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.

Spirograph: an interview with Pauline Sewards
Monday, 04 January 2021 09:50

Spirograph: an interview with Pauline Sewards

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock interviews Pauline Sewards about Spirograph, her latest collection of poems

FL: Hi Pauline, thanks so much for agreeing to talk to me about your latest collection of poems, Spirograph. The title poem uses the conceit of the Spirograph Set to explore those moments of 'not quite repetition' in language, life, and loss. I wonder if you could start by talking a little bit about the title, especially as it relates to the themes of dependency, change, and recovery that run throughout the collection?

One of the reasons I was keen to do this interview with you, was that so many of the poems in Spirograph reflect on or are informed by your experience of work as professional carer – if that isn't an oxymoron. In light of the present government's refusal to acknowledge writers and artists as workers, the collection feels especially timely, not least because it provides an eloquent testament to the mutual indebtedness of your writing and working practices. This is especially evident – it seems to me – in the deep, sustained attention you afford your poetic subjects. Could you tell us something about the relationship between your work as a poet and as a person working in care? Are there skills particular to poetry that feed into – for want of a better word – your professional life?

I also wanted to ask about forms! That is, the paperwork and paraphernalia: the rhetoric, routines and official formulae which delineate and compress the experience of administering care. In poems such as 'After Burnout', 'Assessment' and 'Day's Work' the language and machinery of this administration seems to infiltrate the space of the poem and the consciousness of your speakers and subjects alike. There's a kind of instrumental anonymity at work, which the poems – with their generous attention to detail – debate and resist. Reading Spirograph, I was struck by how few spaces there are within language and literature for precisely that kind of resistance. How conscious were you when putting the collection together of writing against various kinds of reductive or instrumental language, and to what extent you see that as explicitly political?

PS: I like your description of language as ‘delineating and compressing care’. Sometimes the drug and alcohol field (a jargonistic phrase in itself) seems to be always about language. The use of the term service user, client, patient, drug or alcohol user and so on - each carries a different judgement. Harm reduction and recovery focus each carry a different weight. There has been a move away from psychological language to business-speak which can sound quite ugly – ‘outcoming’, ‘moving forward.’  Language always encodes an attitude to the work.

When I wrote about my job I was keen not to represent myself as a hero or saint. I worry everyday that I’m not completely successful in meeting the aims of the organisation and  I worry far more that I might depart from my own values. I wanted to take the reader into the day to day processes of the job, as in the poem ‘Drug Service’. The poem ‘Farweltering’ is also intended to do this and was written about an experience of work which was much more focussed on quality of human interaction. In writing about colleagues and service users there is obviously an obligation to defend confidentiality by merging and altering details. This parallels the nursing code which I’ve internalised over the years which enshrines the keeping of professional boundaries.

The poem ‘Assessment’ was inspired by a colleague from many years ago who wrote up as his assessments as a flowing narrative full of quoted speech and detail about the service user. Today’s pace involves a more tick-box risk-focused process, but the paperwork doesn’t give a sense of the person in the way my colleague’s write-ups did.

The use of language is always very political in these services. The Harm Reduction banner was surprisingly taken up by the Conservative government in the 1980s. This compassionate and liberal approach was a public health response to the HIV crisis. Deep funding cuts lead to the reframing of the work during the last decade or so as Recovery Focused.  In reality both approaches can exist together and be seen as a continuum. Scandalously, drug related deaths rose exponentially from 2012 until plateauing recently (the full effects of the pandemic aren’t known yet). During this time caseloads rose from an average of 30 to over a hundred. By a sleight of hand the workers' job titles are different – they become co-ordinators rather than key workers, so it hard to compare like with like.

You were recently described as “one of the foremost poets on women and work in Britain today”. Obviously, work is very far from being your only poetic subject, but I do get the sense that it is an essential and lively concern in your writing (I know, for example, that in addition to your own creative practice, you recently co-edited Magma 74 on the theme of work). I don't know if you would agree, but I've often felt that, historically, the kinds of work that tend to be performed by women – whether that's clerical work, or work in the service industry, or in different professions of care – are also the kinds of work routinely excluded from a poetic account of labour. Do you feel that women are still under-represented with regards to work-writing, and do you have any thoughts on how publishing cohorts might challenge – or, more hopefully, are starting to challenge –  that lack of inclusivity?

That was a kind description by Kate Fox. So many poets write brilliantly about work. I’d like to mention some writers on nursing - Sally Read who published a few years ago, Romalyn Ante’s ‘Anti-emetic for Homesickness’ and Helen Sheppard, whose extraordinary collection focused on midwifery will be published next year. I definitely agree with you some writing about work may be devalued because it reflects women’s experience. I remember Fiona Moore did an analysis of the number of books published by women on her blog a few years ago which showed a lot of inequality. I get the sense that things have changed quite rapidly but I don’t know how much of this is window dressing. Publishers including Burning Eye Book, Verve, Bad Betty, Outspoken, Culture Matters and others are going some way to address this. Co-editing Magma was an amazing experience, if I had the opportunity again I’d want to elicit more voices from care and service industries, Ben Newbery and I tried hard to do this (but still got a huge proportion of submissions from retired male professors in the US). I think there is a whole anthology to be collated and this might start by encouraging people to write about their experiences and may need to extend beyond print platfoms.

