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.

a break in the weather: flags, fascism, mourning, and the machinery of capitalism
Saturday, 20 June 2020 08:27

a break in the weather: flags, fascism, mourning, and the machinery of capitalism

Published in Poetry

a break in the weather

by Fran Lock, with image by Steev Burgess

even the dogs, distended with heat. i wanted rain.
women with their conscientious shopping washed
away. these mutant brides of hygiene, trending
and aerobic, who tsk my dirty boots in queues.
this mineral stutter. gardens stained with brute
occasion. chalk reproach. hedges choked with
bunting. england: a comic turn, drawing a string
of flags from his fly. rapture of hands. i wanted
rain. trampling the vintage of a sun-fucked face.
on days when days are graves. lack gravity or grace.
men, in the blank stare of their tatts, whose guts
are globes, whose biceps groan with empire.
anchors, roses, fragments of a fragrant name. rain.
to rinse this sickness, island ridicule from skin. this
city, where history exceeds its shadow. stall
and loop. audition the deadpan fault that feeds on
us. again, again. estates unspeak their skinner box
verbatim. smoke. and flame. conditioned
and engulfed. we are. i wanted rain to put these
civic fevers out. they're burning still. in vicious
figment cinders, still. my friend, to tread your
empty name to echo. to write the slant exception
of your name on dirty walls. the rain would wash
this too. and our illuminated wasteland: the futile,
sovereign portraits of our martyrs: bishops,
pricks and pawns. and you. any name to sanctify
a scene of threshing hurt. tread these borders,
boards, you walk abroad like thespy ghosts.
could cast your emanated arms in wax this
night. christ's face in the grain of the kitchen
table. his imprint in the splinters. rain. to dress you
in this deluge too, and all our mob, their masochist
vulgarities, in chains and chains and chains. cats,
made manx with mutilation, maimed like saints,
they spray their sympathetic wounds on everything.
i wanted rain. percussive stunt with thunder purge
the shape of me made minotaur and new. to flirt
my thrashing form through calendars and mazes,
prose. where others have been before. and i am
the turd emoji of trespass, an effluent refrain you'd
scoop from pools. i have written this poem before.
no, this poem was written without me: into the decimal
amber jots of a pit bull's eyes forever. into the garret
appetites of libertines, the somnolent garotte
of smack, mouths slack with musing, yielding in
their eyries to the pleasures of the spleen. and chains
and chains and chains. and rain. escape is begun by
betrayal. give me courage enough for that. to know
all flags are hoax, all names. to refute her slovenly
canticles, that fine old woman, who's lairy pastures'
rearing only weeds. she'd bind your bogmouth
shut with reeds. tell me, my friend, why i feel so
unclean. on the corner, some preacher spilling
wilful tight-lipped syruptone, his reflection warped
in windows. the fields have shed their shovels too,
and idiots are out there, begging brightness from
sky, the cryptic elegance of herons, cranes, the
chancy depth of rivers. i wanted rain. concentric
shocks that drive me inward toward you. something
clockwise breaking. covert and austere. england: rolling
up the sleeves of rumour, readies his ringmaster's whip.
god is a portable darkroom tonight. your image resolves
in a shallow chemical bath. a whisper arrives from
the outside world. the rain will come. canned laugh.
little white lies. promises, promises.

Flags, fascism, mourning, and the machinery of capitalism

by Fran Lock

 Listen, it didn't happen the way they're telling you it did. This poisonous myth of 'resilience'. Politicians love that word, and in recent years it has become a useful get-out-of-jail-free card for those who would make a fetish out of working-class survival to serve their own devious ends. Don't let them do it. This 'spirit of the blitz' thing is a lie. This government's persistent attempts to analogise coronavirus as an invading 'enemy' is insidious bullshit of the first order. This is not a 'war' against ideological opponents. The virus is remorseless and motiveless. It isn't tactical. When politicians recruit the iconography of the Second World War it allows them to yoke values of endurance, stoicism and sacrifice to a creepy nationalistic script that is toxic to the notion of global solidarity. To class solidarity too.

If fortitude is continually positioned as an exemplary British quality, then those who are not comfortably or obviously accommodated within their narrow conception of Britishness become morally suspect by default. Hate crime is on the rise. Xenophobia is on the rise. Antiziganism is on the rise. Further, by presenting the crisis on purely national terms, the government is able to elide the inequalities that exacerbate the virus and which the virus further exacerbates, cynically presenting Covid-19 as some kind of great leveller, which it manifestly is not. If you are poor you are twice as likely to die. If you are a person of colour and poor you are four times more likely to die. These are the facts.

The cynical manipulation of language, memory, identity and the dead

Listen, it didn't happen the way they're telling you it did. There was no Knees Up Mother Brown amongst the rubble. The outbreak of the Second World War saw a sharp increase (57%) in crimes of all kinds. There was hoarding, racketeering, speculation, a flourishing black market. There was violence too. The 'plucky resolve' of the poorest amongst us was a government fiction driven by propaganda films such as 'London Can Take it!' That famous photograph of the milkman picking his way through a bombed out street to deliver the milk? Fake. The man in the picture is not a milkman, but a photographer's assistant, posed in a white coat.

FL milkman 741x388

That isn't to suggest that acts of great kindness and courage did not take place. The point is, there can be no visual shorthand or semantic catch-all for the complexities of mass conflict or the trauma it initiates. To act as if there can is insulting and monumentally inattentive to history. Inattentive to the present too, and to those who exist under such conditions still; whose experience of the current pandemic is and will be shaped by the legacy of diplomatic sanctions and military intervention both. Coronavirus isn't war. It isn't like war either. Nothing is. But what does link both experiences is the government's cynical manipulation of language, memory, national identity, and the dead.

Listen, it isn't happening the way they're telling you it is. V.E. Day threw these manipulations into sharp relief for me, walking home in the sweltering heat, through a wasteland of flags and 'patriotic' bunting, the strains of Vera Lynn blaring through somebody's open window. I wanted to stop one of the women, flipping over charcoaled something on her barbecue, and ask her 'what are you celebrating?' but was worried the answer would only depress me. Many of the flags were accompanied by slogans, either posted in windows, inked onto the fabric of the flags themselves, or chalked inexpertly onto the pavement: 'Thank You Key Workers!', 'Thank You NHS', 'Stay Home, Save Lives', 'We ♥ NHS!' Laudable sentiments, as they go, but something about the way in which they were nationalistically framed is deeply disturbing. Something about the reductive sound-bite quality of the statements displayed against backdrop of union flags. As if we, the working-classes, had become the chief producers of our own propaganda.

The sacrifice of workers

The allied defeat of the Nazis is a testament to international cooperation, and the fight against fascism is an ongoing struggle, one worthy of commemoration and respect. However, mainstream media narratives have, for years, been subtly recalibrating these acts of remembrance to suggest that working-class life has value only when instrumentalised in the service of the military industrial complex. And 'sacrifice', particularly of poorly paid and exploited workers, has become the rhetorical and thematic hinge between a nostalgic evocation of war-time Britain and the Britain of our current crisis. The 'sacrifice' for example of front-line NHS staff. The 'sacrifice' of those providing essential services and exposing themselves to the risk of infection. The 'sacrifice' of care workers, bin men, and bus drivers. The 'sacrifice' of postwomen, check-out operators, and teachers. 'Sacrifice'. As if they were soldiers. As if the daily risk to their lives was a deliberate and meaningful choice in a world of infinite options.

When the government, through its various media mouthpieces, speaks about the 'heroism' of these people, it does so in an act of abdication. If key workers are engaged in feats of exemplary individual bravery, then their deaths are their gift to us. The state bears no responsibility for allocating adequate resources, or prioritising safe and fully-funded working conditions so that these deaths may be avoided. No, a floral tribute and a posthumous round of applause are quite sufficient. And the beauty of that system is that after these people are dead they can continue to be exploited, as political propaganda.

It's not the way they say it is. The 'sacrifice' narrative allows governments to arbitrate on which working-class lives are meaningful and which are not, contingent upon our 'usefulness'. It's a farce. Or it would be if it were remotely amusing. How can Johnson invoke the spectre of herd immunity – a strategy guaranteed to impact the poorest amongst us first and hardest – one minute, then bombastically extol the virtues of key workers the next? We are the same people, the same communities, but it is only those of us actively risking and losing our lives to the functioning of society or the machinery of capitalism who are worthy of notice. This was ever the strategy of the military industrial complex, which for years has mobilized the bodies of working-class men and women to recruit support for its interventions and to shield itself from criticism: if you protest the war – any war – you are pissing on the memory of those who 'died for you'. A proper display of 'gratitude' entails a tacit acceptance of the ideologies that produced that war, the exploitation of working-class labour by the armed forces, and the unacceptable conditions under which many military personnel serve. This is the government's strategy with regards to key workers too.

A stale, pale history

So, 'what are you celebrating?' What is being marked, remembered or enshrined? What kinds of equivalence are being posited? What notions of 'service', notions of 'endurance'? It hurts my head. On the phone that night to an elderly relative who tells me I'm 'overthinking', who says, 'of course you wouldn't join in, you hate Britain.' I almost want to cry. I want to shout. I don't 'hate Britain', not in the way that he means. I hate the way political elites exploit and abuse their people; I hate the way successive governments have made a fetish out of our endurance when endurance was unavoidable, when survival was our only priority. I hate the way they leave our traumas unrecorded and untreated, then reimagine us, years down the line, as cheerfully mucking in and making do. I hate nostalgia, and the way the Tories have weaponised it to turn us against one another. I hate the way our richly storied subjectivities have been flattened and diluted to produce a stale, pale history by numbers: Vera Lynn and victory rolls, polka-dot dresses and nylon stockings, gollywog jam and rationing.

FL Nelsons Column during the Great Smog of 1952

It's not the way they tell you that it is. I lay awake and thought about it for hours. I'd been reading about the Great Smog of 1952, a public health disaster that's almost vanished from popular consciousness. How Britain's cleaner burning anthracite coal had been exported to pay off war debts, which left thousands of predominantly working-class homes burning toxic 'nutty slack' instead. Over five days in December 12,000 people died as a result of a pall of poisonous vapour that settled on London. Mostly poor people. The government of the day – Churchill's government – were insultingly supine in the face of these deaths. The war was over. Working-class life no longer mattered.

I have always mistrusted public displays of remembrance. At their best they provide an opportunity for disparate people to coalesce around a moment, to find community and meaning in their separate experiences of tragedy. But at their worse they make a fetish of the dead. They lose the granular particularity and almost infinite tenderness with which human life deserves to be mourned and cherished. Such ceremonies embrace spectacle, which is hardly conducive to acts of probing reflection; they universalise experience, which tends to evade any form of reckoning with the historic and material forces that produced the death. They reclaim our dead from us, gather them up into narratives of nationhood or 'cause' or party. 'The dead' become an abstract concept, an undifferentiated mass whose job it was to die and to be dead. After sufficient time has passed we forget that they were people like ourselves. In which context, what does it mean to 'commemorate' or 'remember'? If the war is obscured behind period costume, sound-track and slogan, and all the aesthetic signifiers of its era, then what is it we are being asked to 'commemorate'? Who is steering the ship of public memory?

'Long live death!' is a fascist slogan. José Millán-Astray, a key military figure in Franco's dictatorship came up with that one. Nauseating, isn't it? And echoed everywhere throughout fascist discourse and rhetoric. For fascism the dead are always with us, an immortal moral exemplar, constantly evoked and enlisted through ritual; through myriad speech acts, inscribed upon civic space in countless memorial gestures. For fascism, it is death itself which confers meaning upon the life of a person. Conquest is glorious, but death is the sanctifying seal set upon conquest. That is, of course, if death comes at the service of the fascist state. The most exemplary deaths are those that take place during war: 'War alone brings all human energies to their highest tension and sets a seal of nobility on the peoples who have the virtue to face it.' writes Giovanni Gentile in the odious Doctrine of Fascism, ghostwritten on behalf of Benito Mussolini, 'All other tests are but substitutes which never make a man face himself in the alternative of life or death.'

Further on, from the same text, 'In Fascism man is an individual who is the nation and the country. He is this by a moral law which embraces and binds together individuals and generations in an established tradition and mission, a moral law which suppresses the instinct to lead a life confined to a brief cycle of pleasure in order, instead, to replace it within the orbit of duty in a superior conception of life, free from the limits of time and space a life in which the individual by self-abnegation and by the sacrifice of his particular interests, even by death, realises the entirely spiritual existence in which his value as a man consists.' Discursive, rapturous, and broadly nonsensical. Remind you of anyone?

I'm being somewhat facetious, of course. But only somewhat. Neither Trump nor Johnson are afraid to co-morbidly entwine notions of nationhood and sacrifice in ways uncomfortably close to fascist ideology. That doesn't make them fascists, not exactly, but it shows, I think, that capitalism and fascism are kindred spirits. There's an Adorno quote that is applicable here: 'Fascism is itself less 'ideological', in so far as it openly proclaims the principal of domination that is elsewhere concealed.' For Adorno capitalism is more dangerous because its messages are coercive, manipulative and insidious. Yet through its covert workings, its slick populist appeals, its slogans, its dexterous deployment of nostalgia, its sentimental appeals of concepts like 'resilience', and 'freedom', capitalism can help to bring about the conditions under which fascism can rise and flourish. And this should give all of us pause.

breath
Sunday, 31 May 2020 17:04

breath

Published in Poetry

breath

by Fran Lock, with image by Martin Gollan

inside this symmetrical fiction of skins, we do not court
the carnivore attentions of a cop with eyes like bullicante
glass. we do not wear our reservoirs. we do not bear our
freight of names upon the face; find a dirty jest of us in all
the ugly campaign prosodies of power. death, persistent
and repeating. our dying, sanctioned by habit. this habit
of skin. yes, we've felt our paddy slanguage also choked.
but no: that cop will never twist our workaholic wrists
behind our back because. and just because. such luxury,
this silence. to breathe. if breath could split this pidgin
midnight into mercy. if poems could. if meter weren't this
proxy skin, a creditable flesh, i'd breathe. and breathe this
swift and futile morning out. whose name is not a slogan.
whose skin is not a flag. whose saying should be supple
love. this poem, that takes up more space on the page
than some people do in the whole wide world. white
space of the page. white space of a lung. could open
this pieta! into seeming air.

