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.

Class and Culture: Provocations for Cultural Democracy
Wednesday, 28 February 2024 19:37

Class and Culture: Provocations for Cultural Democracy

Published in Cultural Commentary

Dr. Fran Lock, shortlisted for the 2023 TS Eliot Poetry Prize, writes about ACE's recent advice to cultural organisations, and the recent pamphlet Class And Culture: Provocations For Cultural Democracy, available to download below.

I began writing this review of CPB's recent short pamphlet, Class And Culture: Provocations For Cultural Democracy in the wake of Arts Council England's bizarre “advice” to arts organisations to be cautious of: “overtly political or activist” statements made by individuals who may be linked with them; suggesting in typically mealy-mouthed fashion that any expression of those personal political beliefs may expose arts organisations to “reputational risk” that could jeopardize funding arrangements.

This “advice” comes as part of a series of updates made at the end of January to the council’s 2023–26 Relationship Framework policies, which outline the conditions required for ACE support. It goes on to stipulate that “reputational risk” can be generated not only by the organisations themselves, but by staff or by any other individual associated with the organisation “acting in a personal capacity.” Not just a press, say, but their individual authors. In effect, ACE are strong-arming small press publishers (and other struggling arts organisations) to police their current and prospective lists, selecting work and awarding opportunity on the basis of corporate compliance as opposed to passion, originality, or any kind of artistic merit.

Much like the government's disastrous Prevent Strategy – which aimed to root out a poorly defined “extremism” by forcing teachers to spy on and report pupils at risk of “being radicalised” from organisations as diverse as Isis and the Animal Liberation Front – this is a grubby and ill-conceived tactic that can only create a climate of mistrust, close up the space of debate, and smother the legitimate expression of political opinion. It is also a tactic that will do irreparable harm to female, black, brown, queer, trans, crip, gyp, poor and working-class creatives, whose mere presence in the cultural sphere is inescapably politicised before they – before we – even open our mouths.

As many have rightly pointed out, the catalyst for this particular ACE update is doubtless the ongoing humanitarian crisis in occupied Palestine and the urgent moral imperative for artists to speak out against Israeli apartheid. It signals a desperate attempt to regain control of the mainstream pro-Israeli narrative, and to quell – or if not to quell, at least to silence – pro-Palestinian support through the backchannel of arts and culture.

Fewer commentators have made the link between ACE's update and the government's recently announced changes to the Criminal Justice Bill (8th Feb). The Bill further empowers police and criminalises protesters. Under new legislation protesters who cover their face can now be arrested and may face charges of up to £1000 or months in prison. Demonstrators will no longer be able to cite the right to protest in defence of peaceful direct actions such as roadblocks, lock-ons or sit-ins; police are now empowered to stop and search protesters for items such as padlocks and superglue, if – and I quote – they “suspect they are setting out to cause chaos”. I would argue that restricting freedom of political expression through the arts is the other half of a pincer manoeuvre designed to crush both direct and indirect forms of dissent. We should all be deeply troubled by this.

I would also add that hostility from cultural elites, governments, and funding bodies to politically committed art is hardly new. ACE et al. have nothing to gain from supporting people and projects that challenge their traditional business model; most major publishers are wary of any literature that openly and explicitly acknowledges the politics of its own oppression. A tangential and minor side-effect of the crisis in occupied Palestine is that it has brought into focus for a number of people the political basis upon which opportunities and resources within the arts and literature are awarded or withheld.

The Council's updates to its Relationship Framework policies at such a pivotal cultural moment has rendered their centrist political biases clearly and painfully visible. I feel two ways about this: on the one hand, it allows us, as cultural workers, to collectively acknowledge, name and resist a besetting unfairness. On the other, the fact that ACE felt secure enough to draft and openly announce these updates says something rather worrying about the current state of culture. While it's heartening that ACE's updates met with such spirited push-back, it's concerning that no such push-back was expected.

Class and Culture

All of this by way of preamble to the timely Class and Culture: Provocations For Cultural Democracy, which is an accessible, galvanising, sometimes fascinating exploration of culture, not merely as the medium through which the work of ideology flows, but as a vital, joy-giving force in the lives of working-class people, and as a potential site of radical resistance. As Mike Quille rightly points out in Creating Cultural Democracy, cultural production of all kinds provides a way of bringing people together and offers a place to 'imagine alternatives'. Which is, of course, why elites want us nowhere near it.

Of the ten areas covered in Class and Culture, my first port of call was Poetry Matters by Kevin Patrick McCann, which outlines not only the way in which working-class people are excluded from access to poetry, but also the methods by which working-class poets are assimilated, de-fanged, and tokenised. As McCann pithily puts it:

You can be a rebel and attack glaring injustices; just don't attack the real causes of those injustices. For example, you can attack racism as long as you don't make the connection between racism and the class system.

I've recently had a real window into how arts organisations laud representational triumphs in areas of gender, sexuality, and race, while ignoring the deep systemic (class-based) inequalities that create (and are inherent and structural features of) sexism, racism and homophobia. It suits elite institutions to position “otherness” as an identity category tied to marketable forms of visible difference, as opposed to challenging the structural production of otherness by and through the class system.

McCann's essay rightly points out how a representational model of inclusion allows institutions to nobble the political effectiveness of individual poets via awards and opportunities. This tactic allows organisations to pay lip service to the idea of diversity by granting limited participation for some inside of the systems that oppress us. It tricks us into thinking that the expansion of those systems to include more of us is a victory, when we would all be better served by working towards their destruction. As the recipient of such an award you serve a double purpose: in the first instance you function as a rebuttal to accusations of institutional inequality. The organisation in question can't be racist/ sexist/ homophobic/ classist because look at the black/ female/ queer/ working-class poet they just gave that grant to!

These are not cheerful thoughts, but the essay contains much enlivening material. Drawing on his vast experience as a teacher in a variety of contexts, McCann offers a persuasive and moving account of the transformational power of poetry in the lives of marginalised people. A key theme in this essay is how simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary poetry is. It is ordinary in that it springs out of everyday experience, and extraordinary in that allows for the authorship and articulation of that experience – often for the first time. McCann's contention is not that poetry provides a catharsis which allows people to endure the unendurable. Rather, that it creates the space and the language in which to resist the unendurable, to put into words both our grievances and our grief. In schools, in community centres, and in prisons, it has the potential to restore dignity and voice to the voiceless.

McCann contrasts the innate radicalism of poetry to the way in which it is often taught in schools, where successive generations of Tory “reforms” have routinised and shrunk the teaching of poetry to a loveless conveyor-belt curriculum where students are rewarded for the relentless memorising of disconnected facts, and discouraged from developing any kind of lively or critical conversation with and about literature. One of the things that's so great about McCann's essay is that it exposes the ideological basis behind this marginalisation of poetry in education. How it is used to demean and replace the lively and various languages of working-class people with that of their oppressors; how it limits and controls through language what can be thought, and thus robs us of a sense of our own history, our own traditions, aesthetics and identity; and how it confirms the lie that poetry is not for us, is the solely the fruit of middle-class literary production.

McCann's essay contains practical suggestions for countering this theft of art and culture through mutuality and cooperation towards an alternative socialist media, which highlights both the need for and effectiveness of grassroots networks of poets and poetry organisations. This feels significant at a time when the arts – and poetry in particular – is being forced to conform to the logics of the marketplace. An ever greater number of us compete for fewer opportunities, as budgets are slashed, funding withdrawn, and jobs are cut. This essay shows how we might build foundational solidarities upon which to grow an alternative publishing culture. But the essay also makes a pressing case for the need for financial support, and for that to happen organisations such as trade unions and the TUC must recognise the cultural front as not merely a minor or secondary site of struggle, but central to the building of a fairer society.

The mediocrity of millions

I found McCann's essay paired perfectly with Scott Alsworth's Reclaiming Literature, which I read immediately afterwards. Alsworth exposes the mechanisms through which literature has become increasingly marketised. This marketisation permeates every stage of the process, from craft (the formal and thematic choices an author makes, and what guides them) through to publication and promotion. Again, this was an essay that struck a profound chord with me, having seen from up-close the corporate shenanigans he identifies play out in real time. Like McCann, Alsworth is a rousing writer, and his observations have real bite:

Today's bestsellers, with a few noteworthy exceptions, are a pulp testimony to the mediocrity of millions. Literary fame is often engineered.

One of the most disheartening things about being a working-class writer within elite literary space is the realisation that you are beholden to chance – and to whims and trends you have no hope of influencing – in a way that your middle-class peers cannot and will never understand. Literary success is not a meritocracy, but a lottery. If you cannot or will not submit to the operating logics of the marketplace, then “success” inside that system becomes vanishingly unlikely. As a practical for instance, I frequently have conversations with horrified students who cannot conceive of a career path that doesn't involve a literary agent. I've had occasion to be frustrated, watching young, middle-class people attempt to leap-frog the stages myself and other working-class writers had to grind through so painfully; getting their collection in front of publishers before they'd submitted to more than a handful of magazines, or honed their craft as an open-mic reader. We inhabit a literary culture marked by incestuousness and nepotism; working-class presses often have zero distribution, no funding, no hype, and no connections to leverage. We're forced to take the long way round, which costs us an enormous amount of extra, invisible labour.

How heartening, then, to read Alsworth writing that 'Great ideas don't die' and exhorting us to 'reclaim the creative high-ground', to remember that 'some of the greatest writers in this country have been card-holding communists.' and that 'Ours is a proud cultural legacy, and it's one we can leverage'.

This idea of an alternative communist tradition of literature feels important. It is a reminder that we are not, in fact, powerless; that the game can be played by an entirely other set of rules. Alsworth has useful suggestions for building and strengthening our own coterie of writers: I like the idea of a communist journal of creative writing, but I'm also very taken with his and McCann's notion of accessible workshops and lectures from left-leaning practitioners and academics. It seems that teaching is at the core of developing a strong, active communist literature.

What would happen, I wonder, if were able to make available, not just creative writing workshops that dealt with the nuts and bolts of participants' writing, but short lectures on pivotal figures within our own radical literary traditions? What about online communist reading groups, teaching ways of looking at text, and reclaiming them from the often arid and ahistorical tedium of the classroom? I'm getting ahead of myself, but both essays contain exciting provocations that certainly deserve further conversation.

The radical potential of video games

Having quickly exhausted my area of expertise I moved off into more unfamiliar territory, sticking with Alsworth, who's writing I find immensely engaging, and who turns his attention to the virtual/ digital world in A Virtual World to Win. As an outsider to the sphere of gaming, this essay contained much that was new and surprising to me, not least gaming's originating and ongoing link with the military-industrial complex, via the US Department of Defence in ways that eerily echo Hollywood's relationship with the same. Alsworth writes about the exploitation of games industry workers, but also about the direct and indirect militarisation of video games, and their increasingly worrying status as vehicles for neoliberal – particularly anti-Marxist – ideology.

This is a grounded essay, rooted in deep insider knowledge and a clear love of the genre. It usefully triangulates political ideology, economics, and creative cultural output, bringing into focus the causal relationships between the dominant (capitalist) ideology, the conditions of the workplace, and the creative decisions of the studios. It also does much to convincingly highlight the radical potential of video games, an active and interactive art-form with the power to stimulate ethical engagement, but which is currently being hijacked, diverted and distorted along commercial and politically dubious lines.

What I found especially interesting, however, was the note of hope this essay sounded, citing the strides being made by cooperative studios to model alternative forms of work that have relevance outside the gaming industry as well as within it; I was excited to read about the activism of the Games Workers Union to open the way for a combined, collaborative pooling of skills in order to 'establish at least one video games studio, run as a workers' collective for peace and socialism'. The message is very much that the tools are already at our disposal, it only remains for us to seize them.

Precarity in the creative industries

The other essay in the pamphlet that really spoke to me was Ben Lunn's Arts Funding In Britain For Classical Music, which sounds dry, but is in fact an incisive case study on inequality of access and provision across the UK. More than this, it shows how the same funding bodies hijack and repurpose the language of 'anti-elitism' to their own ends, using it to justify closures and cuts to struggling projects and institutions – Lunn cites both Glyndebourne and Britten Sinfonia (which recently lost the entirety of its NPO funding) as examples of this 'insidious' tendency (Lunn's word, but an entirely appropriate one, I think). Lunn cares passionately about classical music, and the desire to restore to working-class people an aspect of cultural production from which they have been disinherited is clearly a powerful driving force in this essay.

While the essay maintains a detail-oriented focus on classical music throughout, Lunn's conclusions have far-reaching implications across the arts. One point that particularly struck me was the need for equality of access to education across the regions, and to 'a variety of idioms, aesthetics, styles and sensibilities'. This last feels especially significant to me, having witnessed firsthand the shoehorning of working-class creativity into one or two narrowly predetermined forms. Full cultural participation means a free choice from a range of options, not selectively editing which art forms are for poor and working-class people, and which are beyond the scope of our enjoyment or understanding.

Lunn also rightly calls for more fully contracted work that protects those working in the cultural industries. Again, there's not a working-class creative practitioner alive who would argue with that, working, as we tend to, at least one none-creative job to make ends meet. And name me one other sector where (true story) you are paid “if possible” at the end of April for a job you did at the beginning of March. The precarity of creative (and academic) jobs, the cost-of-living crisis, the continued utilities and rent hikes all contribute to our having to prioritise stable, paid work, effectively excluding us from and exhausting us for the practice of our art. This situation needs to be redressed urgently.

Lunn's other major contention is that any future vision for the arts needs to be led by artists and not by “arts managers”, who are guided by financial as opposed to artistic concerns. Again, I read in this a call to leverage the knowledge we already possess as artists, activists and workers and take control of our own cultural production.

Marxist approaches to the cinema and television

While I enjoyed Nathan Le-Bas' People's Modernism: A Marxist Approach to Cinema I would have welcomed perhaps a companion essay, looking at the visual culture of contemporary cinema, and reflecting on the position of cultural workers within the industry. How do the big studios co-opt the visual language and thematic concerns of dissenting cultures and social justice movements, only to reduce them to empty tropes? How does the narrative message of much neoliberal cinema sit awkwardly with many its employment practices – I'm thinking particularly here about the language of “empowerment”? I'd have been interested to read something along those lines too. Le-Bas' essay offers us a template for critically engaging with the history and language of the cinema; it reinvigorates a Marxist method of reading cultural texts that is in itself valuable, but I do think it would be greatly enhanced by a sister essay covering a few or more of the topics I just mentioned.

Similarly, Brent Cutler's piece, A Marxist Critique of Television left me wanting more. Cutler absolutely nails the increasingly negative portrayal of left-leaning (let alone communist) causes and characters in both drama and documentary strands of mainstream television. I have also been greatly troubled by this. In drama, communism is often presented as – at best – an anachronistic class-war agenda that detracts from neoliberal identitarian struggles such as the oppression of women or of black people. Never mind (once more with feeling) that racism and sexism are inherent and structural features of the class system and vis-versa.

My most uncomfortable brush with this tendency came while watching ITV's heavily fictionalised biopic of Kim Philby called A Spy Amongst Friends, where their ordinary-woman insert character was used to hammer home the message – with all the subtlety of a lump hammer – that you don't need communism because you can apply to join the system that abuses you and change it slowly from the inside over a period of decades, and all it will cost you is a lifetime's dedication to a soul-destroying corporate and political structure that hates you. This is presented as some kind of fabulous victory. I digress, but Cutler's essay is sharp on how ideology shapes narrative in line with neoliberal/ capitalist ideology and aspirations, and he rightly holds up the BBC's recent output for special criticism in this regard.