I know this interview has been very work-focussed so far, but of course, the collection is about more than just work, at least in the narrow sense of “employment”. You write movingly about girlhood, about the shaping of a self from formative experiences, not of all of which are necessarily benign. You also attend to the continuity of shared female experience: what it means to be a mother, what it means to grieve, what it means to create. Throughout the collection your poems feel united by a common expression of care, and by a sense of vulnerability. The speakers in the 'Work' section of Spirograph are literally and psychologically vulnerable because they administer care at the sharp end of human need; those subject to their care are vulnerable in a different way. The mothers in 'Mother's Day at Roll for the Soul' are also vulnerable, vulnerable in front of each other as socially awkward strangers; the women swimming on Hampstead Heath are similarly exposed, to one another and to the elements. The girls in 'The Town Abuser' are vulnerable in quite another sense again, and often the bodies of your poetic subjects are frail or failing. Would you mind speaking a little bit about this idea of vulnerability in your work? Do you think perhaps that the act of writing and reading poetry creates in itself a condition of vulnerability?

Paradoxically poetry is the means by which I have become less socially awkward. I am in awe of younger poets, in some cases very young poets who have spoken about trauma and honed their craft very quickly on stages. Two Bristol poets, Malaika Kegode and Aiysha Humphreys, come to mind. For various reasons it took me decades to speak in front of room full of strangers and I found small social gatherings were even more daunting. I’m not sure that has entirely gone away, and I do feel nostalgic for the adrenalin terror of performing. There are a lot of very personal poems in the book - Premonition/Hindsight, which I’ve only read in public once, is probably the most direct confessional one. I like to have a mixture of inward and outward focus.

Staying with the previous thought briefly, I know that the idea of being vulnerable is generally figured in quite negative terms, and certainly there is a perception that to work in care a person has to harden themselves to a certain extent. I love that the poems in Spirograph seem to offer a counter-contention to this idea. There's real receptivity and openness to others and to experience in this collection, and its this openness that is ultimately restorative; that allows the work of care to continue. Is preserving that sense of openness difficult? And is poetry helpful in that preservation?

At work I think preserving a sense of openness and flexibility is essential. There is also a tension between a planned diary and what will actually happen during the day. When working with people who may be chaotic it is seen as important to present consistency and routine. Work has a lot in common with performance and writing as it often requires a persona and relinquishing the need to be liked. Work requires being in a role, a conduit for service delivery, and in the same way that a poem is a conduit to expression. There is often a lack of time to respond to people on a human level. I’m interested in the way colleagues manage these contradictions of the work.

The collection is divided into four sections, beginning with 'Work' and ending in 'Wonder'. In between there is 'Where' and 'Who', providing poetic explorations of place and identity. Could you talk a little bit about the structure of the book? Did it evolve organically or was it consciously shaped over time?

I was quite naive at the beginning of the process. In my first collection I had a sort of overture of poems where the first few pages set out the themes and the following poems were in an intuitively coherent order. This time I had some mentoring from the poet Lucy English. It was her suggestion that I consider having a much more explicit structure. Based on the Spirograph image, my intuitively chosen title for the collection from the early stages, I chose to divide the poems into roughly equal sections. I’m aware that many poems could slip into different sections and I hope readers find and enjoy certain symmetries and images. There are a lot of poems about women including After Burn Out, My Grandmothers, and Pride but there are also poems about cult male artists Jazzman John, and Molly. It is an imperfect Spirograph though and one day I’d like to make something more structured as I’m fascinated by patterns and creativity emerging from rules although that is the opposite to the way I write at the moment.

Staying with form and structure, I wanted to ask about the sense of questioning within the collection; about the poems as places of enquiry and investigation. This sense is generated not only through the use of direct questions – for example, “Who will tribute these women?” in Ivydean – but also the way in which you avoid offering any kind of pat resolution or punchline to the experiences you describe. Was this a conscious poetic strategy on your part, because it feels very natural?

For me poetry is way of diving in to make sense of the world, a rebellion against solution-focused processes, a way of retrieving and celebrating memories and of honouring people. I studied history many years ago and my mother is a self-trained historian who left school at fifteen; the book is dedicated to her and other female ancestors. I want to archive experience of work and beyond in my poetry.  I’m aware this could be seen as whimsical or nostalgic, but want to fight against this reductive view.

Yikes! I get the sense that those were all quite heavy questions, so I wanted to end by asking if you could talk a little about place in your writing, both as a subject and as an influence and inspiration. Bristol feels very present in these poems, and I'd love to know a bit about your relationship to the city and the way it's shaped your writing.

I moved to Bristol thirty years ago and was lucky enough to land in an inner city area, St Werburghs, which has its own identity, resisting gentrification and contains a lot of  countryside. Bristol has a rebellious reputation and it seems surprising that it took so long for that statue to be pulled down. But of course it has taken a very long time for Bristol to face up to its history and question the foundations that have made it a wealthy city.

