick-box bureaucracy, and the deliberately limiting anti-language of assessment criteria.

This is invaluable to those whose experience of the world and of themselves has been reduced by such criteria. Reading The Brown Envelope Book I was deeply moved by the depths of creativity, the intellectual rigour, and the artistic dedication of my fellow contributors. This anthology is proof that we make, in our different ways, a valuable contribution to our communities and culture; it is proof that we know how to spin nectar out of shit. The Brown Envelope Book never allows that nectar to provide a tacit justification for the shit either. Rather, it begs the question: what might we create or accomplish if our government allowed us to be seen as human beings? In this way our art is not merely cathartic or therapeutic solace but a manner of critique, a way of holding power to account. This comes across clearly in Clare Saponia's poem, 'The importance of being an artist' (275): 'That voice shrieking: / “You’re a slacker” / IS NOT YOURS! / It’s the rage / of the system / slamming its doors. / It’s the whip / of red tape / that doesn’t want you to feel. / It’s the guilt / in your bones / that work doesn’t heal.'

The anthology also provides a way of mediating these varied experiences to the wider (especially political) world, and of beginning to unpick the damage caused by decades of misrepresentation and barefaced lying about who and what we are. Many of the poems answer and challenge these misrepresentations directly, as when Maria Gornell, in 'In Sickness and In Wealth' (152) writes 'because you can’t be sick / and clever at the same time / send me more brown letters / to reinforce my absolute / uselessness on earth.'

These poems prove that perception a lie. We are vital and alive, and as mad as hell.

Visibility and Voice: C+nto, by Joelle Taylor 
Tuesday, 29 June 2021 07:53

Visibility and Voice: C+nto, by Joelle Taylor 

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock reviews C+nto, by Joelle Taylor 

When I talk about Joelle Taylor as a “wordsmith” I do not choose the epithet idly. Having read with Taylor numerous times, I have been fortunate enough to hear several of the poems in C+nto during the formative phases of their development, and to witness how she uses the stage as a kind of blacksmith's forge, working and reworking the white-hot stuff of the poem through the pressure of performance, before it is finally ready to cool onto the page. I have followed Taylor's trajectory through contemporary UK poetry for years now, and this still strikes me as a remarkable feature of her practice. More remarkable yet is that the poems on the page seem to condense, rather than dissipate, the sheer physical intensity of their performance. Discussions of Taylor's work often describe her as a compelling “spoken word” or “performance poet”; while this is undoubtedly true, such descriptions tend to elide Taylor's vigour and innovation within the body of the printed text. I do not use the word “body” idly either.

I mean by this that as a protean and charismatic reader of her own work, Taylor's poetry is embodied to a high degree. Taylor has a background in theatre, so it is not surprising that she understands intimately the relationship of her words to breath and to gesture, as sound and as substance. The effort required to produce those sounds, to force air from the diaphragm, to take long irregular breaths, to twist the tongue around a particularly sinuous phrase exacts a toll from the poem's speaker. In early ‘choreo-poems’ such as Naming (Oval House Theatre, 1994) and (w)horror stories (Oval House Theater, 1996) Taylor rejects the conventions of narrative and dramatic realism to make meaning from the rhythms and sonic texture of verbal language. These pieces combine spoken, sung and chanted language with pre-verbal and non-verbal sounds, body-language and silence to shape her performance. The tactility of those early performance pieces is still very much an element of relish and risk within Taylor's work: she is an uncanny and joyous manipulator of live language, but behind the sensual pleasure of the words there is an ever-present anxiety that they might exceed or exhaust the body of their performer; that they cannot be accommodated or contained; that they will not be controlled.

The body is also Taylor's most vivid subject. More accurately, the bodies of those whose histories, political destinies, safety and survival are tied to their physical identity: to gender and to sexuality. The bodies of women, and the bodies of lesbian women in particular are variously fetishized, debased, erased, and destroyed by the social and economic systems that govern them; systems in which the bodies of women are both the argument for and the evidence of their subjugation and abuse. Throughout Taylor's large poetic corpus, her texts seem to store the scars of this accumulated bodily experience. I would also suggest that they often stand for the living human bodies whose integrity is violated by various kinds of violence and trauma.

