On Warsan Shire, Peter Riley and Poetry Criticism

Last week, Beyoncé released Lemonade, an hour-long multi-genre piece made by leading artists in film, music and poetry. London Young Laureate Warsan Shire’s poems “For Women Who Are Difficult To Love”, “The unbearable weight of staying (the end of the relationship)” and “Nail Technician as Palm Reader” are all adapted as interludes between songs. On the back of this peerless good news, Inua Ellams spoke about Shire’s permanent relocation to the United States, finding poetry culture in Britain hostile to her and her work (Pascale Petit, Shire’s mentor in The Complete Works, mentioned on Facebook how Shire had become frustrated with with the ‘struggle against the (white) grain’. Ellams spoke on Twitter (the whole thread is vital reading) about her epochal collaboration in Lemonade:

“My homegirl Warsan Shire just did a thing with Beyonce. An incredible thing and the only thing I am surprised about is myself response:

For not seeing it coming. It was inevitable. It only happened because Warsan left these shores.

She moved to where her voice would be included, taken for what it is, for the brilliance it is and shared exponentially.

If you disagree, consider this: even Beyonce could not have existed in Britain. The Music industry would not have supported her talent.

To the poets of colour reading this… follow Warsan’s lead. I’m not saying leave Britain…

… but find environments that are welcoming to the poetry you create, to what you write and the way you write them.

Most of us come from oral traditions. We tend to write accordingly. Most of our concerns are “real shit”.

Most of our shit references other real shit. Most of the shit we reference is found in “World literature” dusty sections of book shops…

…so when we pack our real shit with our deep shit, that nuance and intertextuality, the weight of its importance… isn’t even recognised.

Try and find spaces that welcome your poetry. And those spaces might not be in the poetry world.”

Shire is an incredible talent and we weren’t good enough to accept her. We couldn’t read her work the way it deserved to be read and she was compelled to find a place that would.

Poetry in these islands is not a billion dollar industry. The culture of entitlement and resentment towards positive change, however, does not reflect poetry’s reputation or self-image as unique, progressive, liberal, free-thinking. After a winter in which Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade and Mona Arshi’s Small Hands had the quality of their work recognised and rewarded (Rankine and Howe being the first women of colour to win their respective prizes), there was a backlash from upset, barely rational white men clutching at their degrees and lamenting the state of the union. Those complaints rested, predictably, on extra-literary matters of appearance, education, publishing ‘fads’, a disappointing narrow-mindedness about what ‘poetry’ might mean, anything but the work. A few weeks ago, Peter Riley began his review of Vahni Capildeo’s excellent Measures of Expatriation by venting spleen about “identity politics” (scare quotes his), how having an ‘identity’:

“seems to mean that any possibilities a poem might have of contacting existential realities is disallowed; the poem must arise directly from personal experience (standard practice in modern poetry anyway) and stay there.”

Riley very likely means well. He begins this part of his essay by quoting Capildeo’s own frustrations about feeling the expectation to perform her otherness by an extremely white publishing industry:

“I found that marketing and identity politics were combining to crush, like in the Star Wars trash compactor, the voice, the voice on the page, the body, the history… You had to choose, you had to be a sort of documentary witness wheeled around and exposing your wounds in the market place.”

But in trying to defend Capildeo from harmful stereotypes, he throws digs at poets for whom personal experience (their own or their peers’) is the urgent, beating heart of their work. His praise for Capildeo noticeably centres around not making too conspicuous a fuss about one’s suffering or marginalisation, while condemning unnamed others for drawing attention to it. Riley’s complaint that, ‘the poem must arise directly from personal experience’, is immediately reneged, arguing that ‘its admissibility depends not on experience itself, but on participation in a group and thereby involved in cultural conflict’. Riley does not specify who is performing the admission, which poet, group or conflict is being indecently referenced, or what the consequences are for poets who refuse to conform to these standards. His argument is a rorschach blot, empty of substance and ready for the reader to insert the ‘identity’ whose visibility in contemporary poetry they most resent.