Red Biddy
Thursday, 21 May 2020 16:46

Red Biddy

Published in Poetry

Red Biddy

by Fran Lock

red biddy, noun, a mixture of cheap wine and methylated spirits.

biddy, noun, of unknown origin; probably influenced by the use of biddy denoting an Irish maidservant, from Biddy, pet form of the given name Bridget .

‘All you young people now take my advice / Before crossing the ocean you’d better think twice’ – Jimmy MacCarthy

.1

ever hear the one about the man with two shadows?

one was a matador’s cape, the other a thin girl cut from the queasy cloth of her own bad self. this is a monday, mind. fire weaving hawkweed into hacking cough. he slipped his plimsolls running. leapt the fence. spread his hand to find his cocksure fortune full of thorns. took his torn palm into town, tarried his swaggering luck through lanes. bantam boy, bantering, jaw-jacked scally in the jackdaw dawn. his aggie ma, hauling his name across coals all the days of her life, till it rose on the roof of her mouth like a blister. scar of his slingshot pedigree. he’d never come back, each delinquent sinew stretched its short electric measure. said his going ripped the lining from her eyes. if sons were sovvies, silvered in the silk-purse of her seeing. said she wore his beaming counterfeit smooth across one side. and oh, he was the ether’s genii then, dreamt his chequered pleasures, walked each night towards the guillotine of sleep with baby steps. he was away, trailing his lustrous brawn through forecourts, car parks, foreclosed farms. following the bitter ribbon of the road to the north, to the west, to the ford-mouth of the hostings, to the old men buckled by husbandry, gingham girls in the grip of small town non-event. and oh, that canny lad, that diamond bruiser, that one time baron of ballinasloe –

and this was the man with two shadows? tell me.

i was coming to that. always i was coming. how he slept under hedges. his shadow was his pillow and his bindle and he carried the whole world knotted up in one wet corner of it. how he was spring’s pilgrim, hobnail apostle of the copse and culvert, anything cooked in a smoky hole. and it was thin going, till the whole dark sea laid out before him like a lead apron. and he paid his passage in coarse words for common objects, and his passage was long, and he slept standing up like a horse. how sometimes you’re not even moving, how a hard road travels the length of a man, his romanestan swelling and stretching inside. and he slept on the docks in his shadow, bound in its red-green wastrel cloak. and blue. when a man’s hand is his flag, and you can read his shadow like the grimoir of his poxy fate, and his mother’s voice in an auger shell, on and on, remorseless and rokkering. god. in liverpool they tell him his gold tooth’s got by alchemy, and they try his gilded tongue for passing twice through a wishing ring, and they sharpen their telepathy on the edge of a desk, and cut down the tree on which his mother carved his birth, and his mother’s voice ran silent then, as a stream runs mud.

is all this true?

yes. and his first shadow was a sling, and he carried his arms and his hunger in it. and his own mother wouldn’t know him from a scarecrow. and they called him scrub tinker, not even fit for sorting scrap. and he chewed all night on his daddy’s blackberry blood, mulled her pale face too, poor cow, who bore her grief like a basket of knives and could not love him. he could not sit still. he would not be work of many hands. chased from verges, grim billets of wasteland. wanted away and he ran. but that tongue, lord, inching through the soily hours of darkness like a worm, has its own earth-cravings, must speak brick-dust dirt to loam, find a way to sing.

and of the other shadow?

saw her by the union chapel, hawley road, driving spears of heather through the plush lapels of enemy gents like she wanted them staked and dead. they were frisking her lingo for a telltale cluck when she spat in their faces: talk to me about resilience, i’ll grind your bones to make my bread. pikey. worse. poshrat, answers to the suck of air between a plumber’s teeth. and has no name. cuts her hair to a cold hearth breathing soot, and doesn’t care. she has no tongue, she does not eat. nurses pry her teeth apart. all they find inside is another man’s fist.

this shadow is dangerous.

yes. but how like himself. and takes his hand. flailing his workshy meat in a warehouse. body, a deviant dance against gravity. hard life. lucks into sudden colour when she is near. a gallon jug of thunderbird, a tin of tea. an ambulance racing somebody to somewhere in the painterly night. mad alan with his rat tattoo, gone off his trolley in a squat. the waify and immaterial few, whose high a rome where all these mainline mazes lead. these lesser roads. these vandals and these goths. london is a cloned ghost mouthing her sweet nothings in every window. is a window for every ghost. the squat, that squat, that garrison of discontent. the rec ground gone to nettles, mad behind paddington, sweating out its lairy yellow threat, its green seam split, its ambush of weeds. affrighted edge, the paring blade of anywhere. london tests her raging mettle, his. lies with his back pushed into the earth, holding the whole world up by its ripped mattress. becomes a bootleg christ, sprawled and gormless against the plank he’ll walk to crucifixion. oh, she says there’s beauty in a daggered light like strangulation. folds him, strokes the clammy threads of his disorder smooth. bathes him in another name. not the moniker that swaddled him, but something rushy, wet. fixes his blood to hers with a razor’s partial grace. her fingers falter holes in his lobes with a pin till he’s pricked all over like a grubby bud of lace.

but how did they become tied?

i was coming to that. always i was coming. all her life, she said, she was smeared across the threshold of some man, worn in his buttonhole, drowned in his poacher’s pocket. and she ran too. made herself anew from a ragbag of silky fixings. scraped herself from barrel bottoms, sucked the pennies out of fountains clean. read borrow. said he’s well named and vexed his mildew-muddled ghost in stoppered bottles. read the world with gleaning eye, said oh, i rue the day i dipped my biddy tongue in your foul cant. england, where the torchlight traipses over her. where her pavee ariettas are the meat the organ grinds to tuneful mince. and spoilt. she wanted the world. not to treasure, but to smash. to master its daggers and turn them back on the hands that held them, to drag their bleeding précis through her patois gutter gorse, each faltering declension a barb in their moral hide. he was too hurt. wanted the voodoo of spoons, the sweet numb sleep, and a lasting drink of red. his vision drizzled into constellation. they have no word for stars, borrow said. oh, but please, a fulsome argot of moons. she tied him with her own cut hair. with shrove candles, baked apples, their subtle fragrance sealed in heat, her own wrists swimming in beeswax and blood, the golden sear on greyish meat, the burning of bundles of sage. flimsy bonds. shapeless kite, mithered by wind. barely snagged at her ravelled edge.

so they became torn?

in secret he’d fed his first shadow. it grew so big, shaking its rusty antlers. wran jag mask, dancer at the wake. shadow number one now a furbearing fluke of pain with his mother’s face. in his dreams the camp and the last of the fire, eating through sleep’s thin celluloid strips. and london’s vicious bridges, bearing his weary guilt on their backs. coward, they called him, cunning. work was long when work was to be had. and morning’s fearsome cold enough to drive the tattoos from his skin. he had no words, but those words going forth by day on the book of himself. how rocks tear the underbellies of boats, a thought of home would surprise him. where home is not a shore but a tongue that beg to wag. ganger, gavver, gaffer, they flattened him to paddy, poor paddy, a word with a chaser of bile brought forth from your own loathe gut. the north and its blethering fevers. a stubby finger stabbing his chest at closing time: which side are you on? until home is a chandelier sinking to the bottom of a wreck, is a dropped needle scoring a song through dusty shellac.

and so?

he ran. at first she clung to his back like a hump of his own dull flesh, but he slipped her when she was stringing her words into makeshift bandoliers some throbbing morning. how the last thing she said with a look like getting straight was i don’t know how to help you. and he was going back. and she was eating the night into abstinence. her tongue could cut water. his formed a wick trimmed especial for poison tallow.

and so?

he drank. he died.

and so?

you know. that look on her face, that body all lithe and pious, poised when you ask her where she’s from to rip your fucking throat out. you know full well. when she sits still and throws a sundial’s shape across paper. yes. did you hear the one about the woman with two shadows?

The older Biddy comes in three varieties: a sturdy, plain, bossy woman with a broad face, pug nose, a topknot and beefy forearms; a squat, simian-featured woman with a grizzled muzzle and big feet who is given to helping herself to household resources and to supporting Irish revolutionaries; and most simian of all, Biddy Tyrannus, an enormous menacing figure who threatens her employer... – Maureen Murphy, Bridget and Biddy: Images of the Irish Servant Girl in Puck Cartoons 1800-1890

FL Red Biddy Reared Biddy1

.2

will it all come good?

unlikely.

when will it all come good?

hers is the face of adversity, an adverse face, hung from her head like a horse-brass. this simian biddy is the stove’s hot doppelganger, matriarch of cloves. fire puts out its tongue to taste the brightness in her eye. kitchen-smith, sucker-up of pedant sauces: louth’s gunpowder physic. lemongrass, then pepper, thyme. this to ward of fever – honey-stave – and this to do god’s work. thumb the subtle gills of wild shiitake wide, and plumb the tureen’s teeming depths. her stock contains bestiaries, vinegar multitudes. pick the demerara layer from sleep. she does not sleep. can balance her reflection in a brimming spoon. it is not wood she’s burning, it’s evidence, until her conscience runs as clear as her soup. ever bust a knuckle on a side of beef? hold up the hollowed-out slippers of fish, as if for some cinderella? studded dismal bolts of dough with rosemary and sage? seen yourself in a sheet of bonfire toffee and wished you could die, just die? she is my dream, her and her calendar of tatties, my fate. running round the covered market like a minotaur, termagant for oranges. the butcher sells her porcine sawdust prisoners, tied together at the waist. alone, she rubs the patchy nap from a velvet word like fealty, soaking her feet in a cracked plastic bowl.

won’t she ever be free?

of what? famine wastes the figurines she’s polished them so hard, this simian biddy. purified the puffy faces of their children with her own fenian spit. outside, the plum trees, sagging with sweetness. a white rooster strutting like a prison snitch between the condemned cell and the strawberry beds. she’s not immune to pain, it’s what the lower orders have in lieu of conscience. slipped disks and twinges. golem of the sink. how one time she bit the head from a china shepherdess, she was so angry. they

pretend to be afraid of her. she’s draining the grease from a skillet like a sawbones bleeding a vein. they pretend to be afraid. motes of brackish coffee circle the plug, and jeyes fluid worries her gloves of reddened flesh to temper. was your name ever a stone in your earshot? did you make a crown of poet’s laurels from leaves of sweetheart cabbage? will your shape ever shuffle in the memory of mastiff dogs? are your caresses cudgels? do you save the stubs of candles? have you balled your gridlocked fists by your sides, while smart rejoinders breed in your apron pocket like skinny ferrets?

was it always so bad?

no. and that’s the hell of it.

will it always be so bad?

scrubber. skivvy. scullion. drudge. let me answer your question with a question: have your lips been numb and blue from biting back a grudge? and have you ever had to separate the chicken from the pillow? are you a simian biddy? think carefully. could you hit your boss so hard you knock the dandruff from his roots, the spinach from between his teeth? could you pull a corset tight enough to crack a rib, to cut her damsel’s waist in two? have you cleaned her house? has she wrinkled her nose at your ripped raw skin? does every third trip to the shops end in belligerent fisticuffs? well, there you are. she is my dream. she has tied on her face with a permanent scowl. she has fashioned her ringlets from peel. in the heel of her boots she has hidden the hair of her enemies. has seasoned their bisque with her menstrual blood, has blown her nose on their scented towels. don’t laugh. weak sun. its lackpenny pendulum sets her in motion. you could eat your dinner from this hardwood floor. oh, her sleeves are wide enough for silverware. you’ll not catch her concussed by accusation. no grovelling apology. and she has smuggled mahogany sideboards out under her skirts, has skimmed the cream with her tongue, has smeared her aching legs in your quack balms, has spiked your patent specifics with ground up glass. in her tenement, potsherds glint on a gimcrack mantle, and the fire curls the edges of photographs.  mildew, and at night the stains turn into sons. her lovely boys. pictures pinned to cheap emblems of wilderness: mummified sprays of heather. their dead eyes gleam like toys.

biddy, noun

1. adult female chicken
2. young bird especially of domestic fowl 
3.  generic for an Irish maid
4. derogatory slang term for women
5. an elderly woman, regarded as annoying or interfering
6.  slattern or prostitute

or

7. from the Celtic Brigit, meaning ‘exalted’.

