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.

Unloveable labour
Thursday, 26 September 2019 20:55

National Poetry Day: Glomar

Published in Poetry


by Fran Lock


the city comes in waves. poor worker bee, it’s clinical now, an ideal doom, the sleepy grief of airports. tried to stay in motion. walk around, not-shopping. coffee. millimetric sips. is slow embalming, boils the tongue, both fidgety and numb. carousels and carousels and paperbacks. our structures of exchange and riot. rid the mind of unclean mischief, repertoire of ecstasies. not happy-happy, groomed and sated. airport. peoples temple. church and heaven. perfume counter girls, the folded arms of coptic icons. shoppers' paradise. here, baristas breathe their icy birthright, bitchin’ it. to be here. wintering. in a neo-conservative tedium. on purpose and forever. infringement or infraction. to be profiled and filed, trafficked in and captured. movements mapped. the vector and the spread. infection has a human face. no languages, but currencies. coffee. paid for with plastic. visa. flag of my failed state. declined. do brexit at each other. arid commercial succour sold by the kilo. airport. initial rays of morning make great beauty. petrol sky, a gilded endangerment. ozone, enriched on the ruin of itself. and by the plate glass, a singular unsettling. not happy-happy. wired. this counterfeit community. commodity and contract. smiling. like a turd emoji. the shit that eats its shit. hide the newspapers, in an act of obscure mercy. the city comes in waves of blank contagion. the savage urban neutral. garbled demotic of crusade and porn. see a child’s eye, all glint and pique. her suckling severity. strategically bored. lovers. in the scare-quotes of a dead embrace. this tactical enfoldment. is foreplay for purchase. city comes. is scanned and graphed. into white, symmetrical territories. fountains. kiosks. plaza, vacant and fabulous. an ad hoc model of itself. stand in line. refracted, figured, figured out, prefigured, faked, a snake of faces. terraforming long-haul mouths to o. contend the bobbing dark behind your eyes. walk. squealing protein. the pompous loins of women with functioning wombs. seek consolation, scrolling. screens. this teleprompted blonde talks epoch into tundra. purring and viable, preens her sanitary plumage. rolls phonetic mess from the dirty atlas of our loss. walk disgusted round. coy chiffons. pelts and hides. cath kidson. bitter women paid in scent. expensive predilections. hired to service some frictionless lust in kitten heels. security. he wears his menace like a rented tux, obedient yet cynical. some people are below contempt. look up. the day’s events spread thin across a convex lens. stiff. a very dignified fear. the wretchedness we crane to catch. open-mouthed. to eat. an omasum, this eye. big fellah talking horseshit. dead poliss. the terror. these architects of tumult. shoot to kill, your target demographic. data-mined with a sniper’s touch. capital, this vapour is the stain of her singing. airport. they said, all you hip young things. they said. to shop instead of grieving. they said, we’ll tell you a story. raising a rash political beauty.


 stepped outside and felt the austerities quicken. gridlocked and staring with fixity. all our futures: flammable, avenging. i didn’t know what to say. buy coldbrew, condense an irrational sweat in taxies. bliss is a beige paste sucked through a straw. welcome home, her tollbooths and drawbridges are down. i didn’t know. saw the banners first. and every bed sheet summons an echo of the flag. and your father’s face. how they folded out the light along its creases. became a parcel of tight want. everywhere, the orgiastic soundbite. hope and glory fumbled through a tannoy. the trial. the process. injunctions to vigilance. allegation, prohibition. and someone said beggars operate in this area. brains. mortgaged and foreshortened, nodding sagely into iphone, macchiato, a cup held out for change. and i didn’t understand. london. because the airport repeats, first as farce, then as tragedy. how everything, everything, is one long march to departure. britain bristles with blue passports. classified and tallied. looked at us like scum of the earth, laughing in humourless syncope with witchfinder eyes. in the shithole hotel, exhausted and glomarized, unworthy of the news. from clickbait into lynchmob, you said. a picture paints a thousand words, and buried in its texture is a scream. wait. stayed up all night, paring a nerve like a nail. touching the numbers through gloves of numb affect. furtive, coefficient. horror, til’ the mouth becomes a pious zero. see, there are these extremes of commerce and/or music. marketcrash. our homicidal luck. a thermal mercy, disarray, the day turned perfect twitterstorm. dust, as the phone goes dark. no signal. thumbing a dead-end text and openly weeping. what did they do? i googled your disasters. and my own. always there’s a woman swaying centre wears the ruin of her city loosely like a grass skirt. how this mouth was your mother’s mouth. a devotional oh. a rosy hole in the balance of probability. you, who had never known violence a day in your life, suddenly rigid, in a hard-backed plastic chair. your face immobile as a virgin queen. what would they do? summoned, verified, subjected to militant protocols. grief is not evidence, somebody said. inventor of the sobs that shook you.