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In “In AnOther’s Pocket: The Address of the “Pocket Epic” in Postmodern Black British Poetry”, Romana Huk writes:

“in current poetic projects, there is little reckoning of how the identificatory self is still at work, often with a nationalistic sub-project powering epic desire; the “other” still gets othered, if at the hands of more and more sophisticated theories of reading.

Huk and Capildeo are, I think, talking about similar processes. Writing by poets of colour can no longer be entirely ignored by white readers; what can be done, by a culture still deeply uncomfortable with writing that does not recognise canon-endorsed standards of quality control, is corralling it into the kind of self-othering box that Capildeo denounces. Inclusion with strings attached is exclusion by another name, and Riley is not wrong to highlight the problem. The failure is in his sudden pivot to declare that actually, it’s about ethics in poetry prize judging:

“A glance at the big prize-winning results this season shows immediately how these ethics have been taken on wholesale by the establishment and now dominate popular perception of poetry’s function — a pre-existing function defined and formulated outside poetry to which it is now expected to conform. The basis of judgement shifted from aesthetic to moral very quickly.”

Poetry has few ‘big prizes’ and few winners. He is subtweeting Rankine, who beat Riley to the Forward Prize with a book that is both aesthetically unique and morally challenging; I wrote about it a while back if you’re curious, and if you’re even more curious you could read what black critics like Shaelyn Smith and Holly Bass thought about it. Riley’s objection is that judgement has shifted from the ‘aesthetic’ to the ‘moral’; these terms are difficult to define and deserve far more careful unpacking than Riley offers. A cynical reader might guess he means the lyric poetry supported by the canon and reified by generations of elite readers has, for once, been deemed second best to an experimental form written by a poet for whom the canon has little time. As Ellams notes, black poets engage deeply with poetic traditions, just not those valued by the British critical mainstream; refusing to acknowledge the value of alternative routes to poetic achievement is a powerful means of excluding black writing from positions of cultural influence. To put it bluntly, just because you don’t understand it doesn’t make it bad; it’s your job as a critic to learn.

Back in Riley’s essay, put-upon aesthetic poets are ‘now expected to conform’ to these moral standards; a strange concern for a poet who very clearly expresses contemporary moral concerns in his work. Riley employs wounded tones more commonly modelled by Piers Morgan, confusing criticism of his opinions with a threat to his freedom of expression; like Oliver Thring’s inability to acknowledge intelligence that does not come in his own image; like Craig Raine’s abysmal, Oxford-don-knows-best reading of Citizen, which he memorably dismissed as ‘moral narcissism’. It is an insult to Rankine’s achievement to dismiss it as ‘parad[ing] the wound’, which Riley praises Capildeo for refusing. His commendation of Capildeo’s work is deeply compromised by first deploying it as a weapon against other poets whose own work has been marginalised by aggressively careless white readers.

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Poetry in the UK is making tiny, positive steps towards a more complex vocabulary with which to discuss race, sexuality, gender, mental health, income and other inequalities, but at a price. The backlash in poetry is not (as with video games’ harassment campaigns) from trollish men on 4chan with free time and a grudge against those whose inclusion and success they cannot abide, but from well-read men in well-regarded periodicals with notably similar grudges. Even framed as a battle for poetry’s heart, Riley’s critique is hamstrung by his refusal to acknowledge the racial inequalities that force poetry-as-witness, poetry-as-‘moral’ to be a function of survival; Citizen explicitly frames itself as a response to external threats to the wellbeing of black people in America. In an interview with Africa in Words, Shire’s approach to memory and witness is explicitly one of preservation, both of the self and the ‘history or the global ranges of perception’ Riley claims are under threat in British poetry:

“it’s being able to tell the stories of those people, especially refugees and immigrants, that otherwise wouldn’t be told, or they’ll be told really inaccurately. And I don’t want to write victims, or martyrs, or vacuous stereotypes. […] my family are really amazing – they’ll tell me, ‘I have a new story for you’, and I’ll get my Dictaphone and record it, so I can stay as true as possible to the story before I make it into a poem.”