FL Red Biddy no dogs no irish

.3

this was her mountain, yes?

yes. where women are not killed so much as turned to birds.

and this was her name?

they made her a cipher for livestock. penance of cutthroat sex. they said her name so that it sounded like a splayed hand being soaped. they wrote papers about her, then slept, twin hares jugged in a thick indifference. talked about the time his cigarette made freckles. and her voice spilling its own peculiar quarrel. a language so wide her teachers removed their teeth with pliers.

when?

time of wiping his hands on a new growth of grass. time of sudden crack!s sending shockwaves through a shadow and it breaks apart as starlings. time of schemes for robbing the rainbow’s end, when, up all night, she’d known them talk their teeth to air. time under a bridge. time of methylated alchemy. time of magpies, little hitmen, cocking a song at her temples. time of swallows, martens, every feted thrush. time of blackbirds, lilting their thrifty waste not warning to the formal dawn. time of music, pushing up through london’s sodden bedrock, of bleeding in a moshpit, ecstatic as a sky on fire. time of women made from matchsticks, struck against the concrete walls of laundries. time of green grows the lily-o, and a rash on her hands from pulling up banes and worts by the root. time of skips and bins. time of fireworks tied to a cat’s tail. time of ritual diminishment in a rural church, and the fuchsia going psycho where they scattered his ashes. time of you can lead a horse across the border but you cannot... time of screwing to fusion with the windows open in venice no less. time of a word coming loose with the give of elastic in an ankle sock. time of rinsing their spit from her hair in a school shower. time of saviours and hatemail and crying like a caravan on fire. time of the human league singing leb-an-on! belfast, by bony m. time of cher doing gypsies, tramps and thieves, and the boys at the bus stop doing gypsies, tramps and thieves until she riddles their leader’s lip into blood. time of no time at all, long cycles of neglect and grind. time of flies on ruined fruit. time of skinning a knee in the stonebreakers’ yard. time of lead lifters waxing their aerial conjuries to angel. time of murals with the eyes of mediaeval portraits, following you from one end of an alley to another like a mad ancestor twice removed. time of under the counter contraception, of bootleg records in brown paper bags, they don’t play our songs on the radio, etc. time they staked a resurrection gate above the telluric pulse of her tongue. time of bobbed apples and him standing heliocentric in a system of charmed bees.

when else?

a seduction of humming wires leading her on to cities and cities and cities. honey-buzzard, feathered desperado, shrieking from a derelict watchtower. tart notes of quince and burning charcoal. and kiss his intemperate headlong under the juvenile willow like outlaws once. when love’s liquefaction fails her, and she sulks in stalemate’s sackcloth tearing hair. but also her gorgio husband’s back in the bed when she could spread his majesty like marmalade, loveliest mensch. most of all, though, it is the nonsense of his coffin, a puzzlebox unlocked only in the mineral tedium of sleep.

she went far from home.

with blunt eyes, yes. and says you’d be amazed, when they’re all laid out, just how many bones a body contains.

so far from home?

but you know what they say? home is the lining of a coat. when you spread it out you’re hanging your map on a branch. these territories will jut and suck and mushroom under any hand that tries to rub them out.

but can she live without her mountain?

yes. and no. tomorrow the gangrenous forest-future, making poets of us all. is hamlet’s cod philosophy printed in a christmas cracker. is a million mouths begging the bare city bare. she’ll be alright. she can’t unlearn the black anchors of this arms, but sees how the tattoo parlour has emptied its anchors in favour of rainbows and butterflies, the gnomic allure of letters in a language no one here can speak. if she had the needle. if she could sew one foible phrase to her skin, it would be hunger, or pivot, or sliabh.

can the mountain live without her?

a name is what we measure the dead against, rolling them out like bolts in a crowded bazaar and crying our wares to the vaulted roofs of churches. there are only proddy churches here, immaculate and empty, the hollowed-out volcano lairs of bond villains. what i mean is, a mountain is a kind of scar. there are the scars of harm and then there are the scars of loving too well. biddy’s been singing his name through this dizzy imperial city long time. she knows a rainbow isn’t painted or la-la-ed but walked. she’s a survivor. see her crooked teeth catch light, their irregular plates pushed into a smile.

FL Red Biddy Biddy3 our lady resized

Melissa Diem: what it means to be human
Thursday, 14 May 2020 10:51

Melissa Diem: what it means to be human

Published in Fiction

Fran Lock continues her series of interviews with under-represented feminist writers and artists, with an interview with the writer, artist, film-maker and photographer Melissa Diem

Melissa Diem was born in New York and has lived in Ireland since she was twelve. She has a degree in psychology and an MPhil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin, and was awarded a Bank of Ireland Millennium Scholarship. She has published the novel, Changeling [Pan (UK) and Gill & Macmillan (Ireland)] and poetry in several journals including Poetry Ireland Review, The Stinging Fly, The Shop, The Sunday Tribune, Rival and Lighthouse 4th. She was the Featured Poet in The Stinging Fly Spring issue 2010. Melissa has exhibited visual media throughout Ireland including at the RHA, Iontas, Guinness Hopstore and The Ark.

She began making poetry films based on her poems which have been screened at the Belfast Film Festival, Filmpoem Festival in Scotland, Timeline Festival in Manchester, The Body Electric Poetry Film Festival in Colorado, selected for the Cologne OFF in Germany and a finalist at the La Parola Immaginata- Trevigliopoesia Italy and she was commissioned by Filmpoem and Felix Poetry Festival in association with The Poetry Society UK to make a film. She has also created the book, This Is What Happened, a collection of visual artwork and poetry published by The Poetry Bus Press in 2020. Recently, Melissa has returned to sculpture working with ceramics, metal and found objects. See here for more detail on Melissa's work.

*****

Hi Melissa, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me about your new book, This Is What Happened. I'm wondering if you could start by saying a bit about the genesis for this particular text, and also where it sits within your wider practice as both a novelist and a visual artist?

This Is What Happened as an overall story follows a romantic relationship through snapshots of experiences. The first section tells the story of the speaker’s background and how their past experiences shaped them, which naturally comes into play within the relationship. The story continues through the various ups and downs of the relationship, branching out into different directions until it reaches its conclusion. The natural starting point for me to explore the romantic relationship was poetry.  Along that creative journey I began to make poetry films based on poems in this collection. At that point the visuals and the poetry became one in my mind. So that when it came time to pull those poems together in a collection, visual materials naturally came with the poems and developed in their own right. In regards to the various art forms I work with, I tend to work from a need to express something and that something determines the materials and media. For instance, my novel Changeling is mainly about my daughter born with a severe intellectual disability. I needed to express what I felt about what is a largely misunderstood relationship. I needed 60,000 words to say what I had to say. A lot of my work is linked to a similar if not the same source but some is not connected. The poetry films are directly linked to this book while at the same time some experimental films that developed alongside the poetry films move in their own direction. At times I have no words at all, and then I turn to sculpture.

One of the things that makes This Is What Happened so exciting is its sense of hybridity: a meeting and merging of genres, voices and forms. Describing it as a 'book of poetry' doesn't really seem adequate. There is such deft attention to the substance and shape of the poem on the page, to the poem in its visual aspect, while your images seem less illustrative than lyrically associative. I'd be curious to know how you yourself would characterise this work? Would you feel comfortable with a label like 'experimental' or 'avant-garde' for instance, or does that feel too prescriptive and limiting?

I have always been very visual and it wasn’t surprising that I began making poetry films. I think of This is What Happened as a poetry film on paper or writing embedded in a painting where visuals and language are allowed to develop alongside each other in two creative interactive streams, rather than as a linear narrative in which one clearly determines the other. Although the visuals and the words are two different mediums, they are stemming from the same source, extending the ideas and images in both similar ways and their own unique ways. The book to me, like all art, begins to take on a life of its own and although I would have had an end vision, I also allowed it to develop in the way it needed.  I could be described as experimental in my work but I think that the act of creating is experimental in itself.

MD 025 Snapshot 6

Photo: Melissa Diem

 At a slight tangent from the previous thought, one of the things that struck me about the book was the way in which it reinvigorates the idea of reading. It is beautifully put together, and I think it releases the possibilities of the page in ways that are potentially very radical. I don't know if you'd agree, but I tend to think of the typically linear lyric poem as inviting a somewhat passive reading experience, with the poet sliding their insights past us unchallenged. There's something Lyn Hejinian says about “the coercive epiphanic mode” prevalent in particular strains of contemporary  poetry, and their “smug pretension to universality” which always struck me as being at least half right. I'm wondering if you had any strong feelings about the politics or ethics of these kinds of aesthetic choices? Are you consciously speaking back to those more – for want of a better word – mainstream lyric forms?

It is not so much as speaking back as knowing that it just doesn’t work for me. It’s not a rejection. I like to do things my own way. For instance, there is this expectation that you give readings of your own work in the poetry world. What they are asking for is a public performance. Writing and performing are two very different things. At first, I did attempt a few readings which I found very stressful and I couldn’t see a benefit from it. Then I decided I wasn’t going to force myself to do something that goes completely against my nature. I decided to work with myself rather than against, even though reading is expected in poetry, and so I made began to make poetry films.

MD 029

Sketch: Melissa Diem

The book's inventive qualities, its material presence, also seems really important because we live now in a culture that really valorises the virtual as everything that is egalitarian, expansive, and exciting, while casting the print medium as elitist, closed, and staid. Do you think there is still something particular to the physical book as an art object that isn't quite being accommodated by its online iterations? And do you think there is enough creativity and risk taking in poetry publishing in general with regards to form?

In my experience there is not enough creativity and risk-taking by publishers at all. Many publishers have a particular house style that they want you to fit in, some even going as far as editing to such a degree that the poet’s voice is tampered down, shaped to the voice of the publisher rather than the poet’s own individual voice. Collette and Peadar at The Poetry Bus Press gave me the artistic freedom to create This is What Happened in the way I wanted it be. I don’t know of any other poetry publisher who would have taken that risk. I knew what I wanted to create and if Collette and Peadar hadn’t given me the opportunity then I would have made the same book that I did and left it in a drawer.

Although the virtual world adds unquestionable value in our lives, we tend to move quite rapidly through images and written words on the screen. Colours do not reflect their true values, reading is harder on the eye and we tap on to the next item before we’ve fully taken in the last. There is a quietness about the experience of a person alone with a book. A book can be a work of art in itself. I feel as though, in a sense, I am finished with this book. I have brought what I could to it and now it begins its own journey out into the world. Hopefully, people who do get a hold of it will make some sort of connection. I think that to hold a book gives more space to the relationship between the material and the viewer and that is where art really exists - what you bring to a book and what it brings to you.

MD the beauty of the book

Image: Fran Lock

Thinking not only about This Is What Happened, but about your work generally, there is a real sense of a preoccupation with or exploration of identity, and identity as something porous and shifting and malleable. That being the case, I don't know if you have any strong feelings about the way identity has become such a prominent feature of (especially) poetry publishing in the last decade or so? For instance, whether you feel that the need to tie poetic projects to a stable speaking subject, or a particular performance of identity is a positive development or not? Sorry, that's really thorny! I admit this one is difficult. I go back and forth: wanting, for example, more open and explicit visibility for working-class queer writers, or Traveller writers, but also feeling really hemmed in and trapped by the assumptions that go along with those categories. Your poetic approach to identity is so rich and nuanced, it would be great to get your take on the issue.

I suppose I’m somewhat naive when it comes to categories defined by identity. I expect to be received as an individual or not received as that same individual.  My preoccupation with identity has two strong elements to it. The first stemming from my family of origin is a refusal to be defined by others. It is my personal identity that was denied in childhood and part of this journey would have also involved thinking through feminist and cultural issues as I grew into adulthood. I resist being defined or limited by my family of origin, my dual nationality, culture, religion, as a woman or as an artist. It is important to me to be my authentic self.

And the second element would be making my own authentic journey through life, my internal life, life with others and the world. That being so, if I were to identify more with any one particular standpoint then I would see myself as coming more from an existential perspective in exploring what it means to be human. I wouldn’t feel limited by this label knowing that all life is experienced by others and that others may connect with my work. The only time I have really fought for a group of people was on my daughter’s behalf, who did not have a voice of her own or any other standard means of communication. 

I feel like I could speak about this book all day, but I'll confine myself to one more question. I love the ephemera that appears in this work, the objects and machines, the aspects of the built environment that orient the speaker and anchor her to particular moments or landscapes. One of my favourite sections is 'An empathy for small machines', where the voice of the speaker begins to take on the qualities of the sewing machine. I wonder how much the book as whole is also about the process of making, or artifice, and how much you see the poet as a kind of small machine?

MD Vintage Sewing Machine

Image: Fran Lock

An empathy for small machines explores a question of existence and our place amongst objects. The sewing machine has a life of its own with its own purpose. The poem is a reflection on the awareness of things in themselves, not necessarily in relation to us. The speaker is able to guide the machine back to its purpose of existence and the speaker at the same time has a touch of envy for the simplicity of the machine’s life. Its only purpose is to sew. 

This Is What Happened is available here.

Now what? Grieve, care, and rise with your class.....
Friday, 24 April 2020 13:57

Now what? Grieve, care, and rise with your class.....

Published in Cultural Commentary

Fran Lock continues with the second part of her reflection on working-class resistance and beauty, caring and grieving, struggle and solidarity.

I shaved my hair off yesterday. Our clippers are old and pretty knackered, and the process was hardly as seamless as film and television might have led you to believe, but still, I managed it, in my own typically shambolic way. Newly shorn, I joked with friends and family that my decision was taken in homage to the imaginative sorority of anchorites around whom much of my recent reading and thinking has centred, but in truth it’s not even as complicated as that. At various times in my life I have worn either punk’s aggressively dorsal ‘Mohawk’ or chosen to go full skinhead. It’s simultaneously ‘not that big a deal’ and critically important to me.

I shaved my head for the first time at thirteen. I won’t dwell, but psychologically I wasn’t ‘in a good place’, largely because I wasn’t in a good place in a literal sense either. Since that time both individuals and institutions have insisted on seeing my shaving my head as a sign of instability, a kind of crude barometer of emotional distress. Why else, after all, would a woman or girl choose to do that to herself? This was irksome and outdated even then, but on some level broadly correct: I wasn’t happy.