In Taylor's 2017 collection Songs My Enemy Taught Me, Taylor uses a mixture of oral testimony, found text, and personal experience to bear witness to the trauma of her own sexual abuse, but also to confront the chronic and ongoing sexual exploitation and abuse of women world-wide. In ‘Songs of Survival’, roughly midway through the collection, Taylor's lyric text is suddenly intercut by two copies of the Department for Work and Pensions form NCC1 4/17: Support for a child conceived without your consent. On the left-hand side an unmutilated copy of the form, the stark and almost unbearably banal cruelty of which forces a sudden interruption in the reader’s fluid interaction with the text. On the right, portions of the form are obscured or redacted in a simultaneous inversion of and comment upon the institutional erasures of women’s testimony. The copy reads 'Support... rape... through... this... mean... detailed... coercive... and controlling... form' (92-93). The insertion of this profoundly unmusical piece of state apparatus into a work of performance-led poetry functions as a critique upon the narrative demands of witnessing imposed on the victims of rape by governments, societies and systems. It demonstrates the way in which the intimate territory of the body is interrupted, administered and diminished by these same systems.

Visibility and Voice

It feels important to note that Taylor's work is not merely about rendering difficult or occluded bodies visible, but asking questions about that very visibility and its complex interaction with voice. Visibility and Voice could well be seen as the twin tensions that underpin C+unto. Taylor begins by providing a definition for the word, and its Latin root in the verb 'Cuntare', to narrate, tell, or to recount. Taylor also provides a glossary, which includes words belonging to a variety of different lexises: from the coterie argot of LGBT+ occulture, through scientific, legal, and cinematic terminology, to Taylor's own invented slang. Against this concern with the origins and precise meanings of words, there is the highly visual framing of the poems themselves, which deploy the language of cinematography or stage direction to create their 'scenes'. In the preface to the poems Taylor describes the central conceit of the collection in the following way:

Glass display cases appear across the UK outside the old bars, cruising grounds, and squats that once held the LGBT+ community in parenthesis. They come in the shape of snow globes, fish tanks, jars, crystal music boxes, vivariums, bottles, and grand music cabinets. Each case holds a different scene (13)

There is such a complex fragility contained within this image: the glass acts as a barrier between the scene's subjects and the outside world, but also between the subjects within different scenes; this makes poetically and hauntingly manifest the difficulty in apprehending any sense of continuity, history, or community for LGBT+ people in general, and for butch lesbians in particular. On one level, the glass cases serve as a metaphor for the small pockets or revelatory moments in which LGBT+ history is experienced and communicated. This history has been erased, repressed, and not suffered to be inscribed upon civic space; it becomes impossible to identify oneself within any coherent  system of “belonging”. You are present but apart. You live in stilted, looping moments, ultimately exiled.

These cases function as both inadequate shelter and inescapable prison: the glass is a brittle and ultimately doomed protection for the exposed subject. Outside the box, the ever-present threat that contours LGBT+ relationships with the cities beyond. And here Taylor nails the contradiction at the heart of being a butch lesbian: you are missing within both the archives and the architecture of official history; you are excised from cultural representation even within LGBT+ cohorts, and yet you are visible in all the wrong ways: an obtruding target for ridicule and violence, a medical curiosity, and a sideshow spectacle. Your visibility is punitive (punished?), politicised and policed. You are, to put it simply, supremely, dangerously visible, but rarely ever seen. 'There is no part of a butch lesbian that is welcome in this world.' Taylor writes in the preface. A statement with which it is impossible to argue.

But against this willed lack of perception, Taylor creates C+nto with a lyric and militant tenderness. Her subjects feel alive, fully realised and present, and the language with which they are held performs an elegiac cherishing. Dudizile, who: '...speaks difficult/ rivers knowing too/ many bois are lost/ in them those rip/ tides of sudden belief/ the undercurrent of/ language she speaks...' (87) Taylor's poem catches the cadence of thought and tongue particular to her subject; the skittish undersong of a mind revved up and ready to go. Or Jack Catch, 'in her houndstooth suit / oxblood brogues / knitted tie / sharpens the air she walks through...' (77). Or Angel, standing at the centre 'of her own ring', for whom 'bare knuckle fighting is a kind of birth' (92). These are not “characters” but people. The richness and originality of Taylor's lyric phrase-making gives them substance and voice. C+nto is a collection that understands that the most we can offer the dead is our unstinting vigilance, our attentive and loving witness.