I was raising my children and studying when I first arrived there so I missed the trip-hop years, more than compensated by going to toddler parties where lovers' rock and reggae were played.  The poem My Bristol is about arriving in the city and sense of things opening up as my role in life changed. I’m pleased to have experienced a city for such a long period of time and seen changes and celebrations that people who live outside may not be quite so well aware of it. For example there was briefly a music festival called Venn Fest in Stokes Croft which featured all sorts of types of music in different and repurposed venues, with an overlapping audiences wandering between the different gigs. I have also spent a lot of time away from Bristol, through work and other reasons. I love discovering new places, especially places that aren’t outwardly glamourous. My heart aches for Bristol as I’ve been away for months now due to the current situation. It is one of the places I feel a creative buzz both just walking and being in cafes, and in the poetry scene there which interacts with the musical tradition and street art of the city and was explosive before this year, but has always been healthy. Being away helps me appreciate the city and see it more objectively and I think the same process will happen with work soon!

Thanks so much for talking to me, I hope that wasn't too painful!

Thank you Fran, for your questions and time, always great to speak to you.

Grieving the City
Saturday, 02 January 2021 12:01

Grieving the City

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock introduces three poets writing loss in London

I no longer recognise this city. I map this city by what is missing. By which I mean, I map this city by what I miss, by whom I miss. There is a species of exile that Edward Said identifies as the 'unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home.' The 'essential sadness' of that rift, writes Said, 'can never be surmounted'. This is not my rift. This is not my pain. There is another kind of exile, an exile of spatial dysphoria: a feeling of being bound to a place, but of moving within it disregarded or misunderstood, abjected from public cartographies; edged out or spoken over whenever the story of your city is told.

Ireland was my foremost experience of this: where the sites and settlements of a shared experience no longer existed, where our past was not meaningfully registered upon public space, was written over by an iconography of grieving from which we felt excluded. My own experience of loss was unaccomodated by Ireland’s nationalistic, religious, and sectarian scripts; scripts in which poetry – through the highly politicised, selective editing of an Irish National Literature  – was heavily implicated.

Accepting that grief and the act of remembrance are experienced in and through physical spaces both public and private, then what should it mean for those of us with a vexed relationship to such spaces? Ireland was my first: excluding and devouring the dead by turns, folding them into her own mythology, inscribing their presence onto civic space. Unless. Unless they were not the 'right kind' of dead, the dead who did not fit the narrow arc of Ireland's nationally determined story. Traveller dead. Queer dead. Junkie dead.

I have written about this often: within settled communities the legacy of sectarian violence is explicit and readily legible, inscribed upon public space through acts of myriad vandalism and memorialisation; the demolition of buildings, the securitisation of streets. For sedentary communities buildings capture the continuity of collective experience, staging and reemphasising a shared cultural heritage. In the North of Ireland in particular, public artwork interacts with personal histories; mediates and facilitates the uncanny experience of memory between individuals and their wider communities, between these communities and the wider world. Traveller communities, whose settlements are, by their very nature, transitory, leave no corresponding trace or wound on the physical landscape. If we think of public space as a container for cultural heritage, then Traveller communities, their histories, and their memories, remain uninscribed, are excluded from the mapping of that heritage. To greive is to greive inwardly, invisibly. It is to find no place of recognition for your pain.

But lately, I have been thinking. This does not apply to Ireland alone, to Traveller communities alone. COVID-19 throws these thoughts into sharper relief, and it is surreal and sobering to reflect on which bodies society deems worthy of care. Jahan Ramazani writes about 'hierarchies of grievability': there are kinds of grief, and there are grieved for subjects, that it is not acceptable to mourn or to speak about. Who are we allowed to mourn? And how and where are we to mourn them, whose lives are characterised by the provisional, the precarious, the marginal and impermanent? How do we grieve poor, queer, vulnerably housed subjects? And how do we reckon with the trauma of that grief, when trauma, by its very definition, renders problematic the possibility of representation? How is trauma to be told when, through contact with traumatic experience, indivduals lose their ability to fully apprehend or integrate the memories of those experiences; when they are unable to give a coherent or consistent account of those experiences to others? How is grief to be rendered visible when the trauma of that grief is itself entangled in acts, official and unofficial, of forcible removal, denigration and erasure?

I am not sure there has ever really been a reckoning with this, politically or poetically. No one seems to want to ask the question: where do we even go to grieve once our landscapes are concreted over, our sites broken up, our communities dispersed, our squats torn down, our bars closed down, our dancehalls gentrified, our districts socially cleansed. I fear that where communities are decimated by our current health crisis, developers will move in. It has happened before. They will do it again. It is opportunistic, but it is also calculated: a willed amnesia, a way of denying that those 'types' they don't like had ever lived.

I no longer recognise this city. In an interview at the start of the year, I feel moved to describe London as a 'cartoon necropolis'. At the time even I wasn't sure what I meant. I am sure now: that there are ghost architechtures, ghost geographies that exist inside or under the surface of the offical ones. We have spent our lives occupying roughly the same spatial coordinates as other people, but we inhabited a totally different world. It has to do with how you map meaning onto space, how you inhabit and move through it. It is your langauge, your landmarks, your rich wealth of city lore. This is radically different if you are poor, if you are in some way 'other'. Or relationship to the city was – is – characterised by a sense of transition, by the logics of the provisional. But now gentrification is come. Austerity has eaten our city alive, and we can no longer find those makeshift makedo places to coalsese and heal. Camden has suffered so much. To be there now, it breaks my heart, the level and intensity of destitution is that acute. Life-long locals have been forced out, the same people who made that space vibrant and exciting, who gave it the cache and grimy glamour the moneymen now laud and fetishise and milk. There are cameras everywhere. There are fences. There are security goons in bomber-jackets with walkie-talkies. How can communities comes together to resist and sustain when there is nowhere left for real communities to form? When you are isolated and scattered and pushed further to the margins?