However, the act was absolutely reasoned and volitional. It was also resistive. It was also joyful. Being passing-pretty in the tedious conventional sense had led to no good place for me, or the other women and girls around me, so my shaving my head was, in the first instance, defensive, my armour against the objectifying gaze of predatory men. More than this, it was a renunciation of the worldview to which that gaze and its crass aesthetic judgements belonged. I didn’t value ‘pretty’, it seemed a shallow metric for self-worth to me. I wanted to publicaly and irreversibly denounce that value system, and everything it wanted or expected me to be. It remains one of the things in my life I am most proud of.

Care for yourself

I bring this up now only because I want to stress and affirm the importance of autonomy and self-care as the necessary precursor to any kind of collective and radical action. When asking what we can do to bring about change, an important step for any woman, but for working-class women, and for working-class queer women in particular, is to begin to unpick the self-strangling, effacement and abnegation of decades.

I’m not talking here about the docile self-coddling of Instagram influencers, I’m talking about Audre Lorde, writing in A Burst of Light that: ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ It’s about survival. It’s about preserving yourself in a world that is hostile to your existence, your identity, and by extension, to your communities. In these circumstances honouring your autonomy is also about remembering that not every woman has that opportunity or freedom.

And that’s a beginning, as grieving and carving out the space in which to grieve is a beginning, but it isn’t enough. It’s hard to imagine what is. Every time I try to write intelligently about a way forward, I find myself recapitulating the old prescriptive dictates of ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’, circling a narrow and instrumentalised vision of art and culture that is every bit as monolithic and blinkered as that of the capitalist patriarchy.

I certainly have very strong feelings about the kind of art I want to engage with and produce at the present time: art that isn’t merely ‘about’ our besetting crises; art that moves beyond coronavirus, climate, or capitalism as subject and into a profound textual reckoning with their rhetorics and aesthetics. I want more than the purely topical. I don’t want poems that hoover up our daily pain as imaginative fodder in reactive or exploitative ways. I want stress and rupture on the level of language. I want damage done to theme and form. I want difficulty and discomfort.

But I also want beauty. I want John Clare and Jane Burn offering pyrotechnic prayers to nature. I want Maxo Vanka’s Pieta, and Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’. I want Szilvia Bognar singing ‘Lily of the Valley’, and Natalia Goncharova’s Liturgy six winged Seraph. I want dancing in my socks to Billie Idol with my brother. I don’t believe art is less worthy or authentic for being beautiful. And beauty, however seemingly superficial, can kindle hope, can offer us an ‘otherwise’, can say ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’, can lend us strength when everything around us feels abject, lost, or ugly. It preserves and strengthens the spirit, and I wouldn’t wish that portal shut for anyone.

What I don’t want is to temper historical injustice or present crisis with aesthetic pleasure. What I don’t want is to be beholden to some power elite’s defanged idea of beauty, beauty as palliative, as distraction, as a papering of cracks. I want art and poetry whose seeing and saying stimulates; whose seeing and saying is sharpened by experience. I want working-class beauty, beauty with the stakes raised, beauty that feels – and is – hard won. I want moments of ecstasy, flashes of brilliance. I want to read, see, hear, and feel changed.

This is something we can do in our daily lives as artists, sure; these are the issues we can choose to live in sensitised daily communion with, but the burden to produce change, to make space for these voices, shouldn’t be placed on the backs of individual creators. Working-class creators are already overburdened, and our art is integral to the machinery of our survival. You inhibit and homogenise art when you start talking about what people can and can’t make; what their responsibilities are, their sanctioned forms and subjects, the correct way to approach them. You diminish art, and you also – more importantly – damage people. Working-class women in particular have seen enough violence and silencing as it is. How then, do we drive change and speak to crisis effectively? How do we move from mere catharsis into meaningful resistance, collective dissent?

Rise with your class

Obviously, I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure I have any, and that can be frankly terrifying. If the responsibility for change lies with the seemingly impenetrable systems that administer us – the publishing cohorts, the academies, the funding bodies, etc. – then we can feel overwhelmed, impotent, powerless to act, but we are not. There is always something we can do. I’ve been thinking about that a lot these last few months. Even before coronavirus, my own life had changed in a variety of ways, good and bad, and I’d been thrown into a period of profound reflection about what comes next for me. In poetry and in the academy I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve come as far as I’ll ever be allowed to go.

This is infinitely frustrating, and there are days I feel like a failure. It helps to understand the dynamics of the system that has put me and keeps me ‘in my place’, but it is nonetheless a struggle to maintain any sense of self-worth of forward motion within a culture that seems explicitly designed to exclude me. I know I’m not the only one who feels like this because a large part of working on Witches, Warriors, Workers with Jane Burn has been about fostering networks of solidarity with women from all walks of life, many with stories to tell about their experiences of exclusion and erasure inside of cultural space. The most important lesson for me from all of those conversations has been: rise with your class, not above it.

Doing for your community raises you. It is succour and soul food in and of itself. It gives you back a sense of agency and control. Truly, this is Lorde’s vision of self-care: an outward-reaching and embracive act of love for your comrades. In practical terms this act of love can look – has looked – like: editorial attention to polyphony and difference; an active seeking out of stories and voices beyond our comfort zones and cohorts. It has been encouraging, including and furthering voices that might not otherwise have been given space. It has been reviewing each other’s work, recommending each other for prizes. It has been taking that work out into the world in unexpected ways: pushing it into elite cultural spaces, and the hearts and hubs of local communities alike.

Struggle for your community

We can do this. Even now, even from our separate anchorite cells, we can connect to the world in ways that bring these voices into focus. We can say ‘hey, this is worthy of attention’ and ‘hey, this demands space.’ This can – and has – looked like specifically foregrounding working-class women’s voices at online festivals, making working-class artistic production the subject of academic essays and conference papers. It has looked like a persistent obtruding onto the notice of publishers, magazine editors, and event organisers. It is not waiting to be invited, not asking to be included, not fretting about looking needy or stupid, but continually stating ‘here I am’ and ‘here we are’ and ‘this deserves to take up space’. It is publicaly questioning ‘why not?’ when they shut the door on you.

Never doubt this process is exhausting. It is a struggle. And here I find my attention returned to the edicts of the anchorites: to suffer without love is a waste of pain, but to understand your struggle as one in common with and on behalf of your community is to give it back purpose and dignity. This is not to make a fetish out of struggle, or working-class resilience, or to lionise it for its own sake, but to remind ourselves that we are not passive, that this pushing forward is work, a political mission.

The Ancerne Wisse (a 13th century guide for anchorites) tells the would-be ascetic to ‘gather into your heart all those who are ill or wretched’ and to remember that the privations and perturbations of secluded life are undertaken on behalf of the community, that you ‘hold up’, others through your sacrifice. This injunction had made the rounds a few times since lockdown started, and it’s easy to see its particular relevance to coronavirus and the practice of self-isolation, but it’s also a useful mantra for any of us, as activists and artists, as women in the world,Any time we’re kettled, arrested, detained without charge; any time our work is rejected, or ignored, or ridiculed; any time we are denied funding, when we are spoken over or shut out; any time we are threatened and bullied legally or physically, we are persisting, we are manifesting resistance, not just for ourselves, but for all of us.

You close the door, I open a window

And once you grasp this thought, you realise that there is so much you can do, a thousand tiny acts of everyday solidarity. My favourite of these has to do with access. By making work available for free; by disseminating art and poetry widely online, we can tip the balance of power away from the old publishing elites. Obviously, not everybody has access to the internet, and I don’t want to uncritically trumpet technology as the saviour of working-class art and literature, but it does open up possibilities. It changes what’s available to us in terms of form, what we can technically achieve. Colour can be present to a greater degree; the spatial relationships between text and image can diverge in extreme and surprising ways, and most of all, our ability to collaborate with and choreograph a variety of voices expands ten-fold.

Our implied audience changes too, because we are removing artistic production from its usual elite haunts. We are connecting to each other, we are talking to each other, deciding and refining our own tastes and ideas, not relying upon on some middle-class editorial filter to tell us what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. When cultural elites close a door, we can repurpose a window. And isolation might provide the impetus to these projects, but their staying power is potentially limitless.

When we decide we no longer need the permission of cultural gatekeepers to publish or to mediate between ourselves and our audiences, then the conversions about issues that matter to us can be kept alive long after their fads for our tokenistic inclusion have faded. This doesn’t mean we stop trying to breach their protected enclaves, but there is tremendous value in carving out space for ourselves on our own terms. Peter Raynard’s Proletarian Poetry has been offering one such invaluable space for years, and it’s time for more.

These thoughts keep me energised at a time when it’s tempting to sink into the lethargy of depression. Trapped in the house for hours every day, with the literal reminders of my failure to escape the economic and social precarity into which I was born, has been wearing. More wearing is that I have no real outlet for these thoughts and feelings. It isn’t that I’ve not been given the opportunity to celebrate my achievements, but I’ve found that those celebrations tend to minimise or outright invisiblise the unequal effort involved, in favour of some endlessly tiresome version of the self-transcending narrative: that my achievements as a working-class person are the result of exceptional individual talent or skill. And that’s wrong. If I rise at all I do so with the help of or at the expense of other working-class people. The space I occupy I had to compete with others for, and the place I attained has been granted to me through a combination of hard work, insanely good luck, and the almost extravagant kindness of those who went before me, leaning down and giving me a hand up.

This is something else that it is important to acknowledge at every opportunity. When you’re given a platform, talk about where you came from, and how lucky you are; honour those who helped you on the way, and remind your listeners how unfair it is that luck has to come into it at all. Tell the truth, even when they call you militant and shrill, even when you make them palpably uncomfortable. Know where and to whom your gratitude belongs, and know what and who has kept you back.

Without my dear friend and mentor, Roddy Lumsden, I wouldn’t be about to complete my Ph.D. I wouldn’t be publishing poetry at all. Roddy was a tireless champion not just of my work, but of any work he believed in, irrespective of aesthetic disposition, irrespective of where it came from. Roddy wasn’t narrowly political, he just wanted exciting and vibrant work to be heard because it mattered to him, he really cared, and in caring he gouged out cultural space for queer poets, BAME poets, working-class poets and Traveller poets. He furthered our reach and he taught many of us how to respect ourselves as creators, even when the outside world doesn’t want to.

Which is where, I think, I came in, with the importance of grieving, of honouring our dead. Isolation affords us this opportunity, to think about who we are and the kind of work we want to do in the world; to remember that we are not really alone, but part of a long continuity of mutual care, links in the chain.

Pietà
Wednesday, 08 April 2020 14:27

Pietà

Published in Poetry

Pietà

After the mural by Maxo Vanka

by Fran Lock

we have held him too, and wept our reticent
alchemy. have worn our aura of knives. have
rocked these cumbersome puppets: sons,
brothers, fathers, all our lovely wayward
vanguard. a ventriloquist’s doll, death made
of him. we have covered our hair. we have
entered the green glass eye of the marble.
our hands have been shuttles in the lean
machinery of grief. we have knelt, we have
stooped, voyant with insomnia. we have
addressed our contortions to the aertex
ceiling. we have been pulled about by our
sleeves, by the hoods of our winter coats.
we have been spat on by midget policemen.
we have held him too, a thousand times, our
boys: separable and trembling, inscribed
against the edges of a prison cell, a junkie
squat, this street, this bed, and the pillow
is thin, is famine’s very ration book. we have
prayed. and praying, we have spiked our
prayers: antimony and vinegar. forgive us.
those nights we’d take a razor to the law,
to the sky, to anyone who’d rinse his
strutting warren blood to milk, who’d
make him theirs, who’d rid him of his
wounds. his wounds are real, and also
ours. boys, with their incendiary ventures.
boys, with their nocturnal confrontations
in the no-place common to capital. we have
held him, until he smelled like a stranger.

the immigrant mother raises her sons for industry maxo vanko

awfulness in its finite aspect. and we
became feral with reproach. and we
have screamed away their platinum
lacquer. he is not a gilded bowl, his
asymmetric fractures fixed with gold.
preserve the dull earth fact of him. no
nectar, splendours, no luminous lullaby’s
sugared tyranny. before he can rise he has
to die. he died. her boy, our boys. by
the structures of sin, the abattoir
vocabulary of capital, which grinds all
names to mob. how many boys, partial
and abolished, sewn inside futile
routines of punishment and riot? we have
held him too, and so we know: after
grief is the glowing time. is the goblet
of fire and the tongue of fire and molten
soul made ball. he will come again,
amplified in acid flashback clarity
of blue-black emerald frenzied red.
he’ll wear his love like an ideal sun,
clarion against their tedious malevolence.

the capitalist maxo vanko

he will rise, to slit their throats where
they sit, reciting their vampire creed
into screens. he will rise in their world
of gentrifiers, pesticides, of every
crowd made ghost, their bland disparity.
she will let him stand, sharpened by
sunlight, fabulating crisis into miracle.
but first she is, we are, empress
of humiliations. holding her son
like a sallow candle. light of the world,
oh, you are my sunshine. wax of him
right, ready for burning.

Images: Pietà, The immigrant mother raises her sons for industry and The Capitalist, by Maxo Vanka, murals at Millvale, Pennsylvania, 1937-41

 

'Prayers to the environment': Jane Burn on nature, her writing, her life - and her new book
Tuesday, 07 April 2020 20:19

'Prayers to the environment': Jane Burn on nature, her writing, her life - and her new book

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock interviews Jane Burn, author of Yan, Tan, Tether (Indigo Dreams Press, 2020)

Fran: Thank you so much for agreeing to answer these few questions about your latest collection of poems and illustrations, Yan, Tan, Tether. I’m really excited to do this interview with you, firstly because both the poetry and their companion images speak to my own interest in mediaeval beast poems, but more importantly because a better understanding of how we relate to the animal others in our midst has never been more pressing or more necessary.