What's missing, however, is an account of the socialist creatives currently working in television who do amazing work. How effective are they at pushing back against this trend? To what extent have they been co-opted, compromised or tokenised by the system in which they work? Where can we go to find truly positive representations of working-class people and of communists?

It was also striking that the essay included no mention of the proliferation of (predominantly American) streaming services, and how this shapes engagement with and expectations of mainstream television. Do we take our lead from popular American TV shows, and does this slant narrative bias toward a neoliberal consensus? Is there a perception that older (thus supposedly more conservative) people are the only ones watching mainstream/ terrestrial television, and how does this influence thematic and narrative content? Finally, I'd also have been interested to read something about the role television plays in either opening the past to greater scrutiny, or in creating revisionist versions of our history in line with current centre-right mores. It's sound stuff, I just wish there was more of it!

The heart of a heartless world

James Crossley tackles the often thorny issue of spirituality in Religion and Culture, and I read this piece with great interest, especially as a current project of Culture Matters is a collection of poems on the insurrectionary nature of Christ's teaching, and the radical (revolutionary) love espoused by Christ and Mary Magdalene. I came to this essay hoping to be inspired.

And mostly I was. Crossley does a great job of teasing apart the way organised religion in particular has been used by elites to advance or obfuscate various political agendas, and I found myself nodding vigorously to this passage in particular:

It's in the interests of the ruling class to stress religious motivations for acts of terror (usually worded in terms of a 'perversion of Islam' or the like) at the expense of discussing the complexity of causes. This is because a primary focus on 'perverted' forms of religious motivation avoids implicating the actions of the ruling class.

While Crossley cites the example of radical Islam, this tactic is achingly familiar to me from the conflict in the North of Ireland, which even now is frequently presented in purely religious and sectarian terms. Crossley also writes with great clarity about how religion had been harnessed towards both reactionary and progressive ends, and he quotes one of my favourite passages of Marx, writing that religious suffering can be:

…the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

I was happy to read this passage in full. Often it is abbreviated to that last sentence alone, which is then misapplied to heap scorn on the spiritual aspirations of poor and working-class people. This is not what Marx meant. Rather, as Crossley writes, religion in a heartless world can represent a search and a striving for something better; religion points to a pressing need to 'understand the material conditions which give rise to its role'.

I certainly endorse the suggestion at the end of the essay to bolster and continue a lively critical discourse around religion and the way in which it is used to mobilise support and to justify the political decisions of various regimes. If anything, I feel this point might have been made with even greater force, given the rise of an increasingly intolerant, increasingly empowered religious right in both America and Europe. I also agree that it's time to acknowledge and promote the progressive role religion has played in shaping British history, but again this feels more pressing and potentially valuable than the essay gives credit for, especially given how many of our earliest radical and dissenting communities grew out of religious movements. Somewhere down the road I'd love to see a practical discussion about how we might bring this kind of education into schools and social/ community spaces.

Something else I thought might be useful for future discussion is the rise of various online wellness brands and spirituality/health gurus. I've been particularly struck over the last five years or so, by the ways in which these charlatans link spiritual seeking to the neoliberal cult of self-improvement via the worst aspects of predatory capitalism. Clearly, there is an unmet spiritual need, particularly amongst young women. I've been thinking a lot lately about the kinds of socialist fellowship that might offer an appealing alternative.

The economic, political and cultural struggles

Finally, with all these different thoughts swirling in my head I returned to the essays Misinformed: Monopoly Press and Bourgeois Hegemony by Alan McGuire and the final piece Culture Matters to State Monopoly Capitalism by Ron Brown, both of which are needle-sharp on exposing the nuts and bolts of ideological manipulation through various media channels, and offering practical suggestions to resist and counter these manipulations. What is heartening in both essays is that resistance is based upon mutual support across three key fronts – economic, political, and cultural – and builds on work already underway to recognise and integrate the cultural field into the struggle more broadly. While these essays provide a sense of the work still to do, they also offer encouragement in acknowledging how far we have come.

And that's where I'll leave things, for now. To sum up, 'provocations' feels like the most useful word here: while there are some areas that seem to beg further, deeper, more detail-oriented discussion, and while I would have welcomed more women's voices/ perspectives, what the pamphlet does provide is useful, timely and energising. All in all, it’s a great base to build on.


We're back, baby! Rebel Admin and other poetry @ Centrala, Birmingham
Friday, 23 February 2024 10:46

We're back, baby! Rebel Admin and other poetry @ Centrala, Birmingham

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters was back at Centrala in Digbeth on the 9th February 2024, to celebrate the launch of Al Hutchins' stonking cerebral masterwork, Rebel Admin (Culture Matters, 2023), to revel in the wealth and diversity of working-class literary talent in the West Midlands, and to raise money for MAP and the urgent humanitarian crisis in occupied Gaza.

The Rebel Reading marked our second visit to Centrala, the first being the launch of our (massive) anthology of radical writing about poverty, The Cry of the Poor, in January 2022. It felt good to be back in Digbeth, a place with a long and layered industrial heritage, and with profound links to various working-class diaspora communities. It felt good to be back at Centrala, itself founded to foster inclusion and well-being for Central and Eastern European migrant communities, and using culture and the arts to promote respect, cohesion, exchange and understanding. Suffice to say, we love their ethos and their mission. We also love the human face of that mission, which is always professional, accommodating and comfortable, for performers and audience alike.

And there was a dog. A truly adorable wee dog.

It was an even greater pleasure to welcome back to the space various Culture Matters contributors past, present, and (hopefully) future, including a number of those with work featured in The Cry of the Poor. These readers came to lend their support for Rebel Admin, and to whet the assembled appetite for what was to come. It was a beautiful expression of writerly solidarity, but what struck me the most about those short performances was that none of them felt cursory or forgettable; each writer gave a unique reading with its own strong vocal identity and style, expressing different but related thematic concerns surrounding inequality, social justice, interior landscapes and embodied experience.

The Cry of the Poor cover resized

Our first scheduled performer, Richard Arkwright, was unable to be with us due to illness, so I gamely attempted to do his poem, Stallion, justice. This was a poem in which the central conceit is richly and  rhythmically realised, with a restless cantering line and many surprising images and turns of phrase. While the horse figures for various often volatile aspects of the speaker's psyche, what I thought was particularly impressive was how the sheer physicality of the animal came across in the work. It was a joy to read out loud, and a great opener for the evening ahead.

Our second reader was Sarah Barrington, who joined the bill later in the day, but nonetheless gave a memorable and consummate performance. Sarah's piece was a performative character poem in the voice of Henry Miller's younger sister Lauretta, a figure largely erased from history or treated as a biographical footnote in the story of her more famous older brother. When she appears at all, Lauretta is often cursorily and vaguely described as “mentally impaired”. Barrington's poem resuscitates and channels this figure with uncanny facility. Lauretta's speech is plain-spoken, but absolutely precise. Through this poetic persona Barrington interrogates the casual erasure of women by men from literary cannons, intellectual life, and from hierarchies of importance and meaning.

James O'Brien was our third reader for the evening, this time from his the up-coming collection The Lucky Last at the Terminal of the Dead. These poems are characterised by incisive syntax that generates its own urgent rhythm; they are frighteningly exact in their portrayal of human devastation, and language itself is often riven and forced into strange, sharp conjunctions. The result is that the entanglement of social and linguistic systems are exposed together. These are intelligent, uneasy poems that demand your attention.

Duncan Jones was our fourth reader, sharing poetry that occupies some similar thematic territory to that of James O'Brien, but that is marked by a rich lyric sensibility that works in pleasing and arresting contrast to  those darker preoccupations. These poems excel in moments of intense focus; in acute observation of minute detail. They are also full humour, delivered with seeming-ease and openness. They leave a reflective mood in their wake.

Alisha Kadir read next, and brought poems with a strong musical and performative dimension. I have seen Alisha Kadir perform a few times now and I am always impressed by her charismatic and engaging delivery. More than this, her poems have grown and grown in their development of an idiosyncratic voice, full of sonic riffs, word-play, and verbal dexterity. These poems feel like a celebration of language in the midst of political despair.

Our seventh reader was Victoria Nimmo, representing prose writing with an excerpt from a story of unusual clarity and precision. What impresses me about this piece is its ability to construct an entire human relationship through sparing dialogue and spot-on description. This is writing that is full of empathy for our fallibilities and failings; that holds us all to account without judging or moralising. A beautiful, understated and disarming reading.

Our final reader for the first half of the evening was Bobby Parker, whose work has always struck me as a great companion to Al's, abounding in haunted and haunting images, and tales of off-kilter alienation. These poems are populated by grotesqueries; a poetry collection directed by David Lynch by way of Kidderminster. What is both compelling and unsettling about these poems is how familiar these strange scenes and characters are to us. There is indeed a strain of bleak (sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful) absurdity to working-class life. These poems reminded us of that.

Time for Rebel Admin!

After a brief interval it was time to welcome Al to the stage. We'd decided beforehand that he would read the entirety of Rebel Admin, the book being a kind of powerhouse rhapsodic performance; a work – amongst other things - of surrealist lament for a loved and unlovely experience of urban working-class life. I like to think of these poems as a psycho-geographical bus journey through a parallel West Midlands, characterized by splintery or whip-quick verbal parries, and populated by unwholesome though compelling gargoyles and grotesques. It's a hallucinatory rollick through the derangement of the senses, and the audience were there for it!

Al Hutchins, a howling faggot-and-pea-fuelled visionary. Great shirt, Al! Photo: Steve Watts

In his other life, Al is frontman for the rhythm, holler and tune-mongering thing, The Courtesy Group, a band that has been lauded by the likes of John Peel, Stuart Maconie and John Cooper Clarke. Once described by Stewart Lee as a “howling faggot-and-pea-fuelled visionary” Al's writing owes much to this wildly riffing musical sensibility, both in its on-page presence, its eccentric line, and its propulsive, pulsing rhythm-driven delivery.

For those as yet unfamiliar with the magisterial Courtesy Group, I'd describe their sound as an omnivorous post-punk hybrid somewhere between The Cardiacs and the Fall, via Samuel Beckett and the Theatre of the Absurd. Here's a link to one my favourite tracks. I hope you're as delightfully bewildered as I was.

I'd suggest that the thread of continuity between Rebel Admin and The Courtesy Group is Al's intuitive grasp of how words and phrases fit together, combined with his steely determination to unmake and remake those words and phrases in a variety of inventive and violent ways. This unmaking is used to achieve a range of expressive effects, from the disorienting, through the frightening, to the hilarious. And back again. But these are not idle experiments or pretentious over-intellectualised games; these manoeuvres are underpinned by an understanding that language is not a neutral instrument, that speech is never an apolitical act. Rebel Admin sees Al chuck a spanner in the language systems that pre-exist and govern every aspect of our lives. And this spanner chucking takes place with maniac gusto.

The performance at Centrala was an unnerving and enthralling experience, with Al embodying the poems' kinetic energy by pacing, prowling and striding around the space. As different characters emerged – each with their own tics of accent and grammar – it was a little like watching a spirit medium. Delivery oscillated between the absolutely deadpan and the big, vaudeville-style expression. It's a testament to Al's power as a performer that he could sustain a long reading and keep it so relentlessly fresh and surprising. That's very different to being on stage with a band. Even as a solo artist, the music carries some of that weight, gives you somewhere to hide. With poetry, you have only the words to rely on; you are much more vulnerable and exposed. Al used this vulnerability to great advantage, creating moments of powerful stillness within the performance, as when he read the elegy 'Helicopter', opening up an unexpected space of pause, reflection, tenderness and solidarity.

Photo: Fran Lock

If you couldn't tell, I think Rebel Admin is a special collection of poems. I would say that, of course, although I am not the only one. It does the heart good to think the book is slowly, quietly gaining traction. Jim Crace recently described the book as 'fascinating. And unique', suggesting that 'meaning is a very slow reveal. In fact, I'm tempted to think that the strength of the poems – or is that lyrics? – is their “freedom from meaning”. [...] sort of speaking in tongues and in a state of unfettered, troubled phrenzy. These are caverns measureless to man, rather than stately pleasure domes. All of which feels accurate. I would add that “freedom from meaning” isn't an absence of meaning, rather it signals a revolt from the sanctioned habits of literary meaning-making, and the several political tyrannies that underpin them. These poems' special gift in fact is that they relish the fugitive and escapist potentials of poetry, while simultaneously using the poems to expose the traps and snares of language.

They're also just bloody good fun.

Speaking of fun: what's next for Culture Matters' Travelling Circus? Hopefully more regional events to celebrate our recent and forthcoming releases. Stay tuned for events connected to the other collections in our pamphlet series: The Haunting: Deleted Scenes, by Kevin Patrick McCann, and Machine / Language by Martin Hayes. With more to come this year. We'll also be hosting events for A Brief and Biased History of Love by Alan Humm, and other Culture Matters titles. Stay tuned for that!

Our event at Centrala was a huge success. We raised £150 for Medical Aid for Palestinians, a charity we continue to support through sales of our latest release, Testament / Sajél, by Farid Bitar. 50 % of proceeds from the sale of this resonant book will go to MAP. We are happy to give, but as many of our readers know, this is not a drop in the ocean for us. We publish books on the thinnest of possible shoestrings and most of the work we undertake – writing, reviewing, editing, promoting, etc. – is done on an entirely voluntary basis. Which brings me to...

If you would like to see more Culture Matters books, events and workshops, whether that's online, locally, nationally, or internationally, then we urgently need donations. If you can give, then that would be greatly appreciated. Even better, buy some books, show the poets some love! But if you can't, please consider sharing the link to our donation page via your own social media. Or maybe you'd like to review a book, help build our audience? However you can, please support our commitment to the cultural struggle for a fairer society, and to a celebration of working-class talent, by making a donation here. And  Rebel Admin can be purchased here!

And you can watch Al's inspired reading here.....

Dwell Time, by Tom Branfoot
Thursday, 08 February 2024 20:37

Dwell Time, by Tom Branfoot

Published in Poetry

Introduction to 'Dwell Time' by Tom Branfoot, Poet in Residence at Manchester Cathedral – see attached pdf

By Fran Lock

The idea of 'dwelling' as homely habitation is a relatively modern one. In Old English 'dwellan' is not to inhabit, but to mislead, to lead astray. By the Middle Ages, this sense of the word had skewed, it came to mean to linger lost, to delay, to doubt, to tarry. There are notions of folly and obscurity in it. It's a vexed word for a vexed condition, and an apt title for a poem that both strays and halts across thresholds of habitation: bodily, political, psychic, and ecological.

From the first stanza the poem uses the buried valences of words to interrogate the hidden violence of mundane economic practice. While 'rent' is the money due to landlords, it is also to 'pull to pieces, lacerate, wrench'. This latter meaning exists in a profound causal relationship to the former; haunts and inhabits it. The consequence of rent is rending. How is the speaker to write, or indeed to live, to constitute a sense of self, when they have no place, no centre and no substance? The poem demands that we think about that; that  precarity refers not merely to our status in the “job market”, our place on the “property ladder”, but to our very purchase on the real. We are accustomed to thinking about trauma as a violent event that shatters time itself into wounded multiplicities. But supposing trauma were not an event, but a process? Supposing that process was capitalism? Supposing that process was class? Branfoot's poem leads us (astray) into a space of acute emotional dismemberment; into the trauma-time of late capitalist habitation.