It happened in Soho. It happened in Brixton. It is happening in Camden and in Shoredich. And these same forces that make life impossible, exploit our histories, folding them into their own, claiming not only our territories but the discursive space – the very langauge –  in which we formulated notions of community and resistence.

Poetry can, and must resist this. 'Empathy' is a big buzzword in poetry at present, but it glosses an arrogant assumption that we can ever inhabit the skin of another; that we can ever understand or truly illuminate the fatal extent of the differences between us. I think what poetry can do is open up a territory, a place in which to greive, to give us back the sites and situations of our loss, and allow us to register that loss in community with others. This, I have to hope, is the true beauty of poetry: a form not merely memorial, but relational, an acknoweldgement of self and other, and a way of holding each other in our several griefs.

The poems I want to introduce today, through various lyric strategies, articulate the often uneasy relationship  between memory, loss, identity, and place. These are poems of pain, sometimes fraught and full of a restless, reckoning energy, but that is also their resistence, that is also their fire.

*

Ritual

by Dr Golnoosh Nourpanah

Another fucking Sunday when
There is no fuck but endless
Arguments about unfucked fuckers
Another Sunday when I bathe in a white
Well and pretend I’m clean
So clean I’m almost chaste like a fat virgin
So clean I lick my skin in search of a floral
Scent that would make me dizzy
Another Sunday when I stifle yet another scream
Even my white noise is onyx
I am dripping with words and this
Makes me a bitch. I wear my shrieks
Like a dagger under my garments
I tease my skin with the blade and
Slumber. But the Sunday chamber is
The loudest place to sleep in
I wake up, and my sweat smells like
Pickled aubergine so strong that the
Neighbours call the police. But there is
Always featherless hope, a way out, the path
To obsidian peace. If I take out
The blade from underneath my skin
If I find a cobalt vein, and cut it deep
If my black blood pours out
Like acid rain in spring,
These Sundays will end, and
There will be peace.

*
Dub Night

by Heathcote Ruthven

At a dub night in Village Underground
and think of you Jamie anew,
our punk racket in my living room
in love with the furious drums of Carnival.
Prone to feeling out of place
you might be uncomfortable here.
At the right time, you’d be all over it;
the bass notes hurt your throat.
What to say? To remember is to take a view.
Toward the end I didn’t know you.
Your boyish obsessions, your noble sighs,
old man playact, Attenborough till sunrise,
glazed to nature’s greatest cruelties.
The cordyceps fungi, a parasite,
can invade an insect’s muscle,
can make an ant beat its head
madly with a mandible.
Possessed ants climb the nearest tree,
grip with mouth and feet the vein of a leaf
direct above their family.
Then, merged with what it feeds,
fruiting bodies sprout out,
on repeat, spores blossom.
Whole colonies are petrified.
To my communism, you replied,
‘I’m attracted to the darker side of human nature’,
on that we never argued.
Your clothes were iconic,
mockingly sophisticated.
Staring at yourself for hours
in the mirror, terrified, pulling faces.
Your whole life a strange war against pretension.
I struggle to remember how you danced in public
just us thrown round your kitchen:
Richard Hell, James Chance, Neubauten.
You loved
Last Exit To Brooklyn,
first novel by seaman Hubert Shelby Jr.
He got TB in the Forties,
had ribs removed and half a lung,
the other collapsed. He couldn’t work
so sat in bed addicted to morphine.
Said, ‘I know the alphabet, I can write’,
wrote brutal stories you saw yourself in somehow.
In my head you wrote a story
based on his second novel, The Room.
In my head based on the so-called
‘sex dungeon’, dilapidated basement
squat near The Elephant.
You dwelt there in broken moans,
half rushing or withdrawing.
The walls close in, everybody’s left.
Are you lonely or is it a peaceful gloom?
So serious you were almost spiritual.
They howl sermons here,
‘We all feel the temptation of corruption!
Such suffering in the world!’
Reverberation and low throbs shake up
our skins with a low lilt, a gruff purge,
horns convulse like you on sax
except they land in a smooth crash
in words of hungry bemusement
‘Why, why people funny bwoy’
sings a man I’ll not meet to
off beat strumming, a tight shake,
all that hot pain let out
slithers to a sweet cry,
a ‘shh’ that never stops.
Last week I heard a vicar repeat
‘the price we pay for love is grief.’
Bored, you and I went to a scrap heap
in Willesden. The materials of
city life torn up into fine trinkets
piled into mountains
we climbed, were cut by avalanches,
sat at the peak with a bloated blue bottle,
White Lightning. We’d celebrate fragmentation
then the stars and mist of suburban flatlands.
Now I lie exhausted with eyes closed,
use every muscle to try summon you,
discover new memories and feel guided.
You preferred instant coffee to real stuff,
when I drink it I imagine your mouth.
Gaze at the walls of Village Underground,
three stories tall, Gothic Victorian like
your name, James Edward Cripps.