I don’t know if you’d agree, but I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable about the way art has traditionally made use of the animal world. I was reading an old Guardian interview with Kathleen Jamie the other day, where she talks about nature writing having been ‘colonised’ by ‘middle-class white men’, who produce this decidedly anthropocentric poetry where the animal is only meaningful in respect to the sensations, emotions or ideas it produces in a privileged human observer. One of the most admirable – and I want to say radical – aspects of Yan, Tan, Tether, is the kind of mutuality you evoke between your human and animal speakers. Your animal subjects aren’t ciphers for human experience, and your human observers are attentive and respectful to the otherness of the animal. I want to ask first how conscious you were when putting this collection together of writing back to or against that middle-class white male model of contemporary nature writing, and what parallel traditions you might have been drawing from?

Jane Burn

Jane: Have you ever sat, quiet and frozen absolutely still and held your breath in order to see how close a bird will come to you? You hardly dare move as this amazing, fragile being (that you could crush with one hand) weighs you up. You become aware of every twitch, every hop and flicker of the bird. You see so much expression written on those tiny beads of eye. You notice each little feather in such unexpected detail. You try with all your might to project to the bird how safe you are, how you would never dream of hurting it. It watches you, head cocked, every mite of it poised to fly away at a split second’s notice. You have absolutely no idea what that bird is thinking, or whether it considers you at all beyond a brief curiosity. It measures you quickly – friend or foe? The quieter you stand, the less ‘human’ you are, the nearer it will come.

A couple of weeks ago, I stood just like this in my front garden, statue-still, watching the birds on the bird table from a safe distance. The sparrows came and went individually – blue tits landed on the peanuts in twos and threes. A wood pigeon made an ungainly crash-landing on the fence. A robin flurried among them and drove them away. I thought about how they have their own society, their own complex rules, their own desires and needs, their own individual songs.

In a moment that was over before I had the chance to really register it, a sparrow suddenly landed on my shoulder. After a brief second, the noise of its wings as it flew away sounded in my stunned ear. In this moment, it was like a meeting of two universes. It was a rare connection between our different worlds. It wasn’t a Disney Snow White moment – the birds weren’t there to accentuate my sweetness, to add their backing vocals to my virginal voice. They weren’t there to light upon my delicate, unblemished hand and thrall at my young, doe-eyed beauty (doe-eyed – don’t get me started on that one). They certainly weren’t there to help with the housework. In fact, you could probably go on a lot longer about Disney and his ‘birds’, like when Sleeping Beauty, with her thick tumble of blonde curls, her 18” waist and miniscule feet wanders through a wood spangled with fawning blue and canary yellow songbirds bemoaning her lack of a man.

I am interested in a different kind of ‘magic’. Sometimes I think women have only been allowed nature if it is a foil to keep us in our place. I remember us watching and re-watching our VHS copy of Legend, way back in the 80’s. I loved the film so much but today I am irked by the scenes that emphasize that those beautiful unicorns can only be touched by pure maidens – white clad virgins who reach with awe towards that horn. I think too about how it was a woman’s fault that the wonderful world there was plunged into darkness – ’twas Beauty led the Beast to bay.

By way of a follow up question, I’m aware that there’s this easy and rather patronising assumption of affinity between the feminine and the wild or rural, which I think has been used to marginalise or dismiss women’s contribution to the poetry of the natural world, particularly working-class women, who, in any case, never receive the same critical attention as their male counterparts. Something I really admire about this book is that is shows us the wonder in the ordinary, in the ‘scary’ or the ‘slimy’ too. There’s both reverence for humble things and pity for the damaged, yet not in a sentimental way that softens their rough edges. This feels like such a powerful middle-finger to both the Disnification of nature, and to the arbitrary and shallow distinctions people make about what (and who) is or isn’t worthy of care. One of my favourite illustrations in the whole collection is the slug in ‘Mollusc Song’ wrapped with a speech scroll reading ‘still I find a way to dance’. I wonder to what extend you see Yan, Tan, Tether as a feminist collection? And do you think being a working-class woman has coloured the reception of your work generally?

Animals are not meant as a metaphor for ‘ideal femininity’, are not there to accentuate our innocence, beauty, delicacy and sweetness.  Most of them would avoid us absolutely I am sure, if they could. They dig, bite, kill, screech, chase and catch. They shit and fuck in the open, having been spared our human notions of shame. Think of the fear men had in the past of strong women and their affinity with animals. Got a cat? You’re a witch. Even the thought that a woman might somehow transform into a hare was enough to burn them at the stake. 

Part of my working-class make up is that I live in terror of my own ideas of intelligence. The overwhelming attitude that nobody is going to be interested in you. It’s alright telling me that it’s all in my head, or my ideas of class are my own, or I’m just paranoid, or I am just silly, or it doesn’t exist. My schooling was crappy and I had no idea of the opportunities out there. My parents had no idea of the opportunities out there, not really. I was too shy to say boo for too many years. I am a victim of bullying and abuse. I have been a physical and metaphorical punchbag for so long that my voice was knocked out of me. I have no confidence with anything that requires me to sound like I know what the hell I’m talking about, so please excuse the way I tiptoe around these questions and probably fail to answer any of them at all properly.

Of course I read books about the characters’ varied jobs and lives but they were the lives of other people, not some irrelevant lump, stuck in a nowhere village, grasping books from jumble sales and thanking the stars for the local library. Look at the way they have closed libraries down. What are the children like me going to do now? How are they meant to cobble their own education together now? I have given up feeling sorry for myself but have remained angry. I don’t fit into anyone’s box. My writing doesn’t fit into anyone’s box. I feel I have so much more to prove. I feel as if I am always fighting and that gets very tiring, sometimes. This feeling has been with me so long now, it’s not something I can shake. Call me chippy, go on. I’ve been called it before. I often wonder if I can feel that ceiling above me – that no matter what I write, I have got as far as I am ever going to go.

I want to move away from my heavy-handed political reading of your work now, because I feel like I’m in danger of sucking the joy from what is absolutely a rich, strange, and vivacious book. Instead, I’d love to ask you about the texture and tactile pleasure of your language. There’s a particularity and exactness of phrase in this work that feels intuitive, lived and local. It reminds me of John Clare, who is perhaps my own favourite nature poet. Could you tell me to what extent do the poems in this collection grew out of your own relationship to the landscape and animals around you?

I am terrified of grammar and punctuation. Perhaps that is why I love to free myself within other voices, voices that free me from the idea of restraint. I love words – I am a complete and utter collector of words. Because I don’t belong anywhere, I can belong everywhere (if that makes sense). I can hop and jump through districts and dialects. I make up words of my own and this comes to me easily because maybe I never learned the rules in the first place. To grow up an outsider even in your own community (because you are weird) was not lonely for me. I didn’t want their company. My mother had a hatred of seeing me sitting in some corner reading, or scribbling and sketching onto envelopes, cereal packet backs, etc and would physically turf me out.

I would wander miles on my own – this was something I was used to, right from reception class where I was expected to walk home from school on my own. It was always horses that I sought. I was a master of waiting – it was always worth the wait when they came to the fence and they always tolerated me. Let me touch them. My comfort was being reflected in their eyes. To many, the main thing with horses is riding upon their backs. What about getting to know them first? A big animal that could kick you into next week can hold you with such gentleness in its heart.

At my saddest, I would dream of changing into something else. I galloped round the garden, leapt imaginary fences. I squatted in the garden watching the travelling of snails, pretended to be tiny as a ladybird in the grass. I think this is where the theme of transformation comes from. I have never managed to be at peace with myself as an adult either. I hate the way I look, that I can never be in control of what I am eating, or saying. I am taciturn, loud, inappropriate. I am lonely one moment and hate the idea of company the next. I make my world into a protective shell and feel comfortable within it. To imagine transforming into the purity of an animal’s soul is something that has always inspired me. If I held a mirror up to my own beloved horse’s face, he would do nothing more than shade it with his exhaled breath. A kitten sees its reflection and plays. I look in the mirror and recoil. Imagine the freedom of the sky! I feel it so strongly I get giddy. I root the soil with my fingers and it seems like I sense every molecule in it. I feel connected, unjudged.

I don’t ‘mean’ to write. I tried to describe it during an assessment last year – that it was a sort of rain that falls down all around me and in some places the words begin to string themselves together like beautiful beads. When the words are good, there is no better feeling. When the words are bad, I try my best to ride the waves. Either way, after one of these experiences, I have to race to the nearest writing equipment and put it onto paper. Maybe it’s like speaking in tongues – it’s not something you can control or help. Being possessed like this can be so uplifting yet so draining. There is no escape from it  – yes, it has upsides and downsides but it is me and I couldn’t live without it, even if I knew how.

JB BeFunky collagesx

As a related question, I’m also curious about the mythic or folkloric qualities of the poems, qualities that are underscored by the beautiful companion illustrations. One of the things I love most about the book is that it brings into collision these two medieval forms: the book of hours, and the beast poem, so that there seem to be both Christian and pagan influences at work, both ancient and modern sources of inspiration. Could you talk a bit about the different influences and traditions that went into making the book? What was the impetus for the collection as a whole?

I believe that a lot of folklore and myth has sprung from similar places. When I was very young, I loved Greek and Roman stories. As I grew older, I read more and more. This is a place where nothing needs to be what it seems, where there is magic, where there is pleasure and pain, where people and animals intertwine. I was fascinated by creatures like the minotaur, and centaurs and harpies. The idea of two creatures living in one skin was always something that somehow comforted me and gave me hope. I felt much less alone and it felt natural to me to connect in this way.

I was raised a Methodist and yes, I have such fondness for those pared down, plainly painted chapels. My mother was a Catholic however and I had such a fascination and craving for rosary beads, statues of the Madonna, pictures of the Sacred Heart. This led to learning about iconography (especially Russian icons) and manuscript illumination. Every wire of my brain strums at the sight of them. To me, they are the epitome of faith, skill, patience and joy. They are unashamed celebrations. If you wanted to express your greatest love on paper, that would be the way. They are glorious and the book of hours takes everything to the next level. They are such staggeringly precious expressions of devotion. They are exquisite – raw and real with colour, fearless in their purpose.

I have often wondered, over the years what my faith is to me. I came to the conclusion that it has never been just one thing.  It is the cobbling together of a lifetime of love – the greatest love of all being the natural world. If I had to choose one thing as my church, nature would be it. To make a sort of book of hours of my own, one that could also be enjoyed by others as part of their own ‘worship’, seemed a natural progression. I don’t think the poems would function so well without the illuminations. Both lend so much extra depth to the other and adding text to the pictures helps to connect them even more. 

I’ll try to make these last questions a bit more practical and succinct: firstly, could you tell us a bit about the relationship between your painting and your poetry? Calling the images ‘illustrations’ almost seems wrong – let’s call them ‘illuminations’ instead in every sense – as they feel just as integral to the collection as a whole as the poems. Could you perhaps talk a little bit about the particular work each art form is doing? Does one form always precede the other?

I had these images in my head as I was writing the poems although I didn’t commit them to paper until after the poems were written. I wanted to wait until I was ready to give myself over to the production of them as a whole as it can be very distracting to have to keep packing up artwork or jump from one project to another. I knew I had a good number of them to produce – 23 in total (including the cover). The earliest poem in this collection was Froghopper, which was written in 2014, and the illuminations were produced through the winter of 2018. Just like an ancient monk, I set my table up with equipment and worked tirelessly on them and it was a pleasure to be able to give myself over to such an involving project. It was great to finally be able to set the images free from the confines of my head. The book was beautifully and sympathetically published by the wonderful Indigo Dreams in December 2019, so I guess it shows sometimes how long it can take a book to come to fruition.

The borders for the images were just as important as the images themselves, just as they are in original religious works. For me they also allowed me to include and acknowledge some of the other artworks I love – canal art, rosemaling, the decoration on vardos, folk art. These are the works that I love. You might not see much of it in galleries but they are beautiful to me. I felt I had to include references to these styles if I was going to remain true to my own heart.

Last of all, I’d love for you to tell us something about the animal friends and collaborators in your life, as it feels really appropriate that we give these important figures the final word.

These are the friends that I share my life with currently – my horse Orca and dogs Iggy and Patsy. Orca came to me from the Traveller community when I was 37 (I’m 48 now). He lived with a huge herd of mares and foals that roamed free on a massive acreage of grazing. I was told, simply, to go ahead and walk to find them and choose one. Many of the foals were friendly, some even bold, but it was the tiny red and white, peeping warily from behind his solid mother that instantly stole my heart. Each foal was completely unhandled and had been born in the field at the mercy of nature, as they would have been in the wild.

Orca would come nowhere near me. I visited the field three times a week for six weeks and as you can see from one of the pictures, I spent the time pretending to be a horse as much as possible. I stayed low so I wouldn’t tower over him. I kept my hands to myself – what would have been the point of trying to forcibly catch a wild creature in a 50 acre field? For four weeks, he came closer and closer. Curiosity brought him to me but he kept a safe distance between us. Weeks five and six brought with them touch and trust. He is twelve this summer and I truly believe our souls have become inseparable.

JB dogs

Iggy and Patsy are Jack Russells, and couldn’t be more true to type if they tried. One of my friends that knows them well says they ought to have their own TV series! Iggy came from someone who bred them as ‘foxing dogs’ for the hunt. It is a victory that he lives a completely different life with us. They are 9 and 8 years old and show no signs of slowing down. I could say that they are wilful, stubborn, vociferous, destructive, escapologist tearaways but that would be me projecting my own humanity on them. They are just 100% themselves, always filthy from digging and smelly from rolling. They love and protect us with a passion and we love them right back, though they are quick (especially little Patsy) so watch your fingers!