To labour the point, well-respected literary white men don’t need recording equipment to keep their stories alive. Suggesting that such poetry sacrifices its aesthetic-ness is a deeply conservative gesture, both artistically and politically, one that figures the white male poet as the normal, central, rightful inheritor and the black woman poet as interloper, over-promoted, aesthetically invalid.

I’m acutely aware that while making these criticisms, my whiteness etc more or less means that my place in this community is safe come what may. I’m also aware that in all my previous encounters with radical thinking in other forms of art, it’s not cishetero white men leading the way. If we want art that leads us to better ways of thinking about each other, if we believe that poetry does make something happen (more than awards, tenure and hardback Collecteds), that it is a function of the heart and soul (whatever that means) as well as meter and rhyme, we must listen to those who are most vulnerable to the violence our culture has been designed to carry out, and from which we benefit so richly. That means changing how we read, how we write, questioning how much space and praise we assume to be our birthright. It will take a lot of work, and a lot of what will look like giving away what is ours to take, but if we can make a culture in which the next Warsan Shire can feel at home, welcomed, valued, in charge, it’ll be worth it.

Further Reading: Inua Ellams on Twitter

Shaelyn Smith on Citizen at TheRumpus

Holly Bass on Citizen in The New York Times

Interview with Warsan Shire at Africa in Words

Profile on Warsan Shire in The New Yorker

‘Decolonise, not Diversify’ by Khavita Bhanot at Media Diversified

‘Responses to a Tantric Poetics’ by Nisha Ramayya at datableed

Claire Askew – This changes things

Full Disclosure: Claire is a close pal. We were in the same creative writing masters at Edinburgh University in 08/09, and have supported each other’s work since then: e.g. I contribute to Claire’s Patreon and wrote a short thing a couple years ago for the Edwin Morgan Prize. I also wrote the back cover blurb for this collection, for which I was paid £50 plus a contributor’s copy. [Edit: this caused some confusion. I wrote the unattributed back cover blurb, not the named endorsements from Jen Hadfield and Stewart Conn, taken from their Edwin Morgan Prize statements. Those were written by Jen Hadfield and Stewart Conn.]

Review: Appearing immediately before section I, ‘Dukkha’ is a kind of cold open. The word is a Buddhist term wikipedia defines as ‘suffering, anxiety or unsatisfactoriness’; it refers to the pain of aging and death, the essentially mutable, transitory or hollow nature of all forms of life, and how understanding these things is essential to bringing suffering to an end. It’s worth keeping this concept in mind – if This changes things seems uncommonly preoccupied with death and old age, grim fantasies of destruction and bitterness, it may come from a will to intimately understand them.

‘Dukkha’ feels like a parable, standing a little outside the book’s action. It begins:

‘Shelter is the only really necessary thing.
Every creature has its burrow,
bolt hole, cave, its fist of twigs.
Just make it safe, a place
above the flood plain: shake
its sticks and slates to test
it can withstand a storm. That’s all.’

Over the next six stanzas, these basic needs – noticeably at peace with storms and floods, the wilfulness of nature – turn into the will to impose oneself:

‘But then, your square of soil might spoil
its seeds. You’ll need blades, some kind
of beast […] You’ll need to feed it
from your grain: this changes things.’

Tools and weapons are needed, employees and markets, fuel and fences. It’s a bit of a disservice to the poem’s fluid and logical and most of all reasonable escalations to list them in summary. The final stanza turns the first on its head, the storm-safe becoming a fully realised polity:

‘The shelter must be strong,
the water pure. The soil must nurture
tall, true wheat, the hands work
till the yield is in. The lamp must strike,
the gun must kill its target cleanly.
This is all you want.
This is all that anyone wants.’