*

A-Z ’95

by Matt Bates

FL 2 resized

[1]London Scene, (London: Gay Men’s Press, 1995), pp.53-63. Transcribed pub listings page. The highlighted venues are the only ones still active in 2019/20.

Notes on poets

Matt Bates has worked in the books industry for over 30  years and up until June 2018 was the Fiction Buyer for WH Smith Travel. In 2016 he was a judge for both the Costa Book Prize (Novel) and chair for The Booksellers Association Debut Fiction Category Prize. He now studies English Literature and Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London and is Editor-at-large for Muswell Press with a focus on Queer writing.

Heathcote Ruthven is a writer and editor at New River Press. He has edited poetry anthologies including Year Of The Propaganda Corrupted Plebiscites and When They Start To Love You As A Machine You Should Run. His writing has appeared in International Times, The Idler, The Independent, Vice, and others.

Dr Golnoosh Nourpanah teaches Creative Writing at Bedford University. She has read at numerous literary events across the UK and internationally. Her debut poetry collection, Sorrows of the Sun, was published 2017. Her acclaimed short story collection, The Ministry of Guidance and other Stories, was published in 2020. A second collection of poems is forthcoming in 2021. Watch this space!

Emmanuel
Thursday, 24 December 2020 09:31

Emmanuel

Published in Poetry

Emmanuel

by Fran Lock

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

These poets are workers
Thursday, 17 December 2020 11:11

These poets are workers

Published in Cultural Commentary

Fran Lock writes about that advert, and the exclusion of working-class people, lives and experiences from the arts and literature

In October this year the UK government released – then quickly withdrew and disowned – a controversial advert advising creative practitioners to retrain for the Covid-crippled job market. The image they used featured a young woman of colour in ballet-dancer's tulle, captured in the act of tying her slipper. They christened her “Fatima”, and the caption beneath told us that her next job “could be in cyber”, she just didn't know it yet.

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Criticism of the ad was widespread and swift; rightly so. One of the crowning ironies to emerge from this criticism was that “Fatima” is not, in fact, a British citizen at all, but an aspiring dancer based in the US. Her real name is Desiree Kelley. Both Kelley and Krys Alex, the freelance photographer who took the photo, were quick to condemn the use of their image and their art as part of a campaign encouraging people to give up on their creative vocations and “reskill” in cyber securities. It is telling that CyberFirst, the “government outreach and education programme”, which ran the campaign, foresaw no objections, and felt no ethical qualms about the indiscriminate repurposing of art by young women of colour to further their own agenda.

Disclaiming all responsibility for the ad, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden made feeble noises about a recent visit to the Royal Ballet, describing the “wonderful” dancers there, and the immense “value” the company brings to the country. It is worth noting that even within such a prestigious company the average dancer earns barely above the minimum wage. Most dancers, of course, are not with the Royal Ballet, and there are few mainstream employment opportunities for black and minority ethnic dancers within the UK as a whole. While both opera and ballet are over-represented in government arts funding, this funding scarcely benefits the thousands of struggling freelancers, many of whom find themselves ineligible for financial support and remain unable to work, a state of exhausting precarity that disproportionately affects working-class, black, and minority ethnic people.

Much criticism of the advert centred on its cynicism and flippancy regarding the performing arts, and the structural racism that underpins such attitudes. Art is work, commentators argued; it is a passion honed into a career though years of patient and punishing study. For poor people, and people of colour, working within a system specifically designed to exclude them, the quantity of grit required to achieve any kind of sustenance or success is that much greater. Practitioners deserve the same financial safety nets as would ideally apply to any other profession.

Watching these debates unfold across social media I reflected that “work” is a vexed term, and one that right-wing elites seem intent on misunderstanding: if art is work, then by their logic the amount you earn becomes the only metric by which the worth of your job and its contribution to society is measured. If art is not-quite-work, then it is either an indulgence you can do without, or a passion so intense that you should do it for free, and where no one is obliged to acknowledge the conditions under which your labour is extracted.

Alongside these conversations, the ad unleashed a flurry of passionate and creative rejoinders in which the Tories were roundly slammed for their inability to recognise artists as people with unique talents and skills, and an arts career as anything more than an interchangeable “gig”. Arguments raged about how we define art and the value we place on it. My fellow poets were often among the most vociferous and articulate participants in this back-and-forth, but I think we also have our blind spots.

Chief among these blind spots is the idea that the Right doesn't value the arts. This is patently false, it is precisely because they value the arts so highly that they don't want us, or anyone who looks or sounds like us, involved. Excluding black or working-class people from the arts doesn't prevent art from happening, it merely prevents those same black and working-class people from participating; this in turn allows for the wholesale colonisation of cultural space by moneyed elites. A refusal to fund or to compensate artists for their labour is a form of social cleansing, it ensures that only those with wealth, privilege and connections are able to compete and to contribute; to be recognised and ultimately rewarded.