I guess when it comes to the wonderful creatures we share our world with, I have found that while you can learn some secrets from them, they teach me so much more about myself. They give me a voice that I use with confidence. They free me from constraints of language. They never look at one another as a kingdom to be conquered. They just are.

Thank you so much for talking with me. I really hope that wasn’t awful!

I hope that I have managed to provide some of the answers to these questions at least. I hoped that people will read the book and be inspired to get out there and use each page to inspire their own ‘prayers’ to the environment. The more you learn to love it at its most fundamental, the more I hope we become conscious of how much we need to do in order to protect it. The small changes are as important as the big ones. If you know the value of insects, you might be more aware of where you place your feet, or might not get the bug spray out so readily. The more you love the birds, the more you might let your hedges alone so they can nest, the more you might offer them food when times are tough. The more you get out into the open, the more you might fall in with the natural order of the seasons. I hope this book manages to do that, even a little bit.

Jane's poems have appeared in many magazines including The Rialto, Strix, Butcher’s Dog and Under the Radar, and anthologies from publishers such as Seren and The Emma Press. Since 2014 her poems have had success in 43 poetry competitions. Her pamphlets include Fat Around the Middle (Talking Pen, 2015) and Tongues of Fire (BLERoom, 2016).Her collections are noting more to it than bubbles (Indigo Dreams, 2016), This Game of Strangers (Wyrd Harvest Press, 2017, co-written with Bob Beagrie), One of These Dead Places (Culture Matters, 2017), Fleet, (Wyrd Harvest Press, 2018), Remnants (Knives Forks and Spoons Press, 2019, again written with Bob Beagrie), and the astonishing Yan, Tan, Tether (Indigo Dreams Press, 2020). Her poems have been nominated for the Forward and Pushcart prize. She is co-editor of Witches, Warriors and Workers (Culture Matters, 2020) and is an Associate Editor at Culture Matters.

Yan, Tan, Tether is published by Indigo Dreams Publishing, and is available to purchase here.

'Most good art is queer': Fran Lock interviews Golnoosh Nour
Friday, 27 March 2020 15:17

'Most good art is queer': Fran Lock interviews Golnoosh Nour

Published in Fiction

Fran Lock interviews Dr Golnoosh Nour, who was born in Tehran, about her new book, The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories. Her debut poetry collection Sorrows of the Sun was published in 2017, and she teaches at Birkbeck College and the University of Bedfordshire. 

FL: Thank you so much for agreeing to answer these few questions about your debut collection of short stories, The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories. I really wanted to do this interview with you because reading the book has initiated in me such a profound period of reflection on notions of queer subjectivity, politics, and nationhood, themes that feel especially relevant and pressing in the current climate.

GN: Thank you for having me, Fran. I’m delighted you found the book so engaging!

It has always seemed bizarre and slightly suspect to me that wherever in the world British or US political interventions are at their most militaristic, swingeing and destructive, we develop a directly proportionate appetite for the literature of those nations. We’ve seen this in Palestine, Afghanistan, in Northern Ireland, and I don’t know if you agree, but I think we’re starting to see it now in Iran. My own feeling is that there is a tendency within publishing, and also within the wider culture, to simultaneously exoticise and assimilate the places and peoples it fixates on. The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories is such a nuanced book, one that seems to revel in ambivalence and ambiguity. I wonder how conscious you are of writing back against literary culture’s tendency to homogenise and make a fetish of Iran or of some seemingly ‘typical’ Iranian Experience?

Yes, you’re absolutely right, but unfortunately, this is nothing new. Hamid Dabashi and several other Iranian scholars have discussed this issue in depth; since America’s ‘war on terror’, there has been a significant rise in the publication of literature by Iranian women in the West, sometimes to international recognition and praise. These books are often memoir/ nonfiction, and they often have a formula that comfortably confirms the western right-wing narrative of Iran, in which everything Iranian is dreadful and problematic unlike everything western that is ideal and liberating. Farzaneh Milani has coined a term to define this literary subgenre as ‘hostage narrative’. A narrative which offers ‘arrested representations’ that are ‘caged images of reality that is perpetually moving and shifting’. Hostage narrative generalises and simplifies by portraying Iranian women as victims thereby dismissing their contributions to Iranian culture. So yes, I was very aware of this. And the other thing I noticed is that all the characters in these books are heteronormative. So, my book, I hope, is also a reaction against the heteronormative and monolithic portrayals of Iran and its sexualities. 

1 Nabeela Vega

From the series Visiting Thabab, by Nabeela Vega

As a kind of inelegant follow-on to the previous question: one of the joys of this collection is that through the varied subjectivities of your speakers you present an image of Iran, and also of queer identity that is characterised by multiplicity, polyphony and contradiction. How important was the short story form to you as a vehicle for exploring this diversity of voice and experience? And do you perhaps see radical or subversive potential in the short story form as genre? Is there something about it that makes it ideally suited for the transmission of queer narratives in particular?

As you know, the short story is not my favourite literary form. But for this specific book, I felt that it was the most suitable form. Because this book is about representation and I wanted to show as many Iranian queers in depth as possible. And I had many stories to tell about queerness, so I believe these thirteen short stories do the job perfectly well. But also, the famous definition that Sedgwick offers of queerness that queerness is an ‘open mesh of possibilities’ and I have to admit I feel the same way about short story as a form. In this sense, short story as an artform provides a comfortable cradle for queerness. 

To stay with the idea of queerness, would you mind speaking briefly about what the notion of queerness means to you, and where you see yourself in terms of building and contouring a modern queer canon?

One of the most wholesome definitions of queerness has been provided by Sarah Ahmed in her seminal book, Queer Phenomenology. She says anything that disrupts is queer and anyone practicing nonnormative sexualities is queer as they disrupt heteronormative structures. I myself identify as queer. And all my protagonists in The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories are queer. They express a lot of same sex desires, but also other desires that can’t be tamed, labelled, and defined by the mainstream discourses of sexuality. In his essay, Queer Past, Queer Present, Queer Future, Jonathan Kemp says queer is about ‘not simply imitating the norm but exploring alternatives’. And I think this is a great place to start. 

I think the queer canon has always existed, in fact, I believe most good art is queer. As for the modern queer canon, there are so many thrilling queer voices, including Saleem Haddad, Alan Hollinghurst, Danez Smith, Joelle Taylor, Ocean Vuong, Jay Bernard, Eileen Myles, Sophie Robinson, Jonathan Kemp, Tomasz Jerdowski, Paul Mendez, Chloe Caldwell, Keith Jarrett, Julia Bell, Jericho Brown, Richard Scott, and of course yourself, and we are just some of the contemporary ones. I think Audre Lorde, Allen Ginsberg, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Forough Farrokhzad, and Iris Murdoch still count as modern queer canon, right? And then a bit further back we have artists like Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. So, the queer canon is a never-ending and ever-expanding canon, an open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances, and I am floating in it too if I’m lucky. 

2 Alpha Beta Burqua by Parisa Parnian titled It is Complicated

It's Complicated, by Parisa Parnian

At the heart of queerness there is a condition or a feeling of otherness, of being ‘other’. Reading your collection, particularly the stories ‘Soho’ and ‘Oshima’, I am reminded that this is also the feeling that attends exile, the feeling that accompanies being a migrant or a refugee, a stranger in a strange land. I know you’re familiar with the Edward Said quote about exile, that it is ‘the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted’. Your stories intertwine queerness and migrancy in intricate and moving ways, but even when your protagonists are speaking from their native place they often seem divided and estranged. Is there something of the perpetual exile in all of us queers?

Wow, this is such an interesting connection! I love it so much. I think you’re absolutely right in that there is definitely a sense of exile in queerness, especially considering that queerness by its very definition does result in otherness, and being otherised by the society; but partly, it is self-exile too, which isn’t necessarily a sorrowful place. I think there can be joy and strength in exile, in staying away from societal norms, to mock them, to push them away, to question them, to escape them. And to be proactive about it, rather than passively exiled.  So, although I agree with Said, that there is sorrow in exile, I also think there is hope and joy in it, too. 

Staying with this thought, I do want to stress that this is also a playful collection, full of humour and joy. One of the things that struck me particularly was its attention to moments of solidarity; mutual expressions of friendship and care. Queerness also figures in your work as a scene, a vibrant and nonconforming fellowship, and I wondered how the notion of a queer community – or communities – has shaped your identity as a writer, and conversely, how you think that literature has helped to foster the idea of queer community?

I’m incredibly grateful for the queer communities both in Tehran and in London, not just as a writer but as a nonconformist individual who still needs to survive the heteronormative societies. So, I do think we need communities for our survival and nourishment, at the same time I believe it’s important to know that community is not the only thing we need and it is not enough. Bear in mind, that communities, especially big ones, tend to create their own hierarchies and power structures. So, I think as queers, we also need a lot of solitude, self-love, and individuation. As the great Audre Lorde argues, for queers, especially queers of colour, caring for oneself is a ‘political act of warfare’. 

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Occupy Me: Topping from the Bottom, by Hushidar Mortezaie

Reading back through these questions it strikes me that they seem quite political in tone, and I find myself wanting to apologise for that because the luxury of not being political is something a number of your protagonists struggle with. I’m thinking particularly of ‘An Evening of Martyrdom’, and reading this story I had in mind something that the American poet Patricia Smith once said, that even if she were to write a poem about meadow flowers it would still be a political act by virtue of the fact that she is a working class black woman in an elite cultural space. Being queer in Iran – being queer in a lot of places – can have very real and very violent consequences, which I think makes it tempting for straight white western audiences to valorise being Iranian and queer as uniquely defiant or ‘brave’, which in itself is a form of violence, a form erasure, in that it ignores the daily negotiations individuals undertake – when to conceal, when to disclose – the oscillation between moments of defiance, and those of fear or of guilt for not being political enough. These tensions are something you handle admirably in your story, and that sense of yearning for a time and place where queer people will be granted the freedom to desire without being crudely politicised. I’d be interested to know if you believe this place and time exists – can ever exist, and how these tensions influence both your choices as a writer, and the way you feel your work is perceived out there in the world?

I agree with Jonathan Kemp that being queer is ‘inherently political’, so no unfortunately there is no escape from politics with capital P during these highly politicised times, where everything is inherently political and politicised, not just one’s sexual identity. There is still a lot of queerbashing in the world, and being queer is still one of the most political positions one can occupy. I’m a bit of an optimist, so I do think, if we keep fighting, there will be a time and place when people can honestly express their nonnormative sexual desires without being bashed or politicised. But at the moment, we have a long way to go. And that’s why, I believe, queer visibility is vital. And I hope I am creating a lot of queer visibility with my literary endeavours as well as by my very existence and day to day survival in an extremely conservative world. 

I want to move away from the explicitly queer aspects of your work now to focus on a theme I think is of equal weight and importance. Some of the most poignant and well realised moments in this collection are centred on familial relationships: cousins, brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, daughters and fathers. I wonder if you could speak a little bit about how your own sense of family has shaped your writing, both the short stories, and your poetry?

I am very close with my family, and I know very well how family dynamics can be beautiful but also intense and even destructive at times. I think I am lucky with my family, because I have a rather unconventional family. My late mother was a powerful philosophy professor from whom I learned how to be unapologetically strong and intellectually ambitious. And my father is an adoring and adorable person who is also a bit of an individualist who doesn’t care much for social conventions. He’s always enjoyed making jam and pickles, sewing, and maths. And I cherish my three siblings, and my amazing niece and nephew. My older brother is also a writer, so we have a nourishing writerly relationship as well as a loving siblinghood.

From an early age, I never really learned to take gender roles very seriously, even though I was born and raised in an extremely gendered country. I could see that my parents didn’t really abide by the usual gender norms and they were just fine and they didn’t try to suffocate my natural tendencies either. They never told me to ‘act like a girl’ or be a certain way because of my gender. For that alone, I shall always be grateful to them. And I think my lack of respect and sometimes acknowledgement of gender roles and gender norms come across quite strongly both in my personality and my writing. And this is just my blood-related family, my partner who is also a writer inspires me a lot, and we’ve fought a lot of homophobia and racism to be together. And as you know, these are also recurring themes in my work. 

I mention poetry because it is a constant presence in your stories, from Iranian modernist poets like Forough Farrokhzad to the decadent Romantics like Lord Byron. I feel like I know the answer to this question, but has poetry been a source of solidarity and nourishment for you as a writer? Has it been influential in fostering your own sense of queer identity?

You do know the answer indeed and it is, ‘yes!’. I cannot imagine my life without poetry. My own poetry and as well as other people’s poetry has definitely strengthened me both as a writer and an individual. Audre Lorde is right, for marginalised voices, poetry is a necessity. A method for reclaiming power, and for me it has also been cathartic and inspiring. Also, from a technical point of view, I believe, even prose writers need to learn poetry and read poetry even if they don’t have the desire or urge to write it. Poetry is where language can be at its most polished, its most beautiful, and its most revolutionary. I do not trust writers who say they have no interest in poetry. Poetry is an artform that needs to be understood and engaged with, even if not deployed, if one wants to be any good at literature. 

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bedoone onvan/untitled, by Kiyaan Abadan

Staying with poetry a bit, I’d like to finish – if you can possibly bear it – with a rather boring question about form.  Could you tell me about the role these different forms of writing perform for you, as both writer and reader? How does the process of creation differ across short stories and poetry? Are their things you can say in one, not easily accommodated by the other?

This is not a boring question at all! Quite the opposite. 