Disorientation and dislocation

Accordingly, the poem takes risks with continuity, lineation, structure, syntax, and punctuation, performing the very disruption it describes: 'a place/  to live there is a wound with world lodged in it'. Here, the lack of punctuation signals to disorientation, both the speaker's and our own. More than this, it gives us a deeper dislocation in (and of) the world, which itself is 'lodged' – both stuck and precariously habituated – inside the all-encompassing wound. This notion of the wound feels significant: the poem does not merely present us with an itemised list of damages – or 'wounds' plural – dealt to psyches, bodies or biospheres from the outside. No. Instead we are inside the wound. It is a total reality in which are equally enmeshed and equally complicit.

There is a disturbing interplay between the second and third stanza. In the second, the speaker begins an anxious interrogative of their own value-form: what they ought to have 'done', what they do and do not 'deserve,' a list including but not limited to a home, a body, a job, care, physical and mental health. This stanza gives us capitalism's 'psychopathy of worth': the urgent necessity and absolute impossibility of 'feeling valued' in a society that endlessly accounts for value on purely instrumental terms. These fucked metrics form a closed circuit, an imaginative (as well as physical, emotional, and literal) colonisation; they bleed across the blank space of the page into the left-lineated downtime of the speaker's resting, dreaming life. In this stanza, hallucinatory lyric lines are viciously intercut by the language and effects of disaster capitalism, so that 'mouth wood sorrel-wet from moon-licking during/ a heatwave' and 'trade the human for hazel, siskin and long dappled grass' sit uneasily beside 'the wheels of commerce', 'agribusiness', 'rent and wildfires', each a kind of commonplace, the dull percussive thud of daily life, rendered all the more depressing for the sinuous and sensual lyric flex they interrupt. In this stanza we are reminded that the exact opposite of 'pilgrim' is 'worker', an identity that leaves both wandering and wondering painfully curtailed.

This third stanza stayed with me. I am haunted by the speaker's futile attempts to 'close the blinds' on war and other 'depredations'; where the invasion and occupation of land entails a secondary invasion and occupation – of attention, an echo and an after-burn of violence. The poem shows us how are pendulum swings between states of exhaustion and recovery, where work (and money) has become the limit and the definition of our reality. We experience this reality as waves of force, inundated and overwhelmed. It has become something that happens to us, something we shrink from, seek to shut out, are unable to either withstand nor to change.

Pollen, pollutants and pesticides

Moving into the fourth stanza we come to understand that the speaker's body is the first (perhaps best) barometer of this wrongness. By this point it has been variously hungover, nauseous, allergic and vomiting. This is an appropriately dense stanza. It gives us an attention not merely distracted but congested: 'aviaries' are downloaded into phones. We might assume that this is a reference to the social media platform formally known as Twitter, but the line nonetheless supplies us with an irresistible image of technologically mediated nature, flattened and condensed into morsels of content. Meanwhile, abused and distressed nature wreaks vengeful havocs on the body that vomits up 'a hurricane of pollen', registering (without explicitly acknowledging) pollutants, pesticides, and seasons out of whack. This stanza opens strangely, with 'two men' who 'sit with an ashtray/ the size of a plate/ and an ecological disaster between them'. This image of excess queasily unites the idea of carcinogens with that of food, and reminds us that under capitalism it is perfectly possible to be nourished and sickened by the same source. The gigantic ashtray also makes the smoke-congested lung metonymic for the cinerary sky of fume-choked or burning England. If nothing else, it is proof that our coping mechanisms are killing us.

Something else that struck me about this stanza was that the speaker's journey was not in any sense idle. They are offered no place of pause or reprieve outside the demands of the capitalist system. Technologies vie for their/ our attention, and the presence of revenue inspectors constantly re-tune our thoughts towards money. The speaker is crushed into their routine: 'same/ seat, at the same time/ every day on my commute/ fixed as a data point/ the conductor accosts my living'. The echo here of 'cost of living' – as in the hoary old “cost of living crisis” – is sharp, an ambient hum of anxiety that embeds itself in language.

The fifth stanza mis-sequences time. It invites us to imagine a collapse, where the detritus of  neoliberal culture become the relics and the evidence by which the future (although we are left in some doubt as to what future) will accuse us. This stanza seems to zero-in on what generations of indigenous people have always already known: the disaster has happened, this is the aftermath, the wreckage. Capitalism was and is the apocalypse. This is a difficult stanza, moving between particular and personal grief, and the strange future-conditional grief of ecological devastation so often experienced by those in the West.  There is also a grief not for life but for life-ways, the pain that comes from inhabiting the 'aftermath of free will', a destruction so total that it has foreclosed even the possibility of imagining an otherwise. Here 'friends' are 'fossilised in debt'. This is a brutal line. It concretises both the immobilising nature of poverty, and its potential lethality, linking it to notions of extinction and to deep, immovable time. The speaker is depressed, and confides that they wish to 'rot in bed' most days. A sane response, and not merely an apathetic one, but one that contains a yearning to re-enter the slow-time of nature, to rejoin the nonhuman commons by any means – any process – necessary, up to and including that of decay. To 'fossilise' something is to preserve it, trap its course. To 'rot' is to compost down amongst a teeming multitude. There is an idea of healing in it, and connection. How can we grieve if we are stuck in the moment of trauma? Arrested and suspended inside an endlessly repeating now?

Hangovers, houses and hurricanes

In the sixth and final stanza images from the preceding stanzas return but re(dis)ordered so that hangovers, aviaries, houses and hurricanes are whirled together, performing both the skewed and slipping time of trauma, and the endless, arbitrary stream of undifferentiated data that marks our tech-dependent cultural moment. It is striking that at the start of the stanza the speaker's 'work-issued therapist links/ nausea and vomiting to a traumatic/ event a few mothers ago'. The speaker goes on to suggest that the therapist is wrong: suppose their malaise were not neatly specific but sprawlingly general? An amorphous ecological and economic anxiety, rooted in 'fiscal deviance/ plastic haunting my digestive tract' and generating its own rebellious symptomatology.  The body, of course, remembers what capitalism does its best to suppress: that we are nature, and the harms inflicted against nature therefore inflict ourselves.

This final stanza also nails capitalism's creepy privatisation of “care”. The reader can't help but feel that 'work-issued therapist' ought to be a contradiction in terms. It's a phrase that transforms the therapeutic encounter into a purely instrumental one, and the therapist themselves into a tool. The end goal of 'work-issued' therapy is not health but functionality: for the speaker to operate successfully as a productive worker, model citizen, and consumer subject. If the job of therapy is to allow us to accept an intolerable, life-denying situation; to frame as individual pathologies, social and political problems, then is it worthy of the name?

More to the point, what else is there? How should we dwell within the now that capitalism has produced, a place we can neither deny nor accept? This poem does not offer any easy answers to this question, but it does offer us a space in which to sit with unease they generate. The poem is also a place, and it invites us to be with/ within it.

How and when the body collapses
Saturday, 23 September 2023 10:48

How and when the body collapses

Published in Poetry

How and when the body collapses

by Fran Lock

/ there's a breach in the breath.
/ in that which surrounds and circulates.
/ in the warm gulf between neighbourhood and nation.
/ in the weak procedurals of harm.
/ between sluggish cells and excited atoms.
/ we are nourished and sickened from the same source.
/ this era of machines, their overtures and operatics.
/ the fury that is broached inside a moan.
/ england, imposing its failed grace all over us.
/ the school-room sags, forlornly totalled.
/ money, in its hoarder's hood, its useless furl of numbers.
/ us stink-eye pillicocked violently.
/ or not-money. i sew the unspoken up in me. stupidity will be insufferable, itemised.
/ you can declare war on a country, but you do war on a people.
/ between the declaration and the doing, mouths will be abscessed with obedience. the palpitant vowel is buckled into tantrum.
/ going o! o! o! o!
/ much good will it do us.
/ eyes, averted and impeded. or turned toward the shaved blue of the atmosphere.
/ which itself is dying.
/ and still, these desperate bellows. bruisewort, soapwort, comfrey. their mantles of soft lather.
/ soak up the rosary words for such beauty, sealing the wound with a sweet green wax.
/ understand, us is the enemy. wash us neverbody out.
/ us words profaning the purpose of print. exhaustions they will screw us down inside of.
/ salaried carnivores, eating us kids into dutiful crew-cuts.
/ black crepe. black cap. wooton fucking bassett.
/ it is war.
/ inside of war. burning consensus of sinews.
/ breaks the arm in three places to improvise salute.
/ bend back on usselves in crude, circular obeisance.
/ rank and cavalry. infantries and troops. troupe of exorbitant woe. these minstrels of dull affray.
/ the kid in the advert is poor.
/ the kid in the advert is poor and bored.
/ the kid is going nowhere. on a scooter. in his circlet of downward potential.
/ the recruiter's crook. to bag him in the patent pocket of manhood.
/ the elastic and deodorizing pouch of manhood.
/ the rubberised, suction-sealed canopy of manhood.
/ the fifteen million plastic bags of manhood.
/ with lightweight webbing handles to facilitate lifting.
/ in a leaky wallet of waxed canvas where spills his manhood.
/ recruiters on the corner, and all my swearwords have deserted me.
/ this bailiff's gang. back-thumpers of bad faith. the mean and furtive eyes of funeral mutes.
/ who set the snare?
/ who tightened this town around his one way out?
/ there's a breach in the breath.
/ fanfare survivalists. toy fists bumping up and down.
/ my chest hurts. compassion's impossible monody.
/ they scoop up our children with both hands. like pebbles. like pellets of bread.

The Burning Hope
Thursday, 14 September 2023 17:42

Igniting the Fire: Poetry and Keeping Hope Alive

Published in Poetry

I began writing this quarterly column looking for reasons to stay ‘hopeful’, whatever that means. I used to know. Or else, I thought I did: something like Gramsci's riff on Romain Rolland: ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.’ Which is not merely a clear-eyed understanding of how bad things are, but an acknowledgement that the conditions for revolutionary change do not yet exist. Such change, for Gramsci, could only be brought about through organised, disciplined action. Specifically, through the vanguard party seeking to establish a workers' state. Obviously, this is not within the scope of our daily lives, but we can still find inspiration in the fact that Gramsci's ‘hope’ – like our ‘solidarity’– is a verb and not a noun. It exists only in its active expression.

This is what I and others lose sight of at times: this sense of hope as something we do and not something we feel. We have given up the idea of hope as purposeful, collective action. We have been looking for the wrong things in the wrong place. We should be seeking, not reasons to be hopeful, but ways of being hopeful. This realisation is potentially significant: it allows us to see how the notion of hope has been co-opted by various neoliberal forces as a means of discouraging action in the face of oppression. If hope is neutered from its intended action-oriented nature, then it becomes individualistic and passive, an adult form of wishful thinking, an ongoing distraction from the work we are called to do. The more I sit with this thought, the more I see the rebranding of hope as supremely tactical, part of a pincer manoeuvre that attempts to deny poor and working-class people the experience of hope through the twin levers of destruction and appropriation.

Robbed of hope

In the first instance, we are robbed of our capacity to hope, to imagine a future with us in it. Hope is destroyed by an all-pervasive inequality of access, opportunity and provision; our oppressions are daily, multiple, and utterly exhausting, so much so that they seem absolute and inescapable. We are so consumed with the work of daily survival that our strength is too sapped for anything else. In the second instance, our hope is diverted into self-transcending narratives of ultimate ‘success’. Hope is repurposed as idle escape fantasy, or the cut-throat hustle to rise above our class. Such narratives are as popular as they are insidious: they paint achieving change – especially economic change, and especially as it concentrates within individual lives – as the sole motivator for working towards change. No value is placed on common struggle, no credence is given to the generational and on-going nature of hope. Rather, hope becomes a closed circuit: a privatised end, not an open, collective means.

Aaron Kent's poem ‘A Collective Noun is a Hostile State’ takes this tendency fiercely and directly to task. It does so in a number of ways, most potently by collapsing the seemingly intangible political forces that govern our lives with the injured sick and suffering bodies they act upon, suggesting that these forces may also be shattered ‘like glass, like kneecaps, like dreams’.

The poem is delivered in four terse tercets. Each stanza contains some kind of bodily emanation or contortion, and each contains the threat of violence or collapse. Yet I found the most compelling stanza to be the almost whimsical and least overtly violent second one. It is the only stanza in which the poem's speaker is a tangible presence; this lyric ‘I’ announces itself, it seems, to undercut precisely its own importance in contrast with the collective, both contingent and historical. The speaker's opening gambit is ‘I have nothing to offer besides’ and they go on to list their meagre contributions: ‘cover for/ shoplifters’, ‘excuses for [Guy] Fawkes’, and weirdly ‘pirouettes for smoking ballerinas’. Each offering emphasises the marginal, futile, or non-serious nature of the speaker's contribution; this stands in stark contrast to the monolithic nature of much contemporary lyric poetry that privileges its speaking subjects as originators of profound moral and artistic insight. There is no room in Kent's poem for the exceptionalism of the individual, they are part of history's chorus line, tendering their precarious pirouettes.

In the third stanza I am struck by the brilliantly alliterative ‘clusterfuck/ of fences’ and by the idea of ‘a haemoglobin swollen/ beyond the devolution of a body’, which once again merges body and the body-politic, pointing to a sickened surfeit of both consumption and suffering. This grotesquerie signals something equally morbid in our shared political organism. The final stanza suggests that if the poet's response to such sickness is prioritising (and poetically aggrandising) the self, by ‘meditating/ on a dandelion puff’ and discharging anxiety in peaceable catharsis, then such a response is, at best, inadequate. At worst, it produces a kind of ‘astigmatism of the soul’ where one sees a distorted reflection of a world made small, and where one is distorted in their turn.

A true attention to how things are – to the ‘hostile [political] state’ – would indeed require a ‘hostile state’ [of mind, of existence] not in renunciation of hope, but, as writer China Miéville  puts it, alive to the idea that:

There is hope. But for it to be real, and barbed, and tempered into a weapon, we cannot just default to it. We have to test it, subject it to the strain of appropriate near-despair. […] We need utopia, but to try to think utopia, in this world, without rage, without fury, is an indulgence we can’t afford. In the face of what is done, we cannot think utopia without hate. (The Limits of Utopia, Salvage, 2015).

In other words, hope – like anger – is an agitating energy. Its opposite is not hate, but indifference and apathy.

The poem ‘Your Life is Paused’ by Peadar O'Donoghue captures this sense of apathy and its entanglement in our social media technologies. The title and opening lines adapt the language of online streaming to highlight our enmeshment in the digital world, turning life itself into another form of arrested ‘content’. With short, deceptively simple lines, O' Donoghue is able to convey the stuck, frustrated feeling that assails us when our devices or platforms fail. The poem also creates an under-song of creeping suspicion: that our own lives are similarly suspended in digital limbo, hours lost to dull-eyed doom-scrolling.

