See what life is like: an interview with Dorothy Spencer
Friday, 15 October 2021 23:43

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.