For me writing short stories and poetry are two very different modes of being. My poetry comes naturally, effortlessly, almost how Wordsworth defines it as a spontaneous overflow of emotion, except that for me there is no ‘tranquillity’ when I’m writing it. My poetry erupts, whereas that is not the case at all with my short stories. I meticulously plot my short stories before writing them. I have an idea, I know exactly what I want. I know the characters, the setting, the protagonist, even the dialogues. I have it all in my head first. Whereas with a poem, I have no idea where it’s taking me, a poem has its own force, direction, and destination, so I just go with it and I know it will take me somewhere cathartic, whereas with my short stories, I tell them exactly where to take me so I have a more active role with them. 

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

Thank you for your thought-provoking and intelligent questions. It was a pleasure to answer them. 

The Ministry of Guidance and Other Stories is published by Muswell Press and will be available to purchase here from the 2nd April.

Witches, Warriors and Workers: International Women's Day 2020
Saturday, 22 February 2020 19:43

Witches, Warriors and Workers: International Women's Day 2020

Published in Poetry

Fran Lock introduces Witches, Warriors, Workers: An anthology of contemporary working women’s poetry, in the run-up to IWD on March 8th. The image above is by Fran's co-editor, Jane Burn; the images below are from creative commons and Steev Burgess. The book is being launched in Newcastle and London, see below for details.

A friend of mine asks about the title. And so I tell her: no act of naming is neutral. A name may confer status, or summon solidarity. It recruits a web of cultural and historical allusions which it draws upon to support and create meaning. A name is an intertextual fragment, gathering around itself a constellation of accretive associations. No act of naming is idle.

…In my street a family was kicked out of
their home for being Catholic, and every July a bonfire
would be built at the top of our street from wooden crates.
Everyone got drunk and the flames melted the windows…
- The Turning Point, by Carolyn Jess-Cooke (p. 22)

They call our survivalist pride, vanity…
- The Future is Queer, by Golnoosh Nour (p. 78)

Witches

When we say ‘Witch’ we invoke the spectres of Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles and Susanna Edwards, hanged at Bideford in 1682, women who were elderly and indigent, a continuous and obtrusive presence in the streets or at the doors of local residents, begging for food, or for milk, or for alms. When we say ‘Witch’ we do so understanding that an accusation of witchcraft was a brutal mechanism of social cleansing throughout the 17th Century. And we express our sorority with our undesirable foresisters, condemned to die for being old and without resources or support.

IWD

When we say ‘Witch’ we acknowledge that ‘witch’ is a word that has been used to expunge the powerless, and to remove power from those who seem on the cusp of claiming it. Joan of Arc was tried as a witch. When we say ‘Witch’, we do not evoke some distant echo of white European history alone. Witchcraft is a present and pressing accusation, horribly alive in the so called witch-camps of Ghana; well documented in India, and in Saudi Arabia, where women have been convicted of witchcraft in the courts. In the last decade United Nations officials have reported a rise in women killed for witchcraft across the globe.

When we say ‘Witch’, we call to those for whom the word has become a rallying cry against the capitalist patriarchy, a secret source of power. We call out in imaginative transgression and material abjection. We know what is at stake when we say ‘Witch’.

The night they blew life into me, I clung
bat-like to the womb-wall. A girl golem…
- Girl Golem, by Rachael Clyne (p. 124)

Warriors

When we say ‘Warrior’ we do so in the spirit of women as radically different as Boudicca and Harriett Tubman. We do so conscious of the fact that what makes a warrior is not the damage they inflict, but the sorrows they endure. When we say ‘Warrior’, we draw upon a lineage of survival, of women finding strength in grief. Boudicca led the sacking of Colchester, St Albans and London following the rape and torture of her daughters. Tubman escaped slavery to rescue over seventy other enslaved people through the Underground Railroad. She was an armed scout in the Union Army, and in later years a prominent and articulate activist for women’s suffrage. History is thick with the stories of women violently dispossessed, who went on to accomplish astonishing things.

Ruses Suffragettes

suffragettes, by Steev Burgess

When we say ‘Warrior’, we understand how that word has been twisted and debased, held up as proof of a woman’s unnaturalness. Joan of Arc was a warrior, so Joan of Arc was not a real or legitimate woman. She was something uncanny, something extra. So when we say ‘Warrior’ we point not to acts of individual exceptionalism alone, but the ordinary struggles of women to exist, to persist, and to resist in the face of immense opposition. We do not conjure ‘Warrior’ as some two-dimensional fetish of omnicompetent bad-assery. We use ‘Warrior’ for the suffragettes and for the veterans of the Gateways Club, we use ‘Warrior’ for the weavers of Peterloo, we use ‘Warrior’ for the women at Greenham Common, and for the mothers of Grenfell holding power to account. We say ‘Warrior’ to acknowledge our own battles, those we hold in common, and those we face internally, alone. We say ‘Warrior’ because we understand that to live as women often requires of us a continuous re-dedication of enormous effort: to be heard, to be seen, to feed our families, to love, to grieve, and to carry on.

When there is talk of warriors
rarely do they mention the keepers of secrets
or how whole cities have been moved
under the cloak of night
what tiresome work it is
to carry lineage…
- Packing Two Gold Necklaces, by Hibaq Osman (p. 117)

Workers

When we say ‘Worker’ we hold up both the work that women do, and the work of being women. That is to say that living as a woman under the multiple oppressions of late-stage capitalism demands and extracts something particular from us, quite apart from our daily labour. To be a woman is to live beneath the objectifying gaze of an omniscient and omnipotent Other, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

This objectification is porous and all-pervasive, it begins in legislation – as political decisions – and filters down through culture; it exerts a constant pressure to conform to prescribed values and embodied forms. It is not enough that we are nurturing mothers, or brilliant scholars, or skilled craftswomen, or life-saving first responders, we must be so while strenuously performing someone else’s idea of what an ‘acceptable’ woman looks like, how an ‘acceptable’ woman behaves.

Fran Lock unlovablelabour 2

unloveable labour, by Steev Burgess

To be a woman is to live in a world where your own body is routinely enlisted against you by the patriarchy, where your body becomes an argument for its own subjugation; where what you can and can’t do, from economic opportunity, to your chances of survival, are directly related to your body’s capacity to be victimised, to menstruate, to gestate, and to reproduce. Wherever we come from, as women we carry this in common. Gender inequality is an inherent and structural feature of capitalism, which both demands and creates an economic underclass to harness as a source of domestic, sexual, and reproductive labour. It uses social coercion and cultural norms to trap us in subaltern roles. We negotiate this, every single day. This is work, invisible and unacknowledged.

…i was never more than when i was nothing. i was never i never
did all shhhh and no. i was a pen from melting. objectivity
teething on gobstopper lust i couldn’t give away but i gave it…
- every girl knows, by Amy Acre (p. 86)

As I am writing this, the full impact of sweeping Tory cuts to legal aid is still only just beginning to be felt by women who now find themselves trapped in abusive domestic situations through economic dependency on violent partners. And it will get worse. This current government is operating with a value system so bizarrely warped it does not trouble to distinguish between ‘unskilled’ and ‘poorly paid’ labour; its current immigration reforms systematically undervalue and decimate jobs traditionally held by women. Many women are already prevented from accessing paid work by the sheer weight of unpaid work — child and elder care for example — that successive governments have relied upon them to do. Women are more likely to work in sectors like home and senior care that are poorly compensated even though the skill levels of such women are high. Care work is not ‘low’ or ‘unskilled’, it is undervalued because eighty-percent of its workforce is female. Imposing the salary requirement on migrants would mean discriminating against women who preform difficult and vital work in Great Britain; it would also mean piling pressure upon non-migrant women to take on yet more unpaid care; restricting our collective movement to the detriment of all.

Sometimes on a Friday I work late,
padding the corridor like a forgotten queen,
the classrooms ragged and empty,
my filthy kingdom laid to waste.
- You can’t have weeping in a poem, by Katherine Ayres (p. 104)

‘Work’ is a vexed issue, and it intersects in fiendish ways with gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, health and age. For this and many other reasons, we believe this anthology is timely; it focuses on themes which reflect the texture and preoccupations of working women in contemporary Britain. It explores women’s complex relationship to the environment, to our families, to our bodies, and to each other. It does so particularly through the lens of labour, through the many modes of work – waged and unwaged, material and emotional – in which we all must engage.

The anthology features contributions by sixty-five women of all ages, working across a variety of poetic and artistic traditions. We offer it not as a manifesto, as some Grand Unified Theory of Women Workers’ Art, but as a network, and a conversation, a site and occasion for celebration and for grieving, a space in which questions are asked and thinking occurs.

You and I will hang our thoughts, each in our own place. And we will meet.
- Low pressure, by Sarah Wedderburn (p. 135)

Putting together the anthology has provided a rare opportunity to think about ‘work’, and how the dynamics of literary production in particular intersect in often awkward ways with dailiness. As we began with our contributors the process of pulling the book into shape, we gave not only our work, but portions of our lives: interactions and encouragements, conversations about what it meant to be ‘working’ as opposed to strictly ‘working-class’, what we shared and where we differed. In this way the anthology became a very practical mechanism for fostering solidarity; a sense emerged from this work of collective struggle and mutual achievement. None of us ever rise alone, but for many of us this anthology has enacted in a hundred small ways the sorority it dares to imagine.

This is a big thing, mighty. To acknowledge and to relate to each other first as creators feels powerful and important. It allows us to take the imaginative leap across all that divides us, while striving to uncover the hidden affinities that exist across our different lives. It is an inclusive expression of sisterhood, offering a vision of feminism that is porous, egalitarian, and mutually responsible. It is also a vision that accounts for us as creative practitioners, first and foremost.

Forgive my knots and maladies,
the litany of bad days.
And praise the sheepdog mind
that twitches awake
at two a.m. to round up
stray words into a pen…
- Our Lady of Malaise, by Joanne Key (p. 139)

We all face at some point in our lives precarity, exclusion, or simply the fight to define ourselves on our own terms. This pressured attention to life and language shines through the poems in a variety of ways. There are moments of hard-won lyric beauty, and there are moments of stress and rupture at the level of structure and syntax.

oh England thy fruit in the fields in the trees rotting thy work and pensions
pressed on borrowed time wrong word stollen sugar and butter this year
foreign merry christmas surge in spending drone takedown pray for us…
- form ever follows function, by Kimberly Campanello (p. 20)

The sharp end of capitalism and climate change

What each of the poems demonstrate in common is that our embodied experiences contour and texture our imaginative lives. To be a woman is to live at the sharp end of capitalism, the sharp end of climate change, the most extreme edges of sorrow and desire. This sharpness shapes us, and the poems prove that it is not merely something to be surmounted, but is often intimately connected to our springs of inventiveness, our fraught yet dexterous relationship with words, our intensity of perception.

The fire finds its own voice...
- Swaling on Boscathow, by Katrina Naomi (p. 44)

These poems are not confessions then, but testimony, which is an act of radical witnessing, to each other, with each other, to the world. They enumerate that which besets us, that which we are at the mercy of, but, more than this, they show how words can provide a path through these experiences, and toward each other. They do so with acuteness and with humour, with honesty, both savage and searching.

The speaker in ‘The Last Time I Got Hysterical in The Middle of The Night’ by Rosmary McLeish offers a frank account of what it’s like to ‘bear the unbearable,/ unthink the unthinkable’, to feel the ‘fear and rage’ of accommodating your own mortality within the ordinary intimacy of a well-worn relationship. In ‘Move Along Now’ by Maya Horton the reader is immediately disarmed by the question ‘What was it like to grow up in a cult?’ These stark vignettes frame the extraordinary within the everyday, proving in fact that the everyday is extraordinary, that we, as women, are extraordinary, and that in our variety and difference we have great strength, and much to teach each other.

This is, we believe, a generous book. Generous in its extent, and in its scope and intensity. We believe it makes space for lives, for histories, heritages, and experiences not commonly accounted for by contemporary poetry. We hope it makes some space for our readers too.

…thank you for listening. lay a wreath where the two roads pleat.
photocopy my photograph. return to me once a year. tell them a story.
make me live.
- poetry reading, by Joelle Taylor (p. 61)

Launches

The book is being launched in Newcastle and London. The Newcastle launch is on 7th March, at 1pm on 4th floor, Commercial Union House, Pilgrim St. NE1 6QE. Jane Burn and other contributors will be reading, it's free, and everyone is welcome. The London launch is on 14th March, at 1pm at the Poetry Society, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BX. Jane Burn, Fran Lock and others will be reading, it's free, and everyone is welcome.

The launches will feature readings from some of the contributors, who are Maya Alberta-Horton, Amy Acre, Deborah Alma, Catherine Ayres , Julia Bell, Becky Bone, Alison Brackenbury, Jane Burn, Carole Bromley, Kimberly Campanello, Geraldine Clarkson, Jo Clement, Rachael Clyne, Jane Commane, Michelle Diaz, Imtiaz Dharker, Sarah Doyle, Nadia Drews, Cathy Dreyer, Carrie Etter, Sally Flint, Rosie Garland, Raine Geoghegan, Jackie Hagan, Nicki Heinen, Julie Hogg, Helen Ivory, Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Lisa Kelly, Joanne Key, Laura Lawson, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Pippa Little, Fran Lock, Hannah Lowe, Kirsten Luckins, Char March, Lisa Matthews, Beth McDonough, AJ McKenna, Rosemary McLeish, Jessica Mookherjee, Kim Moore, Katrina Naomi, Golnoosh Nour, Hibaq Osman, Abigail Parry, Kathy Pimlott, Wendy Pratt, Lesley Quayle, Legna Rodríguez Iglesias, Clare Saponia, Jacqueline Saphra, Pauline Sewards, Clare Shaw, Natalie Shaw, Hannah Shelmerdine, Joelle Taylor, Angela Topping, Denni Turp, Serafina Vick, Julia Webb, and Sarah Wedderburn. Artworks inside the book are by Jane Burn, Fran Lock, Natalie Sirett, and Mary Lou Springstead.