Security, both physical and ideological (‘pure’ is far from innocent), gives ‘you’ shelter and survival, but takes it from your ‘target’. The ‘anyone’ in the last line is a wee bit devastating, the only point in the poem where a not-you human’s needs are mentioned. The poem’s politics are more subtle than I’m making out here, and land a real hammer-blow – the book’s other narratives, essays and lyrics are predicated on this poem’s philosophy, its self-implication: there is a place where security kills, and we (the white, middle-class, educated readers of poetry) live there.

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After that intro, This changes things keeps a deeply intimate, localised focus. While the narrative voice often shifts – ghosts, a gothic minister, old women with notable frequency – it is always indentifiable and unfractured. The book wants to communicate and be heard clearly; it’s noticeable how many poems direct their dramatic currents with direct cues to the reader – ‘outside’, ‘upstairs’, ‘here’, ‘now’. An early success is ‘Big heat’, a narrative in which Askew appears in the background, a tourist lost on an island in the middle of the night, and desperate for water. The narrator is a woman who lives there, dragged into the poem’s drama:

‘Because I am the one who speaks English,
they call me outside.
In the street, in an elbow of weak light
thrown by our porch, two tourists’

She sees the tourist as a ‘fat white grub’, for whom ‘crying is a stupid luxury / the island women can’t afford’. The poem’s conceit could be easily mishandled – the poet is looking at herself through the eyes of a woman she does not know and cannot communicate with, and who explicitly lives with much greater hardship; the poem risks ventriloquy and re-enacting the tourist’s pre-eminence over the local. Though a lyric voice might just peek through in the lines: ‘Things that thrive here: mules / and stones, crickets loud as fire alarms, / the harder vines’, the poem’s internal drama holds together. The moment in which the freewheeling tourist must rely on someone bound to the physical place, an instance of an economic power imbalance being briefly overturned, becomes a kind of psychic disturbance for the narrator:

‘All night […] I think about the girl’s chapped throat,
the boy she lies beside,
their mouths. None of us sleeps.’

In all senses the poet’s avatar is figured as an intrusion, almost parasitic; ‘grub’ seems a pointed choice of word.

The first section of This changes things is deeply aware of the poet’s own roots. There are poems about growing up in Wakefield (‘Hometown’ – ‘locals lie / that no one needs to lock their doors’; ‘High school’ – ‘What you learned best / was the fact of your disgustingness’), about her family and ancestors – Anne Askew, the 16th century poet tortured and executed for heresy, is a touchstone for the collection, and appears in ‘Two Deaths’, an excellent piece in the current issue of Banshee. If Askew seems keen to push away from these origins, however, she also relishes their grisly details. In ‘Hometown’ there is a real gusto to her relaying of urban myths (‘Last week a horse drowned in the Junction Pool’) and evidence of a town cannibalising itself (‘on the Cobby path the summer nettles / swallow trolleys whole’). ‘High school’ likewise investigates the crude lessons in self-image and social hierarchy that trail the poet into adulthood:

‘They thought that life would always hold
the door for them […] and you’d always be
some chubby joke. You believed it too.
The softest part of you believes it now.’

These sharp self-critical turns are at the heart of Askew’s best poems, an ability to remain self-aware in a poem that seems to shape towards a more prosaic observation.

This impulse shapes the handful of poems which deal with social or political ideas directly, ‘Privilege 101’, ‘The picture in your mind when you speak of whores’ and the closing piece, ‘Hydra’. Arguably the danger for explicitly political poems is that their message moves from the subliminal to the conscious – that the reader is faced with the raw idea, and not the underlying principles that make the idea a logical conclusion. This, of course, is dependent on a great deal of trust – that the reader will be able to identify the code as code, and spend time actively unspooling it – and a readership ready to accept perhaps uncomfortable, perhaps self-incriminating truths. Another strategy is to bypass the whole palaver, and actively confront the reader’s assumptions. Askew’s ‘Privilege 101’ tends towards the latter, deploying a second person that envelops poet and reader, beginning in an obviously well-to-do world of ‘cufflinks and silverware’, before moving to a very writerly scene:

‘It’s sitting in the window of a coffee shop, the sun
painting bars across the wooden floor, the plain steel
flip-top teapots shining, writing down ideas that are all yours […]
and choosing which of those ideas you share with whom’

The intention is simple, but effective – the act of writing in public, having access to a (implicitly expensive) space designed for comfort, is put in its social context, only a short distance from fine dining and easy money, and all dependent on ‘hair’s-breadth tricks of fortune, birth and place’. The poem demands the reader (again, bearing the social attributes noted earlier) acknowledge their own position in a violent hierarchy.