we thought it couldn’t be any worse. when april carried effigies uphill, was a good-bad catholic. maggie, stuffed madonna, stiff as sawdust pickerel. pinhole squint. no eyes, only lenses. nanny-cam and crosshair. pimped her paper corpse in puppet to the square. a bent form mounted on a wall of septic flame. women in pyrrhic t-shirts, chanting. coach-loads. women from the kingdoms of baser elements. brass and coal. and acetone. oxidising, promissory night. daughters and reapers. a wrecked heredity. daddus, how their archives prized him. and thin boys, lain on lamb’s wool, leaking like smashed thermometers, silver and glass and fractured daylights. home as black concretionary mass. rage, grievous and specialised, a calendar threat. gathered to piss her witch’s ash to stain. there were slogans, mottoes. but the sinister rich – april, smeared in heat – are always with us. regan and thatcher. all trickledown immaculate, those keepers of concentric hells: the circus, the brothel, the jail. they filmed us, distended and contorted, crawling. we are fools. we burn what we hate to get free. they don’t aspire to freedom. lock us down, forever owned. they infiltrate, fringe the lover’s mouths with lies. their sentries, watchmen, recording angels. when they greiv, they keep the world away. some dolorous kleptocrat, muted and mouthing an ave maria. their funerals. gilded and snivelling, synchronised vanity. improbable honey, crudest oil. we were tearing our hair, swooning in tar. no longer bodies. a chorus, a spectacle. tourists took our pictures too. later, see our reinvented meat on instagram. for all our dead. a flaccid, caucasian genocide that no one mourns. footage. lips we peel from teeth to spit. slow-mo. oh, such wickedness. nailed us to a headline. kept but not remembered.


idioms, hyperboles. we have e-commerce, instagram, duress and blockade. detained, curtailed, adjudicated, hacked. all of the above. a summary corrective. close your eyes, you young offenders, look away. it was all bread and no circus. it was all circus and no bread. it was all speed and no motion. malignant rapidity. not endeavour or surrender. ludicrous, equivocal, dressed in lycra, running in place. in a confusion of coin-metal, terraces raining gold. hooligan doubloons. talking heads open their expertise like angel wings. a white coat knows what’s wrong. its gangs, games, the breakdown of the family. swipecard and retinal scan. this rented torso, worn in penance. surveilled is not the same as seen. tick-box-suspicious. slow blink banality captures them, grainy. repurposed x-rays, suddenly live for the briefest debasement. they are forging laws to lock you to your image. their content hangs its haunting from the long faces of facebook users, beavering at feeds. meanwhile, america’s fusing goon shows into squadrons, walking in step, impressionable and convinced. friend, they are rebranding our heritage. yours is a wet rubber bag steaming in the sun. donald trump talking subtitlese. your thoughts are for sale. the succulent untrue.

Wednesday, 08 May 2019 09:48


Published in Poetry


by Fran Lock

the brazen head has spoken: heat. and now, the summer
lifts its loaded pitchforks to the light. the pewit in the dog-
whistle of its wings. gardens teem, lecherous and stifled.
here, the sly, fermented smiles of youth on bikes. they do
not know. this heat, a tight green crouch that cannot spring.
mother preens the sentimental hedges, while father wags
a hammer at a nail; little darlings flicker in the surly glow
of screens, and not yet ripe inside their hoods, are white
and snug as unpicked beans. they do not know. of typhus,
or of blight. of shroud, or yoke; of picket or of flail. old
times of ague, ergot-glut. those hungry times. a race of
scarecrow-scavengers who stoop their pale route through
the dust. crops fail, and bodies burn, with every scotched
intention. nature, not resurgent but insidious. the sap of
sickness glistens on a lip; an eye becomes an ulcer. yet
an oddling grace abides, abounds in burdock, sovereign
bowers of meadowmat and columbine. the ramsons in
a limestone wood; scent of resin, garlic, pine. fieldfare,
haunters of the chalk, foraging for song. i followed john.
the hottest day, and god, god was a big, bronze dynamo
that drove the world. and god, god was a gavel knocked
against the sweating temple, night on night. to swim
the sky's dark boiling soak; to suck the oily rag of grief.
i followed john, i saw the world, i squared its squalor
with my eye: little village, prettied in an anise air
that clouds and parts like ouzo. houses there are patient
and forgetful, full of pride. footpaths deny their
multitudes, and churches pose for photos. boys on
bikes are sugar rush and selfies, fumble-tongued
misogynies. pubs revile a mastiff dog, the plastery
hands of working men. i woke and followed john.
summer, gathers in its arrowheads: starlings, jutting
up from fallow fields like flints. the honey buzzard's
conqueror's call; the lichens on the drystone wall,
a flaking papal gilding. no, they do not know. who
swallow sermons down like swords; who drink
the chicory english real. this land is equal ore
and gorge. and john, if john is walking, eating grass
or tearing at his hair, slides his shadow into ditches,
where, tucked among the muddy reeds, his dreams
are weeds, a knotty freedom spreading.