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Joker: living without class-consciousness and solidarity
Monday, 28 October 2019 08:48

Joker: living without class-consciousness and solidarity

Published in Films

Fran Lock reviews Joker's treatment of violence, poverty, class, gender and race, and the way it subverts 'one of capitalism's most pernicious fictions'

If you want to get ahead in life, just go for it on your own. Facing obstacles? There’s nothing you can’t overcome and put right. You just need to put your mind to it and work harder.

This self-transcending narrative has to be one of Western capitalism’s most pernicious fictions. It’s everywhere. It permeates our literature, and saturates our film and television. It’s in every beloved underdog story, anywhere a protagonist achieves their dreams by dint of hard work, dedication and individual exceptionalism. In the realm of the self-transcending narrative the social forces that create and perpetuate financial and social disparity are obscured; “adversity” is only meaningful as it applies to a character’s personal struggle, as something to atomistically triumph over. Poverty, for example, is routinely depicted as a depoliticised force of nature, an obstacle the individual in poverty is responsible for overcoming. This elides the brutal truth: that poverty is a deliberately engineered system of economic exploitation, the overthrow of which demands radical, collective action.

Capitalism has no interest in acknowledging this fact. Instead, it uses cultural platforms to peddle the message that we can only transcend our circumstances through extraordinary individual effort. The results of this poisonous philosophy are three-fold.

First, that people in poverty are encouraged to view each other as competitors, a position which is toxic to all forms of affective solidarity, and which prevents us from coming together to organise against that which besets us. Second, the focus on individual accomplishment as the only viable route out of poverty recasts societal failures as personal ones, and this encourages the fatally misguided idea that those born into poverty persist in poverty because they are weak, lazy, or otherwise morally deficient. Finally, a worldview that enshrines individual transcendence at the expense of the collective valorises capitalism’s every selfish, acquisitive gambit, placing undue value on the signifiers of material wealth, indifferent to how, and at whose expense, that wealth was created.

In short, at the heart of the seemingly benign underdog genre lurks the insidious propaganda of late-stage capitalism. It’s a form of propaganda, I’m grateful to say, that Todd Phillips’ recent film, Joker, has zero tolerance for.

I’ve been to see Joker twice now, and I may very well go again. The film has a kind of feral poetry to it, and Phoenix’s performance as the titular character achieves, at moments, a species of gaunt, contorted eloquence that is both pathetic and viscerally frightening. These aspects of the film, however, are extensively covered in other reviews, so I would like, instead, to focus on some critically underexplored aspects of its politics and ethics. Specifically, I would like to address the film’s engagement with the self-transcending narrative, and what it has to say about our relationship, as both audience and as citizens, to the underdog genre in mainstream cinema.

Underdog stories......

In underdog stories the central plot is typically resolved in one of the following ways. Firstly, the central protagonist achieves self-actualisation through romantic intimacy. In this version of the narrative, the character may still be living in straitened circumstances, but thanks to a deep, personal connection with another human being is able to transform their own outlook, embracing and valuing what they have, and accepting the world around them. This plot is the staple of romantic comedies and so called chick flicks.

Secondly, through dedication and hard-work and after years of struggle, the central protagonist succeeds in their area of endeavour, finally having earned the validation and respect of their peers. This is the stuff of myriad sports genre films, often “based on a true story” however selectively, such as Ron Howard’s 2005 Cinderella Man, or Bennett Miller’s 20011 Moneyball, but it also appears with frequency in spurious rags to riches biopics of various celebrities.

Thirdly, through the recognition or surprise intervention of an individual who embodies all the characteristics the central protagonist aspires to, the character is given the chance to prove themselves and shine in their chosen field. My Fair Lady is probably the most famous cinematic example of this model, but we’re probably most familiar with it from reality television shows such as the ever-nauseating X Factor, Pop Idol, or The Voice, where hopeful amateurs compete before a panel of washed up pop singers who presumable embody the kind of fame and success the competitors are striving for.

Fourthly, a miracle occurs, the unlikely or surprising “big break” that catapults the character from obscurity and into the well-deserved limelight. This particular form of resolution is often referred to as a Deus Ex Machina; the audience are meant to understand this miraculous good fortune not as a stroke of luck, but as somehow fated or pre-ordained, a further proof of the character’s inherent exceptionalism. Danny Boyle’s well-intentioned though ultimately problematic 2008 Slumdog Millionaire is perhaps the most well-known example of this form of resolution.

Each of these plots encourage a form of easy identification in their audience, a palliative to the hardships of their own lives; a vague dream that things could be different if only: if only I could find “the one”, if only I worked harder, if only I got my “big break”, if only my talent were recognised, etc. None of these plots significantly challenge the social status quo, or offer any serious analysis of the conditions that create inequality and social stagnation. The romantic intimacy resolution places the responsibility for change squarely in the domestic and personal realm, leaving the political sphere untouched.

The resolution through continuous effort enshrines the capitalist work ethic without acknowledging the unequal demands of the labour market on the poorest amongst us, or the chronic lack of opportunity and access for talented people in poverty.

The resolution through intervention ignores in the first place, the bald unlikelihood of such an intervention, and places the burden of transformation on individual acts of patronage, not radical political reorganisation. This model also puts the central protagonist in a subordinate position to their patron, constantly competing and performing in order to “earn” their condescension.

Finally, the miracle model is a beguiling fiction that removes change from the arena of human intervention altogether, offering instead an ill-defined dream of transcendence.

.....are another site of rejection

Joker takes a sledgehammer to all of these promised resolutions in turn, transforming each scene of self-actualisation into a site of further disillusionment, rejection and debasement. As Arthur Fleck, the character must acknowledge that the one connection he was able to forge with another person existed only in his mind, that his hard work and effort earned him nothing but mass derision, that the person who best exemplifies the healthy functioning of the self-transcending narrative (Thomas Wayne) not only fails to recognise his worth, but also his basic humanity; that this person is, in fact, repulsed by him. Finally, Arthur’s big break, his Deus Ex Machina moment, is revealed to be nothing but a cynical manipulative exercise, as a TV talk show host courts controversy and chases ratings.

joker 4

There is no resolution, the film seems to tell us, there is no rising above, there is no way out. This sense of the inescapable pervades the film. It’s in everything from the narrow, litter-strewn streets, the shabby, over-crowded apartment building in which Arthur ekes out his days. It’s in the grim municipality of official buildings. It’s even in the repressed and awkward way that Arthur holds a pen, the laborious motions he makes as he writes and moves, the pent-up, nervous tension with which he inhabits his own skin. Strenuous effort is inscribed across every available surface of this film. The physical exertions and exhaustions the characters are put through –climbing steep, slippery staircases, running in clumsy, ill-fitting clown shoes –  mirrors the daily psychological struggle to exist in extreme poverty, to fight against your own erasure and annihilation.

Claustrophobic poverty

Indeed, there is something familiarly claustrophobic about the Gotham of Joker. Everything is cramped, circumscribed and precarious: landscapes, internal and external, movements, pleasures, interactions. It’s troublingly resonant to anyone who has negotiated poverty and the systems that administer you in that poverty.

Two vignettes in particular stand out as being particularly well-realised in this regard. The first is Arthur’s court-mandated conversations with his social worker: the office in which these meetings takes place are small and crowded, bringing the pair uncomfortably close without ever engendering any sense of human intimacy. The whole room is hedged in and crowded out with the apparatus of bureaucracy, even the chairs look purposefully uncomfortable. Arthur’s social worker is palpably exhausted, weary and wary in equal measure. You have the sense from Sharon Washington’s tense yet understated performance of a once-caring person burnt out and overwhelmed by the scale of the problems facing her. Everything she says and does is hemmed in, tightly controlled by official rhetorics to the point of impotence.

At one point she asks him if it helps, having meetings with her, having someone to talk to, and the pathos is gut-wrenching: as if anything taking place in that grimy, underfunded box could be described as genuine conversation. Later, when Arthur tells her she has never listened to him she counters with “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur. And they don’t give a shit about people like me either.” And in that line is reflected an entire dismal history of mental illness and low-income violence; the way in which it rebounds so often on those with whom the perpetrators should feel the stirrings of solidarity.

Washington’s character, in that moment, realises something that Phoenix’s does not, that the power elites that govern both their lives regard neither one of them as fully human. She looks beaten and sad as she says it. A black woman trapped in a city that wants to crush her, that is indifferent to her on a fatal scale every single day. It is one of the film’s most haunting moments.

joker sharon

The second memorable vignette takes place between Arthur and his boss. Arthur is being disciplined for “skipping out” on work, only he didn’t skip out, he was mugged and beaten by a group of teenagers. Arthur protests his innocence, yet his boss elects not to believe him. Why would teenagers steal a “going out of business” sign? He claims it isn’t credible and demands Arthur replace the sign immediately, or else the money will be deducted from his already scant wages. Why would I steal a sign? asks Arthur, desperately. I don’t know, replies his boss, why does anybody do anything? The logic at play is Kafkaesque: Arthur’s boss is perfectly happy to ascribe arbitrary, nonsensical motives to Arthur, yet won’t countenance the same from a group of random teenagers. Phoenix stands there shaking in dependent, impotent frustration. Any member of the modern precariat can identify with this scene, and the endlessly rolling sock of casual cruelties and minor injustices it represents.

Yet Arthur is hardly a figure of easy identification. Seeing the world through Arthur’s eyes is an uncomfortable experience. His daily interactions are abjectly grinding, serving to shave out any last scrap of good in him. This is worthy of pity, yet Arthur’s responses to the world around him are also underscored by a disturbing narcissism. “I have felt invisible my whole life” he tells his social worker, a black woman who must contend with a million different registers and levels of invisibility daily.

In another scene, Arthur is pulling faces at a child on a bus. The child is laughing and Arthur clearly meant no harm, but the child’s mother snatches her son away, reprimanding Arthur for bothering her child. Because we, the audience, see through Arthur’s eyes, this interaction seems harsh and unfair, but in Gotham city, or its real-world equivalents, might not the ambient threat with which that mother and child live their daily lives have caused her to react, not out of unkindness, but genuine fear? During the era the film is set the Atlanta child murders were also taking place, and black families were confronting each day the terrible truth that their children were basically expendable in the eyes of the law.

Living without class-consciousness or solidarity

Towards the climax of the film it is heavily implied that Arthur’s response to the realisation his one human connection was a hallucinatory figment is to murder the object of his fantasy, and possibly her child (ably played by Zazie Beets and Rocco Luna respectively). Phillips doesn’t show these deaths, or the death of Arthur’s psychiatrist in the penultimate scene, choosing instead to signal this murder with a trail of bloody footprints as Arthur/Joker dances down the hospital corridor to That’s Life by Frank Sinatra.

Joker hospital

This is disturbing in a number of ways. It’s disturbing because the climax of the film we are all waiting for, the transformation from Arthur into Joker that we were willing to take place, is born off the backs of these murdered women. Their deaths sit uneasily beside the shooting of the classist Wall Street chauvinists on the train, the point blank rage with which de Niro’s shallow ‘Murray’ is dispatched, or the Wayne family paying for Thomas Wayne’s fatal hubris with their lives. These deaths have cathartic power; they are extreme and exaggerated examples of Gotham’s twisted justice. They are public deaths, reacted to with shock both within the context of the film and within the confines of the theatre alike. The deaths of the film’s black women aren’t even shown; these characters figure as both real (in terms of the narrative) and cinematic collateral. This should make us feel deeply uneasy.

None of which is to say that Joker is a “bad” or lesser film for provoking this unease. Whether Phillips specifically intended his film to raise questions about the intersections of violence, poverty, gender and race is almost beside the point; these questions are a timely and significant aspect of the film, part of its text and texture, and ours: we view it in a racially divided world, through a racially sensitised lens. It’s unavoidable, and actually, it’s salutary. The film isn’t explicitly about race, it’s about class, but any serious meditation on this axis of oppression will inevitably intersect with others. Joker shows, I think how these forms of oppression collide and skew with tragic results.

I came away from my second watching of this film thinking that its central tragedy is the sheer embeddedness of the self-transcending narrative in society; how this hideous creed, wedded in America to a fiercely nationalistic script, inoculates against empathy. Arthur is isolated, ostracised and alone because Gotham, on a systemic level, doesn’t care about him. He is shunned and abused, his labour exploited, by a seemingly endless parade of individuals who have bought, wholesale, into vampire capitalism’s social Darwinist crap.

Yet Arthur is also isolated by his own lack of empathy, by his inability to recognise the deliberate and structural nature of the inequalities that beset him, to see himself as part of a whole.  During his live TV interview with De Niro's ‘Murray’ Joker states more than once that he isn’t political, and this is the perhaps the saddest thing of all. His actions, in shooting the wealthy dickheads on the subway, appear to have started a movement, summoned and mobilised a powerful, dissenting ‘we’, yet most of the crowd, and Joker himself, are not engaged in any kind of collective resistance, but a directionless howl of rage and pain, emanating from shattered subjectivities and innumerable private hells.

By the end of the film, Arthur has become the Joker. He has been transformed into Gotham’s best beloved villain, the villain he was always destined to be. And that’s what self-transcendence looks like for Arthur, the steady metamorphosis of a sad unstable man into a psychotically homicidal clown. In this way Phillips’ vision of Gotham takes to cartoonish extremes the very real consequences of living without care, without hope, without class-consciousness or solidarity.

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