Alienated, exhausted and ashamed

I find myself returning to that obnoxious ad. It isn't “Darcy” whose next job could be in cyber. Darcy's safe: she's white, she trained at the Royal Academy, she has the support and privilege necessary to pursue her dream. Contemporary ballet is therefore well-stocked with Darcies. Future generations of Darcies will look to contemporary ballet and feel comfortably confirmed. They will seek and find reflections of themselves there; they will be welcomed and included. For “Fatima” this is not the case. Fatima will be told by her parents and teachers that her ambitions are untenable. They will not tell her this to be unkind, but they will look to contemporary ballet and see startlingly few poor brown faces there. Despite Fatima's obvious talent there will be no money left for lessons, and little spare time for practice. If Fatima does persist, she will persist inside a system that operates under an unchecked assumption of affluence. Her invisible effort to snatch time, energy and attention back from the unconducive conditions of home, or the double-shifts she works to support herself, will be left maddeningly unacknowledged. She will feel alienated, exhausted, and ashamed. Nine times out of ten she will give up.

This is not just true of dance. This pattern persists across art and literature, where the Fatimas of this world do not need to “reskill”, where they are lucky to work just one other job. Most of us working in the arts already have an as-well-as, we do not need or want an instead-of.

It serves the Tories to position art and literature as leisure activities, as charming and optional hobbies. Indeed, for many white middle-class persons the act of reading and writing is often figured as inherently pleasurable and restorative. However, these are exercises in pleasure through which the individual participates in the acquisition and confirmation of cultural status. It is a political activity; a prestige-seeking activity, which situates that reader and writer within a cohort of similarly well-read peers. Reading and being seen to have read the “right” books contributes to a sense of shared class identity. It contributes to a “house-style”, a shared fund of formal tropes and characteristic concerns. This identity is further moulded through mainstream discourse, such as literary journals, broadsheet book reviews and Radio 4 interviews with prize-winning authors. It is fostered through bookfairs and festivals; readings and signings, private events and exclusive content; cottage retreats and weekend courses.

For the middle classes, who have access to literature, literary discourse, and literary spaces from a young age, to read is to connect to a community of others like oneself. Often a significant overlap exists between the life experiences of readers and the writers whose work they consume, and between writers who submit their work, and the journal editors who decide what is published. There is a level of identification, comfort, and entitlement that is impossible to imagine for even the most joyful and voracious of working-class readers, the most driven and devoted of aspirant writers.

Our reading experiences as working-class people are different: omnivorous and opportunistic, in the main. We claw back attention from the material demands of unlovable labour. So when we read, we read partly with a sense of awkwardness and shame. We do not recognise affirmative reflections of ourselves in literature or in literary discourse. When we see ourselves in print at all, we are routinely dehumanised and reduced. When we write, then, we write with all the anxiousness and urgency of our lives behind us. When we write, these lives inform both the structure and the subject of our work; we embody a challenge to the dominant discourse, to the cultural status quo. There is much at stake for us in writing. There is much at stake for them in excluding us.

Reskill and go away

The Tories wish we would “reskill”, by which they mean “go away”. They wish poets in particular would “reskill” because due to its mode of production, poetry accommodates Fatima to a greater extent than other creative practices, being both cheap and portable. More than this, because of its emphasis on voice, on the rhythms and inflections of speech, poetry preserves the tangible traces of class and race identity. It recognises and elevates the cadences and textures of lived experience, and acknowledges the flare and dexterousness with which words are shaped and thoughts are formed across widely diverse cultures and communities. Of course they underfund us. And of course they marginalise the teaching of poetry in schools. They wish to reclaim the practice of poetry as a genteel past-time or an academic exercise. They want to deny us the opportunity to infiltrate cultural and discursive space, to talk about our lives to each other, and to challenge the implied audience for art and literature.

The poems I am presenting today explore in their various ways the complex relationship between creativity and labour; they show the diversity of working-class voice, and the intensity of working-class experience. Further, they demonstrate how necessary, and how potentially radical those voices and experiences are. The independent presses represented by these poets offer an example of the way working-class people are removing artistic production from its usual elite haunts, and connecting to each other, deciding and refining our own tastes and ideas, and not relying upon on some middle-class editorial filter to tell us what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. When we decide we no longer need the permission of cultural gatekeepers to publish or to mediate between ourselves and our audiences, then the conversions about issues that matter to us can be kept alive long after their fads for our tokenistic inclusion have faded. We need such spaces now more than ever, to keep the lives and experiences of both working and unemployed poor people present within cultural space at a time when government and media discourses figure us as expendable and faceless economic units; collateral damage at best.

These poets are workers: the poems they write are crafted and honed to a high degree; their writing is a space in which thinking occurs, in which questions are formulated and insights are gleaned. They are also workers in the sense that they perform “day jobs”, jobs which inform, fuel and exist in uneasy negotiation with their writing. They are Fatima, we all are. We struggle to maintain our autonomy and independence in a world that would rather we worked “in cyber”, or in ASDA, or cleaning toilets, or in Pret, or anywhere but art. But we are artists, and we are here to stay.

After Burnout

by Pauline Sewards

I’m going back to work next week,
one hand on my Policies
and The Little Book of Mindfulness.
The other hand clutching my pen
which in my mind
has swelled to cartoon proportions.

My mother worked for three decades
at a newsagent’s in Market town,
ironed her uniform every morning
cursed ‘Nylon’s a sod for creases,’
over the hissing steam.