C+nto is also an elegy for place. The bars and squats, the clubs and stomping grounds that breifly held Taylor's protagonists in common. This is not nostalgia for a vanished time and place, this is a work of grieving. These sites were not “safe” spaces – not for their patrons, or from the brutalising predations of social cleansing – because nowhere was safe. Rather, let's call this a lament for a sacred space: not merely somewhere to go, but somewhere to be and to become. The scenes where Taylor describes Maryville feel among the most ambitious and exciting  in the collection, offering up indandescent prayers in a melancholic but enervating 'psalm'. This poem is both an evocation and an invocation, it has the power of a spell behind it:

 o, Maryville / let us walk alone at night / & let the night not follow us / let us drink too much / & awaken in each other's mouth / o Maryville / let us be ugly / let us unwash / let us language... (55)

Within the pages of C+nto the book seems to create the spaces that it mourns: a place, however hedged, however partial, however temporary. The gold cover glows like a beacon of hope, a hope that is almost undermined, at least complicated, by the redacted 'u' of the title. The offence contained within the word 'c+nt' becomes metonymic for the “offensive” and unwanted presence of Taylor's subjects, a rejection with which Taylor is herself intimately familiar.

This is not a “happy” book. It is, in places, celebratory and triumphant, but it is celebratory and triumphant in the teeth of a world that still refuses to acknowledge its author as fully human. Joy is abundant in C+nto, 'bursting' as Tayor writes in 'Legend of the First Butch', at the seams, but it is a hard-won joy, and a joy that knows itself to be fleeting. Throughout the collection, this sense of bursting into existence or becoming is everywhere signalled, but the moment never seems to arrive. There's so much energy here, so much purpose and potential, but it's never allowed to coalesce, to form communities of destinies that are recognised and enduring. Taylor refuses to shirk the often fatal consequences of daring to experience this joy, historically and presently. And at a cultural moment when the rainbow signifiers of LGBT+ “pride” have been adopted by neoliberalism as a hollow consumer brand, an easy, purely gestural way of accumulating cultural cache. I often wonder when doing my shopping in Sainsbury's just exactly how the supermarket is supporting me as a bi woman. Will staff come to my rescue next time I'm being harassed or threatened for my shaved head and unmade face. This feels unlikely. Within this context, Taylor's work is especially important.

In 'Black Triangle', Taylor describes the patches lesbians in Germany were forced to wear as a symbol of their antisocial nature, a symbolic scoring out of the c+nt as anything other than a source of sexual and reproductive labour. It is also a poem about the cost of being the wrong kind of visible, of living your life surveilled not just by the state but by anyone who might be watching. There are three sides to a triangle, says one of Taylor's subjects, 'your lover, yourself / & whoever is watching...' (104).

'December' is also a poem about brutalising and fatal homophobic violence, but it feels mournful and exhausted. In the final line there is 'a rainbow flag thrown over a coffin', an image that captures the true risk, weight, and meaning of “pride” (112).

'Eulogy' is also a litany: names compressed into stark columns, compressed and barely contained within the form of the text, and within the sorrow of the speaker (113) This is the multitude that C+nto contains. These are the book's grieved-for subjects, and its truest audience. C+nto is a work of memoir, a work of fearsome imaginative and creative reach; it is also a work of patient and dedicated historicity. As with Songs My Enemy Taught Me, Taylor rigorously researched this collection. That is the true measure of her empathy and discipline as an artist. It is not enough to conjure voices out of air. It is not enough to merely write your own story. To be the witness and the storyteller these histories demand is to be the unblinking archivist to generations of pain. That Taylor does this work with love and with elan; that it reaches us as sonorous and soaring poetry is a testament to the alchemy of her craft.

C+nto, by Joelle Taylor (Westbourne Press, 2021), ISBN 978 I 908906 48 9, 125 pages, £10.99

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