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The two poems that close the book’s two sections, ‘Fire comes’ and ‘Hydra’, seem to be opposite sides of a similar coin; both permit a kind of momentary lyric freedom, pushing away from the more rational processes in the book’s narrative poems. ‘Fire comes’ gives personality and agency to a house fire, which ‘slides its tongue into the house’s ear’, ‘pulls / the walls down around its shoulders like a cape of dark’, ‘tak[es] bites out of the white / tiered staircase like it’s cake’. In the middle of it all is the house’s occupant:

‘All she can think of, crouching down for air the way she learned
in school, is all those times she filled out mental lists of things she’d save from Fire […]

And then the street’s a discotheque of blue and red, the neighbours on their front steps
in their dressing gowns, the kids agape behind the nets.
And she wants none of it.
And Fire takes it all.’

The poem’s uncontextualised wish for annihilation left me heartsick. The poem has a momentum unlike many of the other pieces in the book, the long, run-on lines and sensuousness of detail (‘the engines’ gorgeous, strobing cry’) allowed to dominate the poem’s action; the fire which elsewhere connects the poet to grandmothers and ancestors becomes a death-wish. Other poems’ discussion of death operates primarily through empathy: ‘Spitfires’ gives Askew’s grandfather an afterlife of mending ‘those beautiful death machines’ as he did as a teenager; ‘Going next’ frames her father, the oldest surviving member of his family, as a child himself; both pieces attempt to console and understand. ‘Fire comes’ permits neither. Its power seems drawn from an unwillingness to trust in the poet’s ability to comprehend what seems wholly irrational.

‘Hydra’, which closes section II and the collection, seems a kind of counterweight. It begins:

‘Everywhere you look is light
so exquisite it hurts. Light
off the taffeta sea, the brief white
rips of wake and surf; light
frosting the bleached houses’ sides’

before reaching something like a state of beatific bliss:

‘Ancient, many-headed light
that warms the kilns of myth: clay red, bright
pink, streaked ochre fingering the cloth of sky’

Again, the rational narrative mode is set aside, a celebration of what exists and the ability to perceive it, for a moment relieved of responsibility to the world. Where ‘Fire comes’ leaves the poem in this disturbing uncertainty, ‘Hydra’ peaks on a note equally disturbing in its frankness:

‘insomniac in unfamiliar heat, I’ll write
under the moth-bothered kitchen light,
this is the life. Mine is the lightest, easiest life.’

Any lyric celebration of the life of the mind is tempered by an awareness of the inaccessibility of such a life.

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As in a great many first collections, the quality of This changes things does vary, and for its many successes (the lovely flash-fiction-esque ‘Thing about death’ and ‘Poltergeistrix’) there are pieces which struggle to reach beyond their immediate occasion (‘Greyhound’ or ‘Valentine’) or to shake off a feeling of exercise-yness (‘The western night’), and it’s possible that the poem ‘To Wakefield’ strikes a little unkindly at the kind of people whose lives ‘Privilege 101’ aims to bear in mind. That said, This changes things is contains some deeply moving ruminations on death and loss, a number of significant political lyrics, and a handful of truly reader-altering moments; it’s these pieces that stay longest in the memory, an uncommon achievement.

Tl;dr: This changes things is a heartfelt collection, self-aware and aspiring towards a better way of understanding a complicated and often violent world. Well worth a read.