She wore a badge saying Happy to Help
I’m in the helping business too
although the word is so loaded
I don’t know what it means anymore.
The newsagent’s closed ten years ago,
pigeons crap in the gutters,
net curtains grey in the windows.

Stories have spun themselves
while I’ve been away.
Red alerts on the screen
will demand data.

My mother is a survivor
When she walks around Market town
she’s greeted as minor celebrity.
‘I remember buying my Mirror from you,
you always had a smile.’

I walk on broken glass.
my pen is the means of production.

Ox and the struggle against the single file entry method

by Martin Hayes

when Ox felt ill
and couldn’t face filing out into the yard
along with the other oxen
so that they could all be strapped into their ploughs
Farmer came into the leaky barn
and just stood there
in front of him
and said

so what’s the matter with you today
Ox?

the ox mooed
deep and low
but Farmer didn’t understand
because farmers don’t understand
deep and low moos
they only understand the single file entry method
into the straps of their ploughs

so Farmer put his elbow-length gloves on
and stuck an arm up Ox’s arse
feeling about
for anything that might disprove
how ill Ox said he felt

let’s see what’s up here then

Farmer said

then he pulled at what was inside
he pinched at what was inside
he tweaked and tried to part
what was inside
and when he couldn’t find anything
he yanked at the only thing he could get hold of
which was Ox’s guts

and because farmers think
that oxen’s guts
are full of shit
Farmer pronounced

there is nothing wrong with you
you are faking it
you are full of shit
and you will not eat tonight

then he twisted a black mark into Ox’s forehead
with his thumb

and Farmer stayed true to his word
withholding Ox’s food
so that Ox remained hungry
letting out moos
deep and low
and this goes on
not only for oxen
but for nurses and fireman and fruit pickers
too

Body death and soul murder

by Dorothy Spencer

at least a hamster
in its ball
is breaking the boundaries
of its caged life
at least a dog
kicks up mud and dirt
as it runs along real ground
though the track is predetermined
and the rabbit is a fake
you run towards
the greatest nothing
and four tv screens
mounted on the wall
simultaneously playing the news
can’t pay we’ll take it away
and cash in the attic
to think we spent all this time
figuring out how to escape the daily plough
and body pain
callouses as big as onions
dysentery and not enough to eat
only to arrive at the end of history
running precisely nowhere
wedded as we are
to a still life
lived not on our feet but in chairs
and not in chains but in
bondage, to machines
as dumb as treadmills

***** 

Pauline Sewards is a Bristol-based poet and founder of the regular event in Easton called 'Satellite of Love'. Her first collection This is the Band was published by Hearing Eye in 2018. 'After Burnout' is taken from her most recent collection, Spirograph, published by Hearing Eye earlier this year.

Martin Hayes has worked in the courier industry for 30 years. His latest collection is Where We Get Magic From, published by Culture Matters. 'Ox and the struggle against the single file entry method' is taken from his forthcoming collection Ox, due to be published by Knives, Forks, and Spoons Press in February 2021.

Dorothy Spencer is an Editor at Lumpen Journal, A Journal of Poor and Working-Class writing, and a founding member of the Class Work Project, an education and publishing workers co-op, based in Edinburgh, Manchester and London. 'Body death soul murder' is taken from her debut chapbook See What Life Is Like, published by Lumpen earlier this year.

 

 

 

 

 

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

See what life is like: an interview with Dorothy Spencer

Published in Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See what life is like is available here.

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

Other / White Other

Published in Life Writing

Other/ White Other

by Fran Lock

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

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

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

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

Class and racial hatred

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

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

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

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

The dead are not poor

They prefer you dead, those people. By which I mean, the dead are not awkward or angry or taking up space. And I was thinking about all those “sensitive” white middle-class students, iPodding Winehouse or Joy Division, making a fetish out of music's doomed heroes because in their world doom itself is exceptional and exciting, so much so that it confers a kind of status. And being dead, these figures are freed from their difficult contexts, subsumed into a textureless meld with others superficially like themselves, where whiteness alone is the badge of their belonging: their exceptional, sensitive whiteness. The dead are not problematic and hostile and drunk. The dead have no anger management issues. The dead are not a mess of psychosis, addiction and debilitating physical illness. The dead have soulful thoughts expressed in perfect and imperishable grammar. The dead do not hate you. The dead are not poor. The dead may have been all of those things, but now they are dead, they are safe, safer, safest, ready to be packaged, repackaged, re-written, written-over, claimed, reclaimed: discourse. There's a white middle-class discourse for every working-class subculture you care to name. Mediation, intervention, the spinning of a myth. The white middle-classes create the archive, the archive becomes the crypt.

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

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

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

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

An interview with Julia Bell

Published in Cultural Commentary

Fran Lock interviews Julia Bell

Background

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in Poetry

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

by Fran Lock


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

where the air is still green.