John Clare died on May 20, 1864.

Saint Martin in Euston
Saturday, 20 April 2019 21:01

Saint Martin in Euston

Published in Poetry

Saint Martin in Euston

by Fran Lock

miserere. monday is a man reduced to his bare

incident, a stain the pavement eats. a sharded

light is stalled between the concrete benches,

busses, cranes. drills compete, declare a complex

discord. everywhere the air is rutted, hurts.

and yet the earth turns still. the concourse fills

with factions, mobs, gym memberships, majorities,

miniskirts, miskiltered mouths. here are the men

who bury their piqued slang in mobile phones,

little kids who kick at pigeons; prêt a manger

sandwiches, the salaries and symptoms. miserere.

this circus of averted eyes and shifted weight.

we wait in line for black americano. cargo

of feeble guilts. appropriate frown, a face made

plasticine with pity. melt. and it is terrible. drink

up, get out, and go, cocking deaf in headphones,

march like regiments or inmates. off to work.


but then –

monday is a man, and when he speaks

the old home hails me; love becomes a wet

umbrella, sprung indoors. i felt – i saw –

i thought about saint martin, cutting his cloak

in two. miserere. it’s all too much, sometimes.

the grim unfolded fact of it. the shit. how lips

are franked by sanction, shrinking into slur

and stoop and scuff. undifferent dirt. these

grounded birds. these ragged nails and filthy

cuffs. i saw – i heard – and in my head saint

martin stands, as naked as a maypole. his halo

weak and radiant-hard. the struggling

fluorescence of a lightbulb in a bedsit.

backstreet, bus stop, tarmac yard, this his

kingdom. tears his shirt, his hair,

his skin to whispers. still, there’s not

enough of him. can’t cover such a vast

and shuffling need. miserere. love is this

machine for stretching. here we are in

incomes and indifference, rolling our eyes

like pellets of bread in order not to see.

but see!

saint martin through a megaphone, ranting

and antagonised. what’s wrong with you?

what’s wrong with you? and then you cut

your cloak in two.


Saint Martin of Torres is the patron saint of homeless people.

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

In praise of strangeness

Published in Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homobonus in Primark

by Fran Lock

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

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










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

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

Published in Poetry

In need of saints

by Fran Lock

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


Rita of the White Bees

by Fran Lock

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

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

Rag Town See God

 Rag Town Girls See God, by Steev Burgess

Ruses and Fuses
Wednesday, 21 November 2018 14:02

Ruses and Fuses

Published in Poetry

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

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

Rag Town Girls do Unemployment

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

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

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

Ruses John Lilburne

John Lilburne, by Steev Burgess: from Ruses and Fuses

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

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

Ruses Suffragettes

Suffragettes, by Steev Burgess: from Ruses and Fuses

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

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

Ruses and Fuses is available here.

Ruses Travesties poemwatch

Travesties, by Steev Burgess: from Ruses and Fuses

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

National Poetry Day: you ask us why we fight

Published in Poetry

you ask us why we fight

by Fran Lock

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

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


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

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

Published in Poetry

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

Here she goes again!

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

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

Don't mention the word class!

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

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

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

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

Co-opt their language before they win the argument!

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

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

MQ pi 04 2016 map

ACE's vision of Cultural Democracy in Practice

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

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

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

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

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

We need more acceptable faces of feminism!

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

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

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

Let Coke democratise culture! Let them eat McDonalds!

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

Fran Lock unlovablelabour 2

Unlovable labour, by Steev Burgess

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

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

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

MH the employed poor

The employed poor, by Martin Hayes

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

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

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

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

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

The middle class is just better at acting!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

The working class mustn't become class-conscious!

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

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

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

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

Long live mainstream capitalist culture!

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

Caravaggio Taking of Christ rev

The Betrayal of Christ, by Caravaggio, c. 1602

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

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

Oh no, they're waking up!

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

A gorgeous, shameless, hybrid beast.

B and R award

A gorgeous, shameless, hybrid beast, by Anon.

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

first amongst monsters: Trump comes to Britain

Published in Poetry

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

I laughed until I cried

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


first among monsters

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


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

our mother's day will come

Published in Poetry

our mother’s day will come

by Fran Lock

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

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