What I think is the most significant feature of the poem is its bottomless barrel of becauses. Superficially, they resemble answers, while in reality they provide no adequate explanation or relief for the apathetic disconnect of being ‘on pause’. Instead, their very repetition generates its own well of meaninglessness into which speaker and reader alike disappear. The vaguely paternal homilies ‘Because, because, child’ and ‘Because night follows day’ sit uneasily beside references to neoliberal surveillance culture, evoking an infantilising differential in power, knowledge, and status that is as sinister as it is depressing: ‘Because we know all about you/ Because you know nothing/ about us.’

This poem got me thinking about what we mean when we talk about ‘apathy’, which is often characterised as a sense of boredom or lack, a kind of negative space. O'Donoghue's poem gives us a slightly different take. In ‘Your Life is Paused’ apathy arises from numbing inundation, from emotional burnout and attention fatigue. As with Kent's poem the lyric ‘I’ is absent, but not out of deference to the glorious, insurgent collective. Rather, ‘Your Life is Paused’ gives us the depersonalised despair of being without hope. There is a kind of generative negativity that can stimulate desire and motivate action towards change, but the horror of O'Donoghue's poem is that there is no space for such desires to seed, such intentions to form, and no community towards which the speaker can reach, only disconnected data points in an unmappable matrix of profit and carnage.

The need for solidarity

What's missing is solidarity, and the reflective space in which solidarity might be imagined into existence. What O'Donoghue's poem points to is the need for and the lack of such spaces in the lives of so many of us, but it also tenders the poem itself as one such space, however narrow and however hedged. This is also what I would like to offer: the poem as a way of being hopeful and the act of reading as a form of resistance, repair and survival.

Scott Alsworth's ‘The History of a Spear’ closes on an image of ‘an artefact, almost conquered and forgotten’, a museum piece, stripped of activating agency, inert behind perspex. What is particularly striking about this poem is that it does not merely describe the spear, but addresses it directly, endowing it with human qualities. The effect is to blur the line between the poem's addressee (the spear) and its reader, a collapse of identities signalled through the Alsworth's use of the ambiguous pronoun ‘you’. Because we feel implicated in the speaker's address, we understand that the poem is about more than the characteristics of a Bronze Age implement.

Specifically, I think the poem asks us to consider how dignity and an almost limitless potential can be eroded or rendered null over time. Across five tightly turned, unrhymed couplets, Alsworth shows us the spear shaping daily life ('Fish curling from your point') and pivotal in history (‘In Christ's side’). Crucially, we also see the long imaginative shadow the spear casts across cultures: from ‘Ron’ (the spear of King Arthur in the Welsh Arthurian legends), through ‘Gungnir’ (the spear of the Norse god, Odin), to the ‘Gáe Bulg’ (the magical spear of mortal pain belonging to the Ulster Cycle's most famous hero, Cúchulainn). In listing the spear's multiple mythical incarnations, Alsworth creates an aura of importance and richly storied symbolism around an ordinary object, used by ordinary hands. The power of these names is then swiftly undercut by the spear's current condition: trapped in ‘spells of perspex’, ‘ageing with time's flesh’. Alsworth's use of ‘spells’ feels telling. It points to a warning that the aims and ambitions of museum collecting are not necessarily benevolent or neutral. In the precincts of elite intellectual and cultural space, who gets to tell those stories? Who gets to decide what those objects mean? What does that do to our idea of ourselves and what might be possible for us? Against this process of diminishment, Alsworth erects the unbounded imagination, the scene and the space of literature. The spear is only ‘almost’ conquered and forgotten. While stories, poems, myths and legends can still be recalled and retold, we have a language in which to dream a better version of ourselves.

Is this enough? Maybe not. Not if this insistence is considered as a dry, disembodied assemblage of ‘text’. But poetry has another self that exists in the shivers and chills we experience when reading or hearing it; the hitch in the breath when we speak the words out loud. Such feelings are a kind of communitas, that is a fleeting sense of being present and part of something bigger than ourselves. We've all felt this. I've felt it hearing poetry on picket lines. I've felt it at sweaty Crass gigs. I've felt it, conversely, in church, or simply when wrapping my mouth around a favourite poem from the past. I got to experience a version of it again after being sent Pink Punk Poetry, a collaboration between Swedish writer and performer Lou Ice – aka Louise Halvardsson – and Avzounds, a small scale, not for profit music production company based in Teeside.

Spoken, Halvardsson's poems have a relentless, nervy quality that suit the buzzing soundscapes they are  paired with. Thematically, they centre on a desire for escape and autonomy from the strictures of political, social, and familial life and the limiting expectations they engender. This sense of suppressed fire is matched by Halvardsson's verbal delivery – sometimes a cool purr, sometimes a choked snarl – her voice stretching itself in multiple directions at once, creating its own idiosyncratic rhythm. On the page, the pieces have a direct, no-nonsense quality, the niceties of ‘technique’ subordinate to the urgency of their themes. This is not to say that Halvardsson has no knack for a striking image or an aptly turned phrase, but that's not where the poems live or how they're meant to be encountered. To do them justice, to meet them on their terms is to listen to them. Loudly, here.


Lou Ice

The hope I detect in Halvardsson's poems is the through-line in all of the pieces I've shared this quarter: it’s the doing, the active, urgent movement in the world, the determination to attest to and make a life despite all and in the teeth of all that besets us. The poems are not consoling, their purpose is not to help their readers endure the endurable. Rather, they point to the work that is still to do: building the collective that we anticipate and desire.

A Collective Noun is a Hostile State

The verisimilitude of law is that it too
shatters like glass, like kneecaps, like dreams
caught in the turbine of sleaze.
I have nothing to offer besides cover for
shoplifters, excuses for Fawkes,
pirouettes for smoking ballerinas.
London isn't a pipe dream, it's a clusterfuck
of fences, a haemoglobin swollen
beyond the devolution of a body.
You can't change the system meditating
on a dandelion puff, or thinking yourself worthwhile.
Bettering yourself is astigmatism for the soul.

By Aaron Kent


Your Life is Paused

Because it is being used
in several locations
Because, well let's face it,
where was it going?
Because we know all about you
Because you know nothing
about us
Because, because, child.
Because night follows day
(but never knows where)
Because there is so much
Because there is so little
Because war makes money
Because sides means war
Because Halliburton

By Peadar O'Donoghue


History of a Spear

here, a black
disintegrating leaf, copper

scrollwork — dark shard in the heart
of man, it’s hard to think of you now

in primatial hands. Fish curling from your point.
In Alexander’s dreams of Kleitos. In Christ’s side.

Ron, Gungnir, Gàe Bulg
in spells of perspex, all your antiquity and might

are ageing with time’s flesh
an artefact, almost conquered and forgotten.

By Scott Alsworth


Aaron Kent is an award-winning poet and publisher from Cornwall. Aaron is a working-class writer, and particularly wants to advocate for more working-class voices in literature. He had several poetry pamphlets published, his debut collection, Angels the Size of Houses, is available from Shearsman Books, and his 2nd collection, The Working Classic, is available with the87press.

Scott Alsworth is a video game developer, political activist, and reviewer for the Morning Star. In 2009 he was shortlisted for the Geoffrey Dearmer prize. His work has appeared in Poetry Review, Brittle Star, The Literary Review, Challenge, and the Morning Star, amongst other places. He lives in Norfolk and manages a co-development studio.

Peadar ‘King Badger’ O'Donoghue writes things (that are a bit like poems) and takes photographs, tries to paint, to assemble things found on the beach, vainly tries to sleep. He co-edits all at PB Press with his wife Collette. His ambition is to be reborn as a badger. He has published two critically acclaimed collections, Jewel, with Salmon poetry, and, The Death of Poetry, with PB Press. He has published poems all over the place, most recently in The Irish Times.

AVzounds are based in Teesside, UK, and work with spoken word performers. Amongst other projects, they are currently working with asylum seekers to help tell their stories, which will be set to music.

Friday, 11 August 2023 09:57


Published in Poetry


by Fran Lock

and what of them? hardy stragglers
between wastelands, waste lanes
with the weather wetly trepanning
the factories. by junctions of squat
hope, the stooping of resolute
chimneys, i saw them: thin enough
to pass through the slit in a cat's
eye yellowly. a salute, an assault,
the meadow's broken heil! how
nature tightens her failed telepathy,
frail masturbator's grip on our
fancy. fancy. poets, those grim
custodians of oath, tending
the cut and sober fiefdoms
of the field. we are picking
away between panels: tablets
bearing the ten commandments
of solarity. we have filled our
mouths with the burst blue flame
of aftermath. we have come to
collapse here, lie down our
numbered days amid the tepid,
bending farce of them. here,
with what the birds beat out
between a tatty governance
of wings, with the end times
motto the snake rolls up in
the black phylactère of his
tongue. here they are, swollen
with staying power. immortal
hosts. we are dying. we are all
dying, but they did not get
the memo.

But Billionaires are People Too!
Tuesday, 11 July 2023 15:48

But Billionaires are People Too!

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock introduces her quarterly poetry column

Amidst rolling news coverage of the Titan sub disaster, I scrapped the first draft of this quarter's column, and began again, forcibly struck as I was – as I continue to be – by the alarming differential of media attention, public sympathy, and international aid between those with money and those without. While futile search and rescue efforts were underway for the OceanGate submersible, a tragedy of arguably far greater magnitude was occurring off the coast of Greece, where a fishing trawler carrying more than 700 “migrants”, including over 100 children, capsized. At time of writing, 82 passengers are confirmed dead, and over 500 people are still missing. The UN reports that since 2014 more than 26,000 people have died or gone missing in desperate attempts to migrate by sea. It felt important to address the inequality of response afforded the poor and vulnerable, on the sea and on the land.

First, to briefly recap: the Titan sub was an unregistered, unregulated experimental craft, operated by OceanGate, and running $250,000 “tours” to the wreck of the Titanic for its billionaire passengers. Among the dead were French explorer Paul-Henri Nargeole, British born billionaire thrill-seeker Hamish Harding, British-Pakistani billionaire Shahzada Dawood, along with his 19-year-old son, Suleman. Last on the list, the CEO of OceanGate and developer of the sub, Stockton Rush.

Rush might politely be referred to as a “character”, one with an almost breathtakingly reckless attitude toward health and safety. As Ash Sarkar among others has reported, Rush gave a telling interview with the Unsung Science Project in 2019 where he described safety concerns as, after a certain point, “pure waste”, claiming “it really is a risk reward question […] I think I can do this just as safely while breaking the rules.”

Others vehemently disagreed, included David Lochridge, former director of marine operations at OceanGate, who was reportedly fired after raising concerns about Titan's safety in 2018. According to numerous sources, OceanGate refused to have the testing of the experimental vessel monitored by an independent organisation that would have ensured it met accepted technical standards. Lochridge claims OceanGate were “unwilling to pay” for such an independent assessment, and that Rush ignored repeated warnings that the sub's viewing window was safe only to a depth of 1,300 meters (the Titanic rests at nearly 4,000 meters below the ocean surface). In 2018 over 40 deep-sea explorers, industry experts, and oceanographers signed a letter to Rush, urgently requesting that experts be allowed to monitor testing of the Titan. Rush declined to comply. Instead, he continued to make public pronouncements about the ways in which regulation “stifles innovation” with an unshakeable and utterly misplaced confidence in himself and his untried technology.

We now know that the craft imploded shortly after it began its 2.4 mile descent to the wreck of the Titanic. The US Navy reports that it picked up sounds of this implosion on Sunday, soon after the sub lost contact.  A horrible, but mercifully quick way to die, with those on board probably having little time to register what was happening to them. Yet the media continued to breathlessly cover the multinational “rescue” efforts comprising teams from the US Navy, the Canadian and US Coast Guard, a French Remote Operated Vehicle Team, a British Royal Navy submarine expert, and specialists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The search involved classified undersea listening equipment, a deep-sea winch, search planes, numerous ROVs and a submarine, to the tune of over one million dollars. Over the last couple of weeks, as “rescue” turned to recovery, and debris from the sub was bought to the surface, the mainstream media's gaze was once again directed towards the gruesome tragedy.

The worst excesses of capitalism

This recap serves to illustrate a number of different points, depending upon the angle you approach it from.  Mostly, the loss of Titan has been pitched as a morality tale, where a monumental sense of entitlement and a fatal lack of humility met in a moment of catastrophic and vividly embodied hubris. It provides yet another example – if any were needed – of what happens when companies prioritise economic success over safety, where “innovation” becomes the fig-leaf covering cut-throat financial competition. What happened to the Titan is an exemplum and a microcosm of deregulation, the worst excesses of capitalism in action. It's a story – to quote Sahkar – about “the judgement-warping nature of extreme wealth”. Rush believed he knew better than all of those experts; his passengers believed their money gave them safe and privileged access to the outer edges of experience.

What else is there to say? I was contemplating this as our morally compromised ex-PM weighed in via his Daily Mail column to describe the passengers of the Titan as “heroes”, who died while “pushing out the frontiers of human knowledge and experience” and that their tourist trip to the wreck of the Titanic filled him with “pride”. Curious, even by Daily Mail standards.

But the Tory government – and economic elites generally – desperately need the irresponsible personal choices of privileged individuals to be rebranded as in some way inherently beneficial for wider society. With equal desperation they need a mainstream media content to peddle the myth that when rich people do it, “risk-taking” is, in some nebulous and ill-defined way, noble, brave or glamorous. They need this toxic ideology to legitimate their daily gambles with financial markets, health and housing infrastructure, and with our very lives. Such logics brought us the housing crisis of 2008, the callous mishandling of a global pandemic, and the heart-rending tragedy of Grenfell Tower, where the foolishness and greed driving deregulation meant that working-class people could be legally housed in fatally unsafe properties.

In this way the rich have always recuperated their stupidity and failure as value, however many of us (or each other) they kill along the way. The double standard is astounding. I find myself thinking about the way that victims of the Hillsborough disaster were blamed for their own deaths and injuries, by government, by the police, and in the press. We saw this victim-blaming post-Grenfell too. We see it every day in the demonisation of the most vulnerable amongst us, whose “lifestyle choices” are repeatedly figured as solely responsible for their poor health outcomes. If you're rich you can do no wrong, money sanctifies you. If you're poor, you can never be innocent or suffering enough not to be blamed for your own sad fate.

I am thinking once again about the impossible choices people make when they undertake a small boat (sometimes a trawler, more often just a dinghy with an outboard motor) crossing for the chance of a better life. Many are fleeing war, persecution, and various registers of abject poverty in their own country. They get on those boats, not in the confident expectation that some aura of specialness will protect them, but because the slim chance they have in the water is better than the no chance they have back on land.

Research conducted earlier this year by Liberty Investigates found that in November of 2021 hundreds of vulnerable migrants appear to have been abandoned to their fates when the UK coastguard “effectively ignored” reports of small boats in distress. Around 440 would appear to have been left adrift after the coastguard failed to send any rescue vessels to 19 reported small boats carrying “migrants” in UK waters. While government rhetoric paid lip-service to concerns by denouncing smugglers and traffickers for “endangering lives”, it is telling that in four cases from November 2021, 'reconnaissance planes and drones entered the airspace' near the vessels in distress, but that these aircraft were incapable of providing direct assistance to those aboard. They did nothing to prompt assistance to be sent either.