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

again and again they kill him
Wednesday, 30 September 2020 08:47

again and again they kill him

Published in Poetry

again and again they kill him

by Fran Lock, with image by Martin Gollan

even now there are places where a thought might shrink –
a mind worked out and thwart with waltzy boozing, hot
with speed, still wearing all its frenzy on its sleeve. to breathe
this bitter vigilance undone. abused, becalmed, the gilded
anchors slack. to melt, exult, to rid ourselves of all those
token torments. there are places. we burn his letters in
the sink, hold them by the dog-ears of their disregard. he
was so young, and feckless in that state of being smitten.
even now the sky grows smashed to say the laggard thunder
of his name. you have to wonder. suit of clothes
coarsened into barely-man: johnson. had he recourse
to ball his fists to fossil in the pockets of his loss?
he mouths our idling maps to fire. ire-land, word
full of wasps, of paucity and nausea. he looks over
his shoulder, a convict crossing himself in the yard.
i think not. i think they do not grieve, cannot. have never
dragged themselves down streets concentric with offence
and fought another cruelly cresting thought. there are no
ghosts, striding in the violence of their migraines keying
cars. years of hopeless gluttony, and autumn has arrived,
in dejection and arrears; pyracantha, hacking cough, with
flight and threat in each averted eye. ilex, cornus,
callicalpa. we are here, touching up the hoary edges
of our need. there's a voice, drawls the collodion
strophes of his death. wooden boy, notches in his bedpost
body cut. once and always, our continuous entire.
a crow is mourning's stooge, cracked along its chorus,
wakes me, pledging feathers to the costume of my
guilt. and poetry paints its swooning mottoes everywhere.
it is no good. flowers without language, this loss: pressure
sores, eyes puckered with drink, more bleeding than is
good for beauty, the genial and fake, the frankly murderous.
there are places. some steward of a soft embrace enfold
me. you have to wonder. not expression, but escape,
wearing the bronze rosettes of brazen remedy. does he know
what it means, johnson? to spoof his mutilations in a waning
room, wearing our variant rose in the crook of an arm, on the lips
against grace, to sharpen the starving body into sleep? the clock
is an enemy, rapt with strategy. they are mostly gone, who stammered
their escape in council eyries, squats, and singing: sweet lagan, run
weary till the end of my song, till all our lustres numb, till daybreak's
craven conjuries, till kingdoms come and auld folks trade
their chitties in for loose leaf tea, till sailors step out of their shanties,
till i meet my zealous, perishable neighbour in the street and do not
spit, till i am no longer spat at, till all my gammon covenants run
blood, till my own country knows me, till i am not her inmate or
her exile, till the end of time. sweet lagan, run swiftly, till our dead
in their shining lethargy are lifted up, till the television voices
number gypsy boys among the culled. even now, as autumn
arrives with old campaigns begun afresh, we are finding ways
to kill this thought. i'd made a book his bed, the mattress
and the mire i flipped, end over end. the ciphers of a metered
time, and laid on lambswool narrowly. i run my finger round
the rim of love. it sings its whimming posey till it shatters.
johnson says no, there will be no laying down. no one to break
amends like bread. home will not be fuschia, nor a stream striven
clear. when i look at our maps i will see my grandfather's hands.
when i hold my grandfather's hand i will see blue lines
ploughed into boundaries, will see life's suffering, impaled
upon a hangnail. home will be any arbitrary nightmare, the whining
of a child-bride kept in a closet, will be telescopes trained on
an exit wound, garrote, cavort, galley-bondage; gangrene, greed
of sick natures. the hairshirt and the shipwreck. the counterfeiting
light refines whatever it touches. and by refines a kind of scraping
off. and still i hear that voice, those voices, and i have been
eating these arsenic vowels so long my tongue turns tragedian
too. lyric has this writhing sweetness to it. flags in their fascist
semaphore. he said a flag is mostly air, biddy, how a halo slips,
how a mouth is fouled. and i know and i know, but i love
the grave that grew you, boys. though all her walls have ears
inclined to eavesdrop times, though august is a punitive crescendo,
though our church had blessed the blueshirts, worn the polished
turd of tyranny, and despite the dosses, kips, the own goal in
a celtic shirt whose native language is noise. despite the bark stripped
from the trees, the necromancy of nostalgia, zombie militias
rising from the nearest limepit, haunting an english dream.
although she is a b-movie. although she is the spectacle of queer
bash and revenge porn. although she is misogyny, an enfant's
trembling rhetoric of lust. i loved you, and love makes me mediocre
with longing. you have to wonder, has longing ever possessed
this johnson like a terror? brain sticky with the latent prints
of an old pain, rising; missing a friend, a lover, a father, a daughter
whose voice made mourning? those lost and those returned. Presumed
and absolutely. a hurting fact there is no gospel for in any language.
when he wipes his arse on our peace he kills them again. and again.
those whose deaths run hot, and those whose mirror is the serpent's
mouth in trying to forget, has always been. there are places –
hanging in the aspic of our injuries. but Pig Thief, miscreant
and mutable, whose name a shadow valentine i trace across my tongue
like parma violet charm against their heresy. there is a staying with.
there will be dynasties of upturned faces, blued onto the incidental
day. the young. may their griefs be held in the palm of a hand, palmed
like marbles, rolled away, all infamies, attritions shrugged. and we will
care for them. like silence cares, like light and space, and dig ourselves
in with a gentle spade.

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

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

Published in Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

Editing out working-class voices

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

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

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

Working-class poetics

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

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

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

The cry of the poor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Jane Burn

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

Packing Two Gold Necklaces

By Hibaq Osman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article is being jointly published by Communist Review.

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