According to Tech Monitor, in the five years to 2022, the UK had spent more than £1 billion on surveillance technology for use in the Channel. None of that was earmarked towards rescue efforts. Right-wing discourse surrounding “migrants” entering the country on “small boats” often centres on the irresponsible nature of their “choice”. Alive and well is the argument that if people undertake such a dangerous and “illegal” journey, they must face the consequences and expect little or no help.

So what makes five individual members of a wealthy elite “heroic” protagonists in a tragedy, and the “migrants” aboard small boats an expendable mass of illegal personhood in which no one face is distinct or memorable? The Right – in the UK and abroad – operates a sick hierarchy of grievability that says some lives are worth neither saving nor mourning. I make this observation in the context of the so-called Illegal Migration Bill working itself through parliament. The Bill sets out a plan that will effectively render the asylum claims of anyone who arrives “irregularly” into the UK “inadmissible”. The Refugee Council quite rightly points out that there is little or no evidence that the measures set out in the Bill will act as an effective deterrent to those crossing the Channel in small boats. The Bill does nothing to tackle the reasons people undertake such dangerous and difficult journeys, it merely criminalises and further persecutes those who have lost everything.

Meanwhile Tory talking heads have apoplectic Twitter-fits at anyone who dares to point out the unequal sympathy with which sinking billionaires and capsizing refugees are treated, decrying any such statement as poor taste “political point-scoring” driven by an absence of “compassion”. The billionaires are “human beings”, they bleat. Billionaires are people too! We also saw this after the queen died. Republicans were exhorted to remember her “humanity”, as if humanity were some miraculous quality and not the generic condition of everyone alive from Vladimir Putin to Britney Spears. Furthermore, it's worth remembering that theirs is a Schrödinger’s humanity: an arbitrary rhetorical expedient, it phases into existence at the precise moment that scrutiny is applied. We're constantly told that the rich and powerful transcend our mere mortal existence; they spend their entire lives within the hazy, elevated aura of economic privilege, with all the exemptions and special dispensations that implies. They're not us. They are better than us. But if that is the case, then it's a bit much to expect readmission in the final extremis.

“Sympathy” and “compassion” are infinitely renewable resources. They are painfully finite. An investment of effort and attention is required to bring them forth, and the burden of this giving is not shouldered equally by the rich and powerful. I've said it once, I'll say it again: our sympathy simply cannot stretch to meet the irrational demands of our oppressors and class enemies to be loved. Sympathy extracts energy, it requires courage. It is an expression of solidarity and care. It isn't equivalent to good manners or tact. It does not mean agreeing to be silent in the face of injustice. And when we do feel and express sympathy with the rich, what happens to it? It is swallowed up by an enormous void, a void that doesn’t recognise our humanity, or the humanity of the most vulnerable amongst us. Whose humanity is fit to be recognised?

Poetry that insists on a reckoning with power and the powerful

The poems below make room for a radical expression of sympathy. They do so in various ways: through the direct and compassionate acknowledgement of the lives that have been lost; by affording those lives the space of the page; and by foregrounding them in consciousness with a meticulous care seldom afforded them as human beings. These are also poems of accounting, poems that insist on a reckoning with power and with the powerful, as the chief duty that we owe to the dead. All perform the special dual operation of poetry: addressing two audiences simultaneously, so that at their most furious and excoriating they also give us their most tender expression of care.

Sunken Levels

By Jim Aitken

It was the first item on the news
for days, the Titan submersible
taking a group to see the Titanic wreck.

The loss of life was indeed tragic, as was
the £200,000 fee charged to those on board
to view the wreck and never return home alive.

Less newsworthy was the unnamed boat
that sunk in stormy seas off the Grecian coast
with the loss of eighty lives, mainly Pakistanis.

And less newsworthy the thirty-nine Vietnamese
lives lost, found inside a container lorry. Neither
the Pakistanis or the Vietnamese had names, it seems,

Unlike those in the Titan submersible who were all
named. The difference was all to do with wealth,
with class status, for the migrants were simply poor

And those in the submersible had cash to throw away.
It reminded me of Bezos and his rocket into space
thanking his Amazon workers for this unseemly waste.

With a media that worships wealth and despises the poor
both at home and abroad, though especially abroad,
the difference in coverage was class-ridden and predictable.

Yet they say that class is over these days; that it doesn’t
matter anymore. Yet, there is no level to which the wealthy
will sink to stay wealthy – should this not be learned anew?

Or do we all sink together so that the wealthy can
continue to be wealthy at the expense of the world’s poor
as the land burns and the sea levels rise to sink even them?

Or do we instead talk of rich and poor all over again and give
place for egalitarian dreams to flourish; to challenge the all-
consuming, insatiable appetites of the few and raise the many?

'Sunken Levels' by Jim Aitken addresses the sinking of the 'unnamed boat' directly. The poem is a meditation on the backgrounding of individual lives (and deaths) that reduces poor, brown human beings to absent subjects within wealth-obsessed neoliberal culture. It also calls our attention to the invisible nature of class itself, and the ways in which a collective denial of its existence only serves to perpetuate harm. The poem takes on the idea of sinking in both its figurative and literal sense: poor people sink beneath the threshold of attention; class is a submerged but ever-present threat to life. One of the most striking things about Aitken's poem is the way in which it recognises the passengers on board the Titan as fellow victims of this mindset. Only in a society that venerates money, and where the glamour of wealth is allowed to generate its own aura of invincibility, would you find those willing to pay £200,000 to descend 4,000 metres below the ocean surface.

Aitken's poem operates with deceptive simplicity: the reader is lowered down through levels of newsworthiness, from billionaire submarine passengers to Pakistani refugees, to ‘the thirty-nine Vietnamese / lives lost, found inside a container lorry.' By expanding the focus of the poem to encompass those lives, Aitken shifts the poem from the binary of basic comparison to evoke a more complex global enmeshment in the machinery of capitalism.

In the eighth stanza the poem performs a reversal and begins to engage with the act of restitution and 'raising'. While individual lives may be irrecoverable, the poem dares to hope that as a society we are not beyond redemption; that we might be propelled to the surface, might 'raise the many', through a vigorous and collective questioning of the systems that dominate our lives and the cultural myths they spin around us.

Land Law in England 1070-1890

By Patrick Davidson Roberts

Four years from the battle they cut the fields with salt.
The terror-tongue amongst us and our own old words burned out.
They held us down as numbers: our lives, our homes, our cattle.
They bound us in their catalogue, ten years from the battle.

These few months from Smithfield, where his promises made fools.
So you are you shall remain and worse. The law of rule.
They broke upon us as a curse. We broke ourselves to yield
and the rain fell all the harder, these few months from Smithfield.

Weeks on from St George’s Hill; our work there done in vain,
our captains sent to silence, the gangs and mob both came
to meet the spade with violence and beat us down until
it is only words that grow there, now, on St George’s Hill.

Days toward the devil’s smoke, our lives lashed as our harness.
Their rents and fences hammered in, they pointed us to darkness.
Named it law and rightly done, to send us from the fields to choke.
To slum and factory, illness, death, in the devil’s smoke.

'Land Law in England 1070-1890'  by Patrick Davidson Roberts takes a different approach. The poem engages the broad sweep of history: using the cadences and rhythms of an early-modern folk ballad, it tells the story of how the rich cement their will to power as written law and moral right. They do this to crush generations of working men and women, from agrarian commons, through enclosure and privatisation, to the Industrial Revolution and the grim reality of work in factories, mills and mines. As with Aitken's poem the poor are disappeared: physically removed from the land they used to tend, but also 'held down' as numbers, bound 'in their catalogue', reduced to statistics, figured as faceless economic units to be administered, or as problems to be solved within the language, apparatus, and collective imagination of the state.

While Roberts' poem covers a wide span of historical ground, from the Norman Conquest, by which the king acquired (stole) the ultimate title to all land in England, through the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, where King Richard II met with Wat Tyler at Smithfield to make promises he would not keep, and where Tyler was killed by the Mayor of London, up to the Diggers' Occupation of St George's Hill in 1649, where they began to cultivate the common land in contravention of the law and to pull down enclosures. But use of the personal collective pronoun 'us' , and the centring of the poem within particular local places, creates a sense of continuity within a class struggle that is more usually framed as a series of disconnected incidents. This allows us both to apprehend the deliberate steps by which the poor are divested of their rights, and by which the rich and powerful naturalise their superiority and dominion. While the poem's trajectory is ultimately despairing, its uncanny temporality calls forth a solidarity with our foresisters and brothers, stretching back into the past. It provides us with a vision of our history that is seldom taught and often hidden from sight.

The language of 'Land Law in England' is authentically Blakean. The final lines of the fourth stanza could equally belong in Winstanley's 'Diggers' Song' or Blake's 'Jerusalem'. This feels vitally important: the poem is proposing poetry and song as an alternative account and way of reading history, a language of reply and resistance to that other, official language of the law.


By Bridget Frances Keating

frontier of fog, distance
and depth. the shattered
caress of an oar, a claw.

here, in this conceit
of stricken timbers,
this nursery of tempered

you have squared the odyssey
inside a bottle; foreshortened
the mariner's monologue into
a drunken text.

silent now. handmaidens all,
coronate damsels, the long
anguilliform thrust of them.
eels, like sullen ladles, spooning
the futureless sea into every
broken mouth from port to

no, we are not all equal, but
we are all changed. and we –
aphotic sticklers, the lanterns
and the hatchets – were once
like you.

silent now, and fathom-gilded.
a shoal, a raving multitude. silvered
coin of our own realm.

The title of 'Salvage' by Bridget Frances Keating is an eerie riff on the idea of maritime salvage. In this poem the sea-changed voices of the dead extend a sinister welcome to a group of unspecified addressees numbered amongst the recently drowned. In the opening two stanzas the sunken wreck of a ship is evoked with the macabre theatricality of a haunted mansion in a Victorian Gothic romance: 'This frontier of fog', 'this conceit / of stricken timbers'.

The word 'conceit' in particular creates a sense of fun-house unreality, as if the wreckage were a ride in a theme park, and not a real, historical grave site. In the third stanza the poem breaks into accusatory direct address, with the use of the heavily emphasised 'you' to lay responsibility for the diminishment of the ocean, its dangers, and its tragedies firmly at the feet of those recently arrived interlopers.

The most disturbing and arresting lines of the poem come, I think, in the fourth stanza where eels (presumably pelican eels that can live at depths of up to 3000 metres) are ' spooning / the futureless sea into / every broken mouth from port to starboard'. Invoking the 'broken mouths' reconnects the dreamy unreality of the poem to the literal bodies of the dead, and the idea of 'the futureless sea' suggests both the irrecoverable permanence of the sunken state, and the strange simultaneous time of the ocean, where all disasters occupy the same endless and uncanny 'now'.

In the final two stanzas Keating seeds references that suggest the central theme of the poem is the circular hubris of the rich and powerful. 'We were once like you' say the dead, now transformed into shoals of fish, the 'silvered coin' of their 'own realm'. These signifiers of riches suggest that the speakers of the poem may well be the Titanic's wealthy passengers. Their addressees could be the crew of the Titan, but equally they could be any wealthy seafarer whose arrogance and entitlement proved terminal. The reader is left wondering who or what is 'salvaged', rescued, retrieved or preserved? As all are 'changed' into the members of a more diverse and equal biotariat, perhaps what is salvaged is something like the soul.

Control Town

By Peadar “King Badger” O' Donoghue

See y'after!
After what, Armageddon?
See y'later!
Not if I see you first, Landlord.

Sun Tzu told me what to do,
I'd like to fish your bones
from the waters, lattice them
on the boggy bank that they
might feel their first bite of frost,
form an arched sepulchre for greed.

I see rooks, ravens, hear
foreboding cackles from the trees,
I see shopping trolleys in the pond,
I see the latest politician
hands in someone else's pocket,
I see the discarded needles,
I see a used condom on a dog turd,
I see nobody has any time for anything.

I see record profits are on the up,
bonuses ballooning,
I see half price food half rotten
in aisle twenty, those yellow
labels, if you have too many,
label you at the checkout,
other, poor, unclean, leper.
I see I have to quit this poem.
I see it's gotten me nowhere,
perfect. Let's just sit by the river,
and wait.

 'Control Town' by Peadar O' Donoghue, adopts a similar stock of Gothic-inflected images to Keating, but filters them through a striking tone of despairing rage. In the arresting second stanza, the bones of the wealthy dead are fished from the water, latticed 'on the boggy bank that they / might feel their first bite of frost, / form an arched sepulchre for greed.' While the image is both surreal and macabre, the setting is resolutely ordinary: a choked tributary river in any unlovely working-class town. The driving conceit of the poem is that in death the rich wash up amidst the muck and debris of the world they made, forced at last to inhabit the inequality they helped to create.

There is no “sea-change” in this poem, no possibility of redemption. Instead, the speaker is focused on a recitation of poverty's material traces: 'shopping trolleys in the pond', 'discarded needles', 'a used condom on a dog turd', the 'yellow labels' of half-price food. These mundane, daily reminders of classed life and landscape are interwoven with the insubstantial or concealed nature of extreme wealth: 'record profits', 'bonuses ballooning', 'the latest politician / hands in someone else's pocket'. The dead in O' Donoghue's poem are not ghostly, because wealth and power are already spectral. In this poem their fate – and their punishment – is to become solid bodies, waste amongst the waste.

Again, similar to Keating's piece, the poem has an enigmatic title that might be read a number of ways. The speaker exercises control when they decide to 'just sit by the river, / and wait', but the speaker is also subject to control as a citizen, a worker, and a classed body whose movements, choices, and opportunities are governed by economic inequality. The wealthy dead experience a loss of control – in the sense of autonomy over their own fates – but also they become subject to controlling forces as they are inexorably borne downriver by the tide. It is the indifference of nature, its relentless, motiveless mechanism that ultimately undoes and degrades them, and not the poem's hedged attempts to exert imaginative control over the fates of the rich and powerful. This bleak conclusion has a flip side: the hope that with watchful patience, old orders may be both literally and figuratively swept away.


By Tom Bland

The Playstation controller made Andy Warhol blush:
watching from the moon, Titan, he knew one of the bolts would
go, the pressure imploding, instantly
killing them all, and he knew nothing about science.

The rich are idiots and idiocy is currency
in a world of shock of breaking down
stability for robbing the eruption of
that flows out of governments from nonsensical schemes only the
would or

But in nature,

the deep is full of aliens who have a way to break the
unbreakable, those sun-soaked Gucci-wearing humans who
use physics as a game, thinking immortality comes from a
Bitcoin wishing well they control.


and Titan drowns the blond haired idol of
capitalism and the ghosts of the Titanic still

as they endlessly drown under champagne bottles and sharks
endlessly shatter the ice cutouts of the Titan billionaires

in the ice cold dark…

'OceanGate' by Tom Bland is the most explicitly confrontational poem I want to share, but it is also perhaps the strangest, the most camp, and the most absurd. The speaker begins by evoking the discarnate, omnipresent spirit of Andy Warhol, watching the tragedy of the Titan unfold from the nebulous ether, a distant moon base. This choice of detached supernatural observer is not random, Warhol being one of Western culture's best-known commentators on consumer excess, his legend and image now synonymous with the same forces his art sort to engage and critique. The line 'The rich are idiots and idiocy is a currency' might well have issued from Warhol himself as originated with the poem's speaker.

 I'm reminded especially of his famous line that “buying is much more American than thinking... and I'm as American as they come”. Here Bland (and Warhol) taps into and dramatises the way the rich recuperate their stupidity and failure as cultural value. The presence of Warhol transforms the catastrophe aboard the Titan into a perverse version of the “15 minutes of fame” – a quote often misattributed to Warhol, describing the phenomena of instant and short-lived celebrity – so that death itself becomes part of the same shallow, endlessly scrolling media circus.

The poem is loosely punctuated, with irregular line breaks that allow the stanzas to bleed in and out of one another. In this way the text performs an uncanny suspension – perhaps in water, perhaps in the gravity vacuum of space – on the page. The effect is dislocating. Phrases and ideas drift and surface, violently surprising the reader, as with the stark, capitalised 'KILL THE RICH / MEANS JUST THAT'.

As with O'Donoghue's poem, Bland is concerned with the waste and detritus of capitalist culture, but he is less interested in the material traces of poverty, than with the lunatic signifiers of obscene wealth: 'Gucci' and 'Bitcoin', 'champagne bottles and sharks'. The poem asks us to consider the sheer absurdity of the death, which, in a saner political and social climate, would not only have been preventable, but unthinkable. It takes a special kind of irrationality to undertake such a journey. It is a symptom of our prevailing sickness, a disease characterised first and foremost by florid delusions of grandeur and invincibility.

However, what I like about Bland's poem is the space it creates to acknowledge our class enmity: to say the unsayable. In this way it is the poetic equivalent of the near-to-the-knuckle memes that did the rounds immediately after news of the sinking broke. It aligns itself with those memes, with all the throwaway and reviled forms of cultural expression, and with sentiments few wish to acknowledge or bother to unravel.

Poetry, labour, and the dream of a General Strike
Friday, 24 March 2023 16:48

Poetry, labour, and the dream of a General Strike

Published in Poetry

The last – the only – general strike to take place in Britain was in May 1926. The strike was called by the TUC in support of miners, who were mired in a bitter dispute with mine owners, demanding longer hours for less pay. While initial support was strong (over 1.5 million workers joined in solidarity with the miners) after a gruelling nine days the TUC ended the strike; the miners fought on alone, and ultimately returned to work in November. A painful and palpable defeat. In 1927 the Trades Dispute Act (repealed in 1946) banned “sympathy strikes”.

But the idea of the general strike continued – and continues – to haunt British political imagination: fearfully, on the part of elites; for the rest of us, as an expression of hope. We have come close so many times. For example, in 1972, following the arrest of the Pentonville Five who refused to recognise the legitimacy of a court injunction to stop picketing. Their arrests prompted a wave of solidarity strikes, and mass walkouts by dockers, virtually creating an unofficial national strike. The TUC invoked the spectre of an official one day general strike unless the men were freed, and this idea proved so potent and so threatening to power that the five were released within a week of their arrest.

Pentonville Five

More fatefully, there is “the Winter of Discontent”, the period between October 1978 and February 1979 when Ford workers, lorry drivers, council workers, and NHS staff all walked out, causing major disruption to public services. In all, around 4.6 million people were involved in strike action. This action has left an indelible mark on public consciousness, but one that has been tailored and shaped to serve the aims of government. Politicians and their media mouth-pieces are still peddling the legend of a country run by greedy and corrupt unions, permanently on strike, with electricity rationed and garbage piling up in the streets.

Yet, most of the groups involved in the action were far below average in terms of how often they went on strike. The relatively weak collective strength, for example, of public sector unions, was largely responsible for their living standards being so badly hurt by rising inflation in the first place. The strikes were disruptive precisely because those involved were not previously strike-prone. And what is left out of the narrative is just how desperate the economic situation was for these marginalised and poorly-paid workers. NHS support staff, working in roles such as catering, cleaning and portering services, began the 1970s with average pay lower than the average unskilled worker. Callaghan's government held pay down, ensuring that real wages for NHS and local council employees dropped a staggering 19 per cent, pushing workers further into poverty. Many of these jobs were being performed by black and brown women who were not only economically but socially vulnerable. This a far cry from the popular image of hardline union militants, holding the country to ransom. Yet the image has power, and the image persists. It has been cynically deployed to roll back workers rights and inoculate against empathy for those who strike.

Nurses St Andrews Newham 1979

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher came to power, with a ruthless determination to crush organised labour. Amongst numerous mechanisms for achieving this end, the 1982 Employment Act substituted the meaning of trade dispute as occurring “between employers and workers” to “between workers and their [emphasis added] employer.” Thus, the act further curtailed secondary actions or sympathy strikes, rendering them unlawful. Previously, union members could take industrial action against their own employer in support of union members engaged in industrial action against a different employer. Further, this legislation narrowed the parameters of what counted as a trade dispute, excluding the possibility of a strike for “political” reasons. Which, when you thing about it, is the acme of absurdity: strike action is, definitionally, political.

The UK is in an unusual (and unenviable) position with regards to our right to strike, in that no single right to strike exists. Workers are instead afforded various scant protections, assuming their industrial action is deemed lawful. If found to be unlawful, an injunction could be sought against the union. If the union then flouts or refuses to recognise the injunction, it could be found in contempt of court, and its funds sequestered. Or else,  it could be sued for damages. In July, the Tory government increased the upper limit for damages, from £250,000 to a whopping £1m. To put it bluntly, there exists no legal mechanism by which unions can declare a general strike.

Yet, the idea of such mass action is alive and well. I Googled newspaper articles from December last year to the present day, and I counted, without even really trying, six comparisons between our current situation and “the Winter of Discontent”, from publications such as: The Telegraph, New Statesman, The Spectator, The Observer, The Financial Times, The New York Times. All of these conjure an image of strike conditions in their most negative and disruptive aspect. Some of them sympathetically acknowledge the grim economic and ideological causes of the strikes, but none of them really address just how difficult it is to meaningfully commit to and coordinate industrial action under current legal conditions. For all the anxious whispers about a return to the bad ol' days of 1979, or potential escalation towards a general strike, as of December last year around 822,000 working days had been lost to industrial action, compared with 12m days in 1979, and 162m in 1926. If anything it seems as if scaremongering around industrial action has increased in inverse proportion to the rights and powers unions actually have.

I was thinking about this, and about the potential for coordinated action between the TUC's 48 member unions, when the news broke of the government “climb down” over NHS pay, with the promise of a one-off payment for the current year worth up to 8.2 per cent for the lowest-paid workers, and a potential above-inflation pay rise of 5 per cent for 2023-24. There was a rush to herald this news as some kind of a victory, with the Guardian stating that although this still leaves NHS staff below where they were in 2021-2022, it is 'considerably more than the government wanted to give.' Strike action continues across other public services, including eduction, and, at time of writing, “intensive talks” are underway between government and teaching unions. That's a testament to those on the picket lines, but it's not an uncomplicated cause for celebration. NEU are recommending their members reject the teacher pay offer, and there's a real danger that as workers are worn down they become more willing to accept whatever scraps government cares to throw them. If this happens those left will be further isolated and hedged in any legal attempt to meaningfully strike. So far, the  small gains strikers have secured are concentrated in isolated economic pockets, and any concessions to individual unions takes place against a backdrop of curbed rights for striking workers more broadly.

For instance, the Minimum Service Levels Bill, currently wending its weary way through the House of Lords, aims to make effective strike action across a number of sectors illegal by requiring unions to negotiate 'minimum service levels' with their employer before every strike. The Bill affects railway workers, hospital workers, teachers, firefighters, ambulance workers and border staff. Under the terms of the Bill an employer has the right to name individual workers who have then to break their own strike. This has the potential to be weaponised against shop stewards and branch officials, victimising union activists. Further, the minimum service level could be set anywhere: at 50 per cent, 80, 100. If the union does not agree with the employer's demands, government can intervene to set the level. The implications for chronically underfunded services – for example paramedics – are dire: they cannot provide a service to “prevent risk to life” under present non-strike conditions, so how could they ever legally strike to draw attention to those conditions?

The Bill has now come under serious scrutiny from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as impinging upon the right to freedom of assembly and association (Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights) so perhaps there is some possibility of curbing its worst excesses. Yet the tactical nature of the Bill is telling – and troubling. It is a link in a long chain of Tory legislation attacking the practical and legal mechanisms by which class solidarity is fostered and finds organised active expression. By doling out limited and circumscribed gains to individual sectors against a broader backdrop of reduced rights the government hopes to break the bonds between cohorts of striking workers; a carrot and stick approach that uses small concessions alongside fear of legal and economic sanctions to engineer compliance. What we needed – need – from the outset is strong, mass coordinated action, but this looks less likely by the day. That said, some comfort can be taken in the fact that the government must resort to laws to forbid the expression of solidarity; it shows precisely the strength of our tendency to stand in sympathy with one another. This thought should galvanise us.

So what about poetry?

But what does any of this have to do with poetry? And what can poetry usefully contribute? Here, I am wary of bold claims. Art is not a substitute for legal protection or economic justice, neither can it be said to effectively deliver those things. However, as the poetry I want to introduce today amply demonstrates, it does have an absolutely vital role to play in building the foundations for collective class struggle, and I think it does so in three distinct ways. Firstly, as a space of counter-narrative testimony: poetry erects an alternative history against the reductive and damaging narratives the government and mainstream media have tried so desperately to cement in cultural memory. As cultural memory scholar Astrid Erll has noted 'there is no collective memory without individual actualization' (Memory in Culture, 2016). Poetry attends to the individual memories of striking workers, particularising collective struggle in vividly embodied ways that complicate the vision of unions as a homogenous organisation with identical aims and experiences, and feeding these more nuanced representations of ourselves back into wider culture. Poetry can be a site of infiltration into public history for those of us who are denied access to that history by other, more direct routes. It is, then, both a means of preservation – of archiving and transmitting our own stories –  and a form of resistance to – or subversion of – the narratives others make around us.

Secondly, poetry offers an alternative scene of imaginative solidarity, one that is untouched by the legal, temporal, and geographical restrictions hedging our free association in the physical world. Again, because of poetry's intimacy and its focus on close, sustained attention, it allows us to perceive and to foster the connections governments have tried so hard to practically prohibit. Further, because of poetry's special atemporal quality we can apprehend the threads of connection between our own, present experience of class struggle and those of our forecomrades and cross-cultural counterparts. Finally, poetry provides an opportunity to imagine an otherwise, beyond the necessary restrictions of practical organisation. In its potentially infinite spaces we can dream what must be dreamed before it can be enacted. These poets dream of a global rising that brings about liberation for all. It is my pleasure to share these poems with you.

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A call for solidarity with the exploited 

In Fred Voss 'Can Revolutions Start in Washrooms?' from the recently released Someday There Will Be Machine Shops Full of Roses  (Smokestack, 2023), the speaker places us alongside him, in front of the 'washroom mirror', confronting the scars – bodily and emotional – of dirty and difficult manual work: 'all my life' he tells us, 'I've seen the working man beaten down/ unions broken/ wages falling/ as CEO salaries skyrocket and stockbrokers get rich'. The linking alliterative whoosh of that long line, especially of 'skyrocket' and 'stockbroker' through their internal rhymes creates an image of acceleration and ease of movement, of a wealthy elite bound not even by gravity. In contrast, the earth-bound lives of the workers feel laboured and heavily embodied. Voss shows how work – and the inequality that structures the experience of that work  – takes its toll in material and daily ways: the heartbreaking image of 'Earl on the turret lathe', retying 'shoelaces that keep breaking' and blinking through '30-year-old glasses', or 72 year old Ariel, 'with swollen arthritic fingers and joking/ about working until he drops', or Teddy, who operates the gantry mill, washing 'stinking black machine grease' from his hands. I think what gives this poem its unusual power is its particular and striking portrayal of vulnerable working-class masculinity. Without resorting to sentimental appeal, the poem shows us how intimately inequality operates on the lives and bodies of these men, but also the dignified stoicism and quiet solidarity expressed by those who labour under such conditions.

Voss's poem  articulates a wish for revolutionary praxis, transforming Teddy's comment that the management owner of a new Jaguar parked outside is 'making too much money!' into 'the musket shot/ that set off the storming/ of the Bastille.' In that instant, the survival strategy of deadpan humour is transformed from a coping mechanism to an inciting and radical one. Throughout the poem, Voss interrogates both personal responsibility and social conditions; when the speaker despairs that he has 'never heard one word/ of revolt' despite all that the men have endured, we understand that the 'silence' of these workers exists within a context of mental and bodily exhaustion. These are men who have 'twisted chuck handles' until their 'wrists screamed', leaned their 'bodies against screaming drill motors meeting/ cruel deadlines until we thought/ our hearts would burst.' These conditions might provoke revolutionary anger, but they also wear out bodies and minds for the fight. That repeated use of 'scream' to describe both men and machines is telling: so much of the men's lives and identities is swallowed by their job. Teddy's words, then, the 'musket shot' is not meant first and foremost for the workers on the job. They are meant for us, a call to stand in solidarity and strength with the overburdened and exploited.

Machine Language cover resized

The constant bleakness of work

'Work' by Martin Hayes is taken from the forthcoming pamphlet, Machine/ Language (Culture Matters, 2023). Similar to 'Can Revolutions Start in Washrooms?', the poem is concerned with our enmeshment in labour; its toll on the body and mental landscape of the worker. But 'Work' shows us this intimate (and insidious) entanglement by other means: personifying work as an uncanny stalking presence, or a predatory threat, figuring it both as a hand-holding whisperer, who 'speaks to you in your ear/ about the things you should’ve done/ the things/ you shouldn’t have done', and a 'pack of  hungry dogs', snapping their jaws. For Hayes' speaker work is not merely a job with a clearly delineated beginning and end, for which the worker receives economic compensation. It is, rather, 'constant', 'behind you/ in front of you/ circling around you'. It's where you're from and where you're headed; it has infiltrated your memories, colonised your imagination, stunted and sucked the colour from your engagement with the world. What makes this poem so chilling, and so important is the image of work 'still there/ staring at you/ wanting to know/ this or that' even after the speaker has come home, taken off their boots, switched on the television and opened an can of beer. Work's presence is inescapable, and it alters even our relationship to few simple pleasures we are able to afford.

So with deft understatement, Hayes shows us that the burden of work extends far beyond the nine-to-five of the job we do. The poem is purposefully vague in its definition of work, and its use of direct address places each and every reader in the position of beleaguered worker. This is not, as with Voss' poem, an affecting portrait of particular work and workers, but a stark look at the mechanism by which the capitalist labour market operates. 'there is no respite from it' writes Hayes, isolating that one line within the blank space of the page, allowing the full gravity of that statement, and its frightening implications to sink in and settle. It is a statement that applies to all of us. It is utterly bleak, but in its universality there is the possibility of understanding and connection between all of us who labour, however different our struggles may outwardly appear.

The history of class oppression

'Once Upon a Time (Grandad tells a story)' by Kevin Patrick McCann distils the age-old cycle of criminalisation, poverty, and despair, that has haunted working-class people since time immemorial. The poem's power comes from its pairing of the standard fairytale formula ('Once Upon a Time) with the grinding injustice of grim economic reality: its very simplicity is the source of its horror. The reason injustice persists is not complicated, and the poem follows its workings – its stepping stones of cause and effect –  through the course a single human life. The unnamed subject begins as a 'Union man', is sacked by his boss for his activities, and becomes a 'jobless man' who cannot pay rent to his landlord and is evicted from his home, then a 'homeless man' who cannot secure other work because he is 'blacklisted'. By the fourth stanza, when McCann's subject is forced to beg on the street, he is no longer awarded the epithet 'man' at all, but is now recognised only as a 'a beggar', a 'work-shy scrounger' and ultimately an 'ex-con' by the magistrate who administers him. There is such a freight of past and present pain at the back of this poem: the gradual dehumanisation of workers who lose not only their jobs, but their identities, their dignity, their families, and their homes.

This loss of livelihood, community, and self is relayed over the course of five stanzas implying a long, slow historical – as well as individual – diminishment. The sixth stanza, however, sums up the relatively static destiny of the rich: 'There was this Boss/ Who was also a Landlord/ As well as Local Magistrate/ And now, Upon a Time, still is.' While the downward potential of the working-class is bottomless, the upper-class stay still, consolidate their power. Your boss might not literally be the same person as your landlord or local magistrate, but they belong to the same class cohort, and they act against you accordingly. They always have. The poem is as bleak as it is historically attentive, but it carries with it the promise of oral transmission between and across generations. The 'Grandad' who is telling this story is surely passing on the history of class oppression to future generations, who, better armed with understanding can locate themselves in a continuity of struggle, and arm themselves for the ongoing fight.

Can Revolutions Start in Washrooms?

By Fred Voss

I’m standing
in front of the washroom mirror washing up
after another day’s work
all my life
I’ve seen the working man beaten down
unions broken
wages falling
as CEO salaries skyrocket and stockbrokers get rich
and politicians talk of ‘trickle down’
and ‘the land of opportunity’
and ‘the American way’
and Earl on the turret lathe
keeps tying and retying his shoelaces that keep breaking
and blinks through 30-year-old glasses and finally
gives up his car
to ride the bus to work
and Ariel on the Cincinnati milling machines turns 72
heaving 80-pound vices onto steel tables
with swollen arthritic fingers and joking
about working until he drops
all my life I’ve wondered
why we men who’ve twisted chuck handles
until our wrists screamed
shoved thousands of tons of steel into white-hot blast furnaces
under midnight moons
leaned our bodies against screaming drill motors meeting
cruel deadlines until we thought
our hearts would burst
are silent
as the owners build their McMansions on hills and smoke big
cigars driving a different
$100,000 leased car to work each month
why after bailing out the banks
losing our houses
seeing our wages slashed
and our workloads rise
I’ve never heard one word
of revolt
and Teddy the bear of a gantry mill operator
walks into the washroom to wash
all the razor-sharp steel chips
and stinking black machine grease off
his arms and hands
he’s been driving the same cheap motorcycle
for 20 years and says,
‘Hey which front office person is driving
that brand new Jaguar I see parked out there now?’
and none of us can answer
as we raise our heads from the sinks
‘Well, whoever it is,’ Teddy says,
‘They’re making too much money!’

After 40 years of silence
I can’t help wishing his words could be like the musket shot
that set off the storming
of the Bastille.



By Martin Hayes

it is constant
it walks beside you
when you should’ve left it behind

it sits next to you on the tube
holds your hand
speaks to you in your ear
about the things you should’ve done
the things
you shouldn’t have done

along the Edgware Rd up to home

like a pack of hungry dogs
trying to keep your arse away
from its snapping jaws

inside you take your boots off
switch on the tele
open a can of beer

it is still there
staring at you
wanting to know
this or that

there is no respite from it

it is the only thing that pays for the rent
the food the electricity the toothpaste
the plasters Bonjela codeine and wine

without it
you are homeless
with it
you are a slave
and constantly
it reminds you of this


Once Upon a Time (Grandad tells a story)

By Kevin Patrick McCann

There was this Union man
But the Boss found out and sacked him.

Once Upon a Time
There was this jobless man
Couldn’t pay the rent so him and his family
Were swiftly evicted.

Once upon a Time
There was this homeless man left his wife
And kids in the workhouse while he went
On the tramp but couldn’t find work
Because he was blacklisted.

Once upon a Time
There was this beggar collapsed in the street
And was soon up before the Beak
Who told him he was a work-shy scrounger
And gave him hard labour
For twenty-four weeks.

Once Upon a Time
There was this ex-con, newly released,
Finds out his wife and son both died
In the workhouse so was dragged off
To the Asylum where he dies as well.

Once Upon a Time
There was this Boss
Who was also a Landlord
As well as Local Magistrate
And now, Upon a Time, still is.

Fred Voss has written several collections of poetry, including The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand (Culture Matters, 2016), Robots Have No Bones (Culture Matters, 2019), and the recently released Someday There Will Be Machine Shops Full of Roses (Smokestack, 2023).

Martin Hayes has worked in the courier industry for 30 years. He is the author of numerous poetry collections, including Ox, (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2021), Underneath (Smokestack, 2021) and the digital pamphlet Machine/ Language (Culture Matters, 2023).

Kevin Patrick McCann has published eight collections of poetry for adults, and one for children, as well as the recent digital pamphlet, The Haunting: Deleted Scenes (Culture Matters, 2022). Kevin is the author of It’s Gone Dark (The Otherside Books, 2020) a collection of ghost stories, and Ov (Beul Aithris Publications, 2020), a fantasy novel for children.

Why Birkbeck Needs To Nurture English Literature
Saturday, 18 February 2023 09:48

Why Birkbeck Needs To Nurture English Literature

Published in Cultural Commentary


by Fran Lock

This story both is and isn’t about Birkbeck. On the one hand, it is absolutely particular to an iconic institution that recently celebrated its 200th anniversary as a radical space offering accessible higher education previously beyond the reach of poor and working people. It is the story of how, in the midst of those celebrations, the aims and ideals of that institution were – and are – being aggressively undermined by major restructuring, with proposed cuts to more than 80 academic and over 50 administrative and professional services jobs across the College. In English alone 50% of academic staff are faced with redundancy.

This story matters: it matters because English research at Birkbeck is world-leading, ranked 2nd in the UK and 1st in London by the Times Higher Education. It matters because of the vital role the department plays in widening participation in English studies, creating a unique space with one of the most diverse student bodies in the country, among them many mature students, and many working-class students, often the first in their families to enter higher education. Most of these students are studying after or around the working day. I can attest from personal experience both to the pressing need for such spaces, and to the rich, polyphonous creative and intellectual communities they help to foster and create. This story matters. And it matters to me, personally.

On the other hand, this is also a story with much broader implications. It is a story about the managed decline of the Arts and Humanities across all levels of education. It is a story about the marketisation of the academy towards the exclusion of poor and working-class people. It is a Tory Story, about the way in which successive generations of Tory governments have used so-called educational “reforms” to routinise and shrink the teaching of English in schools, producing a loveless conveyor belt curriculum where students are rewarded for the relentless memorising of disconnected facts, and discouraged from developing any kind of lively or critical conversation with and about literature.

Michael Gove did a tremendous amount of damage as Education Secretary in 2013, and Ofqual's 2020 decision to make poetry optional at GCSE level is part of this same ongoing process, which is, to my mind, ideological and deliberate. To put it plainly: the skills that the study of English develop in us – nuanced and analytical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration – are not skills that those in power would like to see evenly distributed. The cuts taking place at Birkbeck are disturbing not only because they impoverish and scar a pioneering Arts and Humanities curriculum at an iconic institution (although they do), and not only because they are symptomatic of the government’s myopic and grimly utilitarian focus on STEM subjects within the academy (although they are); the cuts taking place at Birkbeck are disturbing because they concentrate the burden of that skewed focus on poor and working-class people. A move every bit as wrong-headed as it is political.

In 2022, the Office for Students announced plans to remove funding for “low quality” courses, which they defined as those where less than 60% of participants go into “good” jobs or further study quickly after graduating. This has led to a number of universities – among them Sheffield Hallam, Cumbria, Roehampton, and UEA – suspending or cancelling Arts and Humanities courses amid budget cuts and spiralling redundancies. The idea seems to be to strongarm universities (with a particular emphasis on non-Russell Group universities) into vocational courses, thereby shrinking at one stroke the pool of contributing talent to the artistic and cultural life of this country to a small group of privileged graduates. Yes, this is a miserable denial of working-class creativity, but it is also monumentally self-defeating: the arts and entertainment industry is one of the few areas of the British economy that can still claim to be thriving. Its reputation and success is, in large part, due to working-class creatives.

We need Birkbeck. We need literature and the arts. I needed it. It is far from perfect, but the level of cultural and intellectual participation I now enjoy, I owe to being able to complete my doctorate at Birkbeck. As a mature student. Around my existing jobs and elder care commitments. This would not have been possible for me at any other academic institution. And that’s important. In that it is important to acknowledge that significant and original contributions to knowledge are lost when we exclude poor and working-class people from educational opportunity. Because when we exclude them, then talent is frustrated and futures are curtailed. It is important because working-class people are as capable and deserving of knowledge, literature, art and culture as our more privileged peers.

But that’s not the whole story. What is happening at Birkbeck is inseparable from arts funding cuts, inside the academy and out, that ensure inequality of access and provision. Elites will always try to marginalise or underfund any cultural activity to such an extent that only those with a vested interest in maintaining the status-quo can afford to participate. And when they do invest, they tend to invest in the kinds of cultural activities that automatically exclude working-class people. For example, literature is underfunded by ACE in proportion to ballet, opera, and theatre. Put simply, as the academy closes its doors on the study of English, there are fewer and fewer outside opportunities to help fill that void.

How do ascribe worth? Can the cultural and intellectual pulse of a country really be reckoned by labour market outcomes? Whose value system is that, and is that a world any of us would seriously want to be a part of? Culture is the medium through which the work of ideology flows. It's also a place – and a language – where those ideologies can be met and challenged. We’re fighting for our right to broach those challenges, and the ability of future generations to think them into being.

Literature is for Working People

by Craig Smith

During lockdown, book sales boomed. Many of us who were forced to work from home found we had an extra couple of hours of free time per day because we weren’t commuting. We read. We watched movies. We binge-watched TV series. Isolation was tough, and we reached for works of imagination to escape our confinement, to bring light relief, to help us understand what was going on in the world.

The English language is fundamental to British culture, and English literature is the English language at its finest. Directly or indirectly, it filters through everything we think and do, and imbues our daily lives with a richness that sometimes we don’t appreciate. When literature matters so much to us as a nation – to our view of ourselves, to the world’s view of us – why would we not encourage students to immerse themselves in its variety and glory, to understand it thoroughly, to carry its message forward? But that is what Birkbeck University is planning to do.

The founding and growth of Birkbeck University – the Mechanics’ Institute – is testimony to a sane and civilised society providing opportunity for working people to engage with the world around them and to better their lot in life. Birkbeck offers opportunity for working people to grow, to challenge themselves, to follow their dreams when their circumstances mean they don’t have the luxury of ditching the day job, when they still need to earn a living.

We would not have been able to continue our studies had it not been for Birkbeck’s unique operating model. We are each in the second year of a two-year part-time MA in Creative Writing. English literature and creative writing go hand in hand. Understanding literature is fundamental to better writing. So we don’t just write, we also read, for the course and for the love of it. We are both from working-class backgrounds, we both work for a living, and it has always been our dream to sit within an ecosystem that revolves around written works of the imagination. Birkbeck allows us to do that.

You don’t have to study English to degree level to enjoy works of literature, but it’s a cornerstone of any worthwhile institution to offer an undergraduate course in the written word of our native language, to offer the opportunity to understand our shared body of literature. It speaks to the aspiration of your student body, of the students you wish to attract, to present English literature as an option. For Birkbeck, of all places, to walk away from English literature, or to downplay it, is to suggest that literature is not for working people. At least, that’s how it feels.

As writers of fiction, we are on a perpetual lookout for the reasons behind human behaviour, for the motivating factors behind a given course of action. We want to think well of the people around us, to search for resolution, for the satisfying ending. We believe in redemption. And so it is with the plight of English teaching at Birkbeck. We have faith that a solution can be reached that allows the English Department to survive and to thrive. But as we are not party to the discussions as to department’s future, all we can do is add our voice to the multitude of people who know that closing the department (or downgrading it, which is tantamount to the same thing) would be an error. English literature sits at the heart of British culture, and Birkbeck needs a thriving English department to support working people who love our language.

Craig Smith is a novelist and poet from Huddersfield. Craig was recently a winner of Poetry Archive Now! Wordview 2022 with his poem, 'The Great British Insurrection'. Other poems have appeared in The North, Atrium, iamb, Writers Rebel, The Interpreters House, among others. Rue Bella published his long poem, 'A Quick Word With A Rock and Roll Later Starter', and Smith/Doorstep published his pamphlet, L.O.V.E. Love. Craig is currently working toward an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. He tweets at @clattermonger.

Christmas poetry round-up, 2022
Saturday, 24 December 2022 08:53

Christmas poetry round-up, 2022

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock unleashes her annual round-up of outstanding poetry collections; image above by Imtiaz Dharker

So here it is, “merry” Christmas? Or not. Not a lot to be joyful about, is there? As the Tories inaugurate their own personal Nightmare Before Christmas. Which feels like it has been going on since summer. 2013. But in the midst of despair, let’s take a moment to cheer cultural production, in the form of six variously playful, provocative and acutely awake poetry collections. Collects that prove it is our creativity that raises, unites, and sustains us in the darkest days.


Impure Thoughts by Golnoosh Nour (Verve, 2022)

This is the second poetic offering in as many years from twice Polari-shortlisted Nour, and while it retains the baroque stylistic flourish that characterized 2021’s Rocksong, it is, in so many ways, a far stranger, more intellectually driven beast.

The collection stalks ‘impurity’ across its many incarnations. Nour interrogates its operation within political space and upon the subjectivities of those branded or embraced by it. Throughout the course of the collection the notion of impurity pivots from glorious self-dramatizing defiance to a generous and embracive recognition of the other: impurity as both an aesthetics and an ethics of queer care.

‘Ode to Courage’ is particularly haunting in this regard, as the poem invokes a complex solidarity with an addressee returning to their country (Ukraine) at time of war. Admiration and wounded ambivalence mix as the speaker is forced to confront their own vexed relationship to national belonging: ‘I was born to leave; I left to escape, no love was drunk/ enough to keep me in a country that was falling away from me./ It is true – I threw away my country like used condoms.’ In this last image Nour concentrates disgust for self and country, and a bottomless sadness for the failed possibility or wasted potential of both. While Nour’s ‘Ode’ is an expression of genuine respect for the bravery of a loved friend, it is also an act of mourning for a political territory that violently forecloses the possibility of such an act for the speaker. Many levels and registers of loss meet in this poem. How should one grieve for a country that refuses to love you back, that would evict or destroy you, that will not recognize your full humanity? Nour’s writing here is fierce and muscular; it avoids conventional sentiment, creating instead a deeply moving portrait of female friendship. This friendship exists in irreconcilable tension with the ‘violent shame’ of the political – and politicized – subject. That Nour distills this tension with such clarity is a testament to her skill as a poet.

Elsewhere in the collection, such as in ‘Curious Circumstances’ and ‘Reliquary’, Nour plays with the troubling connections between carnal desire and consumption, colliding images of fruit and flesh, cake and orgasm, signalling predatory instincts and carnivorous appetites. A number of the poems inhabit the intersection of consumption, carnality, betrayal and trauma, exploring the ways in which desire is performed and warped through (and by) the distorting lens of consumer culture; mediated by its technologies, susceptible to its logics. A number of the poems see the speaker identify with the discards and detritus of late-stage capitalism, only to use that very media to stage a counter performance of trademark bravura. ‘Cheap Tricks’, for example, is horny, hungry, and unapologetic in its pursuit of a pleasure so often denied to its poetic subjects.

Nour’s writing owes much to a queer lineage that includes writers such as Georges Bataille and Dennis Cooper in its preoccupation with forms of perverse and polymorphous bodily abjection, yet this concern is also tempered with a strong streak of feral feminism, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the collection’s shape-shifting animal motifs. These weave through Impure Thoughts and its predecessor, Rocksong in forms at once monstrous and ghostly. Nour constellates ideas of extremity, excess, queer desire, sickness and animality in a variety of arresting ways. ‘I desire so hard I give/ myself migraines’ she writes. This desire is both an animal search for satisfaction, and an intensely political yearning for a home that evicts or serially abuses and betrays. The body is a territory, a border, an autonomous republic of one. It is an untamed and frightening space, a site of escape, belonging, and resistance. So too the body of the text, which Nour reconfigures in a host of dynamic forms, full of libidinal energy and oracular fury.


Loading Terminal by Danny Hayward (87 Press, 2022)

We live amidst a ‘carnival of state reaction’, in the global welter, writes Danny Hayward, of ‘basically the most intense state violence you can imagine’. Very little recent poetry gets into the gears of that meat-grinder with as much acuity or force as Loading Terminal, which collects three long poems together with a selection of shorter pieces and essays, all concerned with the distortional stresses of late-stage capitalism on the substance and structure of thought and speech.

There is no catharsis in this book. You cannot, Hayward seems to suggest, resolve crisis in language, rather language dissolves in the acid bath of contemporary disaster. The language of Loading Terminal is compulsive, impeded and repeating; it hiccups and collapses, glitches, stutters and loops. Hayward is very much occupied by the limits and failures of language; its obsessive and neurotic qualities, the ways in which it reproduces the very conditions it attempts to disclose. The commonplace that poetry – that any writing – is intrinsically therapeutic or improving turns on the notion that language exists apart from the events it describes, the emotions it seeks to express. Our language does double duty: as diagnostic and surgical tool. We can tell each other where it hurts, we can “heal” through the articulate transfer of emotion.

Except we cannot. Language is infected and infectious; not the end of alienation but its instrument. Rather than connecting, it becomes the crucible in which we ‘harden’, our ‘solipsistic anger cut off from reality don’t/ care about the dead/ pretense of sympathy for the dead worse than none at all/ I feel none today so that is better’. What do we think we’re doing when we are doing poetry, when we are doing culture, when we are doing language? What gets under my skin about Hayward’s work is how inseparable this doing suddenly feels from everything I call my ‘real’ life, how susceptible our poetry is to both the linguistic shrapnel and the zombie logics of neoliberalism; permeated and hijacked on every level. ‘Hysterical middle class poetry sleeps in the same room/ as unrecognisable reality’, writes Hayward. In the early hours of the morning an uncomfortable idea enters my head: that hysterical middle class poetry is a large part of what keeps reality ‘unrecognisable’.

None of which seeks to capture the rhapsodic urgency of Hayward’s language, his syntax of alternately loose connection and cutting precision. It’s not the smug moral inertness of ‘innovation’ for innovation’s sake. It feels driven by a desire to get at what’s at stake for all of us who ‘fuck around with phrases to understand this/ world’. We know any such attempts at understanding will fail, and that ‘fucking around’ is all we are doing, yet we’re still compelled, it’s all we have.

In the midst of which, moments of tender solidarity break through. I was struck in particular by ‘Elegy’ and ‘Letter to Sophie’, poems where the most vulnerable and intimate address intersects with poetic tradition, the mediation of received forms, and digital technologies. There’s a passage in ‘Letter to Sophie’ that I think it is worth quoting in its entirety:

Some other things I wrote down in my phone while I was sitting in hospitals: “Poetry is inhibited by the desire for knowledge. The desire for knowledge is insatiable. It tells you you’re not ready to begin yet. But that’s not right. When you sit in a hospital and listen to people talking on the phone about the cancer surging through their bodies you know there is no time to wait, and that poetry is the only thing there is.”

These gleanings feel radical, wakeful, too hot to handle, which is perhaps why they come to us third hand, doubly delayed – through the letter – which form of communication already embeds the possibility of delay – off the phone screen, from the limbo of the hospital. Mediated, pre-digested, yet still unsettlingly vital. It’s not that poetry is a less a failure than other forms of language, but that poetry is a superb attempter. The attempt is frigging everything.

What do I mean by that? I was reminded, reading Loading Terminal, but something the poet Lisa Robertson once said: that she doesn’t know how to write, each time, and then begins. Writing is the attempt itself, assuming the risks and vulnerabilities of failure. Writing is persistent failure, persistent process in a move toward an other, others. ‘I resolve to drastically lower the bar for expression’, writes Hayward, ‘All my most instinctive sympathies are with people who don’t know how to talk anyway’. None of us do, but the effort is a profound act of solidarity.


THE AUTISTIC-MEMOIR-MANIFESTO OMNIBUS, by Zak Ferguson (Sweat Drenched Press, Forthcoming)

When reviewing Ferguson’s The System Compendium in 2021, I described it as a book both impressive and surprising in extent, scope, intensity, and ambition. This is equally true of this genre-bending, experimental opus. The Autistic-Memoir-Manifesto Omnibus collects four previously released volumes– ‘White Font on Obsidian Sheets’, ‘U N R U L Y Black Stains on The White Page’, ‘T H E A U T I S T I C ( " = " )’ and ‘The Full-Form’ –  into one gloriously disobedient, gleefully irreverent, fruitfully disorienting package.

It's not often you encounter a writer – or indeed a press – who really knows how to play; who understands play as a provocation, both political and intellectual. Rarer still to discover a writer who is able to communicate this without sucking all joy and juice right out of their text. These aren’t arid little arty-farty “games” calculated to confirm writer and reader alike in an over-inflated estimate of their own intelligence. No, this is something else: the text kibbitzes, heckles, goads, teases, pranks and punks you. It is as if Harpo Marx – the character, not the actor – had written a book, by way of Antonin Artaud, Hannah Weiner, Valerie Solanas and SpongeBob SquarePants. There are what readers might recognise as typically Fergusonian flourishes: a restless shifting between genres and modes, a concern with typography and the structural stuff of the text, those jittery, innervating jumps between points of view, and the rhapsodic runs of language that drive Ferguson’s interrogation of language, literature, and neoliberal cultural production.

Because, while this book is undoubtedly both a manifesto and a memoir, it is also a mode and commentary on those things, perhaps even a deconstruction. Certainly, Ferguson takes to task the notion of ‘memoir’ as it emerges from the bland imaginarium of mainstream publishing: a polite and politically neutered confessional space. Such literature works to absorb, revolve and narratively package neurodiverse struggle within a linear trajectory, one that is firmly in step with the normalising aspirations of western capitalism. The dictates of this form demand nothing less than the banishment of all that makes autistic thought unpalatable, gritty, lively and strange from the space of the page. There is no room in this marketized crap for recalcitrant anger, social criticism, or textual difference. Autism becomes a story, a narrative motor divorced from the bodies and brains that live, think, and feel it. Ferguson’s ‘memoir’ is the best antidote to this nonsense I’ve ever read. I see myself in this text: in the obsessive, rapidly cycling autistic creativity that drives it. This challenge to an implied neurotypical audience for autistic literary production feels necessary and refreshing.

It is the collision of memoir and manifesto forms that gives Ferguson’s omnibus its raw power. I previously compared The Autistic-Memoir-Manifesto Omnibus to the work of Valerie Solanas, and this is not a comparison I make lightly: Solanas’ S.C.U.M Manifesto uses the manifesto form to stage a feral burlesque of queer rage, to embody the too-muchness the world hates in women, queers and poor people, and turn into a hyperbolic, excessive and polarising mode. Ferguson’s writing has much the same spirit.  It is iconoclastic in the best sense, razor sharp on the machinations of the literati and on publishing culture. Incendiary, and unafraid to be thought of as ‘petulant’ – Ferguson’s own phrase – bratty or hysterical. Both writers speak frankly about shame in ways that transmute that shame into its absolute refusal. There’s no meekness, no phoney-baloney gratitude for table scraps. Ferguson’s text gives the middle finger to the script that says we should play nice, eat our greens and accept our place. Such a refusal has greater potency, existing within the frame of vulnerable – often abjected – autistic subjectivity.

What stays with me about this work is indeed its sense of vulnerability and risk – which is both a mode of existence and a manner of writing. It is ‘edgy’ in the sense that Ferguson’s textual practice is exiled to the margins of literary culture. It is ‘edgy’ because as a citizen and social subject the author is excluded or disenfranchised. But it is also ‘edgy’ because it is inspired by and emerges from those liminal spaces in art and consciousness where the sparks fly. It is writing ready to expose itself, to assume the risks of failure and break new, uncharted ground. The result of this process is a profound consideration on what it means to live, create and contribute, not only as a neurodiverse artist, but as a member of the suffering human community.

There are moments of biographical disclosure (particularly within the ‘Gay Friction’ section of ‘The Full Form’) that are distinctly uncomfortable. Yet despite this, Ferguson’s blend of incisive thinking and self-awareness prevent the events he writes about becoming sentimental or sensational story-fodder. Instead, the text shows its working, the inseparable mesh of experience and theory that form the basis of his cultural analysis. This analysis is wide-ranging, rangy and compelling. Ultimately, The Autistic-Memoir-Manifesto Omnibus seduces and confronts us with how one singular vision was shaped, and how it negotiates the dystopian landscape of a culture and a society not of its choosing.


Grace Note, by Peter Godfrey (Smokestack Books, 2022)

Smokestack have had a good year, bringing us a rich array of titles from contemporary poets and long-neglected radical forerunners alike, including an important collection from lesser-known Soviet poet Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts (The Blockade Swallow, 2022). These are poems of unflinching witness, and their English translation is disarmingly direct and assured. Berggolts writes of starvation, siege, and almost unimaginable cruelty during the Stalinist terror. Yet at her most compelling she is a poet of practical necessity and daily life: the mechanisms by which mourning is forestalled and compassionate political conviction survives in the midst of persecution and fear. This collection deserves a far more sustained critical treatment than I have space for here, so for now I will note it as a welcome edition to Smokestack’s catalogue of radical women writers, placing women and girls at the forefront of both revolutionary activity and literary production.

Other honourable mentions include the zeitgeisty, engaging and hilariously sharp The Love Songs of Late Capitalism by Martin Rowson, and The Knucklebone Floor by Linda France, which bristles with intelligent and riddling artifice. France’s collection is in part a verse-biography of Susan Davidson (1796-1877) who spent thirty years landscaping the grounds of Allen Banks near Ridley Hall in Northumberland. It is also a complex meditation on nature, patriarchy, time and memory.

Yet my favourite collection from Smokestack this year has to be the consummate and painterly Grace Note by Peter Godfrey, for Godfrey’s uncanny ability to bring a single, small moment into dazzling focus with the subtlest of strokes. A poet who shows more than he tells, Godfrey conjures his scenes and subjects through the judicious arrangement of fine detail. For instance, in ‘Recife café’, an encounter between a young homeless subject and the poem’s comparatively affluent speaker is brought to life through sparing yet freighted lines: ‘the comfort of my pocket’, ‘a white tooth in her smile’. This could so easily have been a sentimental poem, yet Godfrey’s awareness of disparity is matched by a patient and attentive regard for the humanity of his subject. The young girl is held by the text, compassionately acknowledged.

We might think of this compassionate regard as a form of grace, and grace in its various guises – as eloquence, as good will, as virtue, as prayer – is the organising principle of the collection. The poems move through place and time touching on moments of spiritual quickening, quiet resolve, revelation or crisis in the course of each unique life. Godfrey’s evocation of Jacques Brel is particularly effective: an understated chanson of a poem, capturing both something of Brel’s supple half rhymes and his deflationary deadpan: ‘Low horizon a monotone/ pierced by a church spire like a needle./ A desk, a lamp, a single bed,/ my glass of Orangina.’ However, it is when breathing life into unknown figures that Godfrey’s writing is at its best. I do not, for example, know who ‘Morag Ann’ is, yet by the end of the poem I feel I am intimately acquainted with her. Hers is a hard life, beset by the elements and by the grim vicissitudes of fate, yet born with patience and almost infinite stoicism. ‘Morag Ann’ is one of many poems in Grace Note that savours of place, of woodsmoke and the sea. It captures two things not often seen in contemporary poetry: the resilience and quiet courage of rural working people, and the inscrutable workings of the human heart.

If one thing unites Godfrey’s poetic subjects it is their status as outsiders, as those who go against the grain, often out of step with the aims and aspirations of capitalism while in tune with rugged nature and native place. The poems set in Scotland and the Hebrides in particular are written with obvious relish, and contain almost exultant descriptions of the landscape, and the people who live and work it. ‘In a Hebridean cemetery’ is my personal favourite: a poetic declaration of solidarity, extending backwards to ‘the people of Scarp’ who ‘hauled our boats up the shore,/ fetched water at the well,/ combed the beach for driftwood, and sang./ MacInnes, MacLennan and MacLeod/ by runrig furrows and the purple hill/ that rang with schoolhouse voices./ Our names kissed others’ lips before we went.’

This last line is haunting, and it provides, I think, a key to the heart of this collection: to sing and celebrate our unlikely tribe, both near and far; to uncover our affinities across time and place and lift their names to the light.


The Shouting Tories, by various, ed. by Mike Quille, winners chosen by Andy Croft (Culture Matters, 2022)

Where would my round-up be without a Culture Matters anthology? And as it celebrates its sixth year, it seems right to take stock, not only of this year’s Bread and Roses Poetry Award Anthology, but the prize as a whole. And the first thing I want to note is that it is an ‘award’, and not a ‘competition’. While the prize seeks to recognise and celebrate poetic merit though publication and a small cash prize, it also attempts to acknowledge and bring together a cohort of working-class writers on the left; to foster participation and broaden networks of solidarity.

A tall order, perhaps, but over the last couple of years I think this bold ambition is beginning to be met. This latest anthology is proof, bringing together an impressive roster of new and familiar faces, united by the urgency and energy of their poetic mission. This is all the more impressive for the difficulty of their task: to meaningfully respond to a social and political reality that seems to obliterate the very possibility of meaningful response; a grotesque reality in the face of which language seems unequal. The problem is two-fold: where do we even find the words to encompass the scale of this crisis, and if we had the words, what would be the point? The poets collected in The Shouting Tories are savvy strategists who erect against defeatism a lively and pressured engagement with syntax, structure, and the blank space of the page. While these voices are united in their preoccupations and concerns, they are also various, as in life they use whatever comes to hand, and these poems are by turns lyrical, satirical, declamatory and compassionate, most often choosing to zero in on small moments in the lives of those so often seen as little more than faceless economic collateral.

While this iteration of the anthology is necessarily full of rage, it is also a celebration of those same lives, and a hopeful recognition of their capacity to challenge and to change the state of the world, for all of us.

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