Further reading: Review by Magda Knight at MookyChick

Review by Russell Jones

Claire Askew at Write Like A Grrrl Edinburgh

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing this, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, and you can cancel at any time. Thanks for reading.

Kayombo Chingonyi – The Color of James Brown’s Scream

Full Disclosure: Wrote about Chingonyi’s work in a post on Ten: The New Wave last year, several poems from which appear here (some with minor alterations, I think). Have not met him or seen him read. Review copy purchased with assistance from Patreon backers.

Review: The Color of James Brown’s Scream is published by Akashic Books in a series commissioned by the African Poetry Book Fund. The series editor, Kwame Dawes, provides context for the pamphlet series, which:

‘seeks to undermine the easy ways of reducing Africa to notions that do not recognize the complexity and variety of experiences and practices that constitute poetry written by Africans.’

Dawes also provides an introductory essay: he explores the book’s engagement with garage and grime music at its culture of making and curating, the problematic norms of contemporary theatre (difficult not to see literary/poetry culture reflected here too), and twentieth century Zambian history. He also provides insightful discussion of how art acts as a site of cultural belonging, ownership, ‘a sense of “home” that is constantly being contested, but one [Chingonyi] must contend with always’.

The preface also makes space to draw attention to the poet’s formal skill, linguistic richness, his ability to make his poems tactile and sensuous; this instinct to make the art sensually pleasing seems itself a central theme, an assertion against nullity, against being erased or simplified. In ‘This Poem Contains Gull Song’, the poet lays out a kind of aesthetic manifesto: ‘such music / we forgot how to understand, since / it lacks that carefully planned sweetness’, ‘an old tune hidden / in the genes of a new one’. The opening piece, ‘In Defense of Darkness’, is partly an account of lovers meeting after time apart (‘the harshness of the journey written / into the depth of a clinch’), but figures its darkness metaphorically:

‘Since I’m remembering this, or making it up,
there is only darkness; our bodies speaking.’

The poem’s catalogue of sounds (‘Drum-brush of fabric. The clink of a zip / on laminate floor’), of tastes and smells (‘Coconut oil, laundry detergent, sweat, / dry shampoo, Burberry Weekend’) faces up against memory’s incapacity to recreate these ‘local delicacies’; the poem seems to ask if it feels less true for being at least partly fictional? Chingonyi seems to be outlining what is at stake in the book: this particular act of witnessing cannot, finally, be confirmed as either memory or fiction; the reader has only the poet’s word, or the word of the poem’s protagonists, for guidance. Throughout the book, the question of authenticity, of recognising the truth of one’s testimony, is a recurring concern.

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In this light, the book’s several poems about music feel united by their drive to accurately preserve or relive important moments in the past, providing as much context as the lyric poem can carry. ‘The Room’ is an outstanding piece, smuggling its deep thinking about the politics of musical (literary?) borrowing into a plain-spoken and comprehensible scene, and a kind of sonnet if you include the two-line epigraph by Oddisee:

when you sample you’re not just picking up that sound,
you’re picking up the room it was recorded in.

While the poem itself doesn’t veer too far from this thought, it does bring it into a practical context; the poem’s action all happens:

‘in the few moments’ grace
before the store clerk, thin-voiced, announces closing time’

and is deceptively full of characters: the clerk, the three musicians in the recording, and the ‘purist’ and ‘mere completists’: the antagonists in the poem’s internal drama. The purist is ‘hung up on tracing a drum break to its source’, finding ‘the room / fetching itself from itself in hiccups and spools’, in their dedication to specificity gaining access to an understanding that eludes the ‘completist’:

‘air displaced in that room – the breath of acetate.’

The few moments’ grace in the store correspond to a few moments in another room, possibly many years earlier, with all the quirks and flaws (‘the MacGyver theme tune’?) intact, a little window into a past, historical, moment. Again, ‘The Room’ feels aligned with ‘In Defense of Darkness’ in its determination to recoup a memory, to be the ‘purist’ understanding the fuller context behind the ‘hiss’, ‘hiccups and spools’ of a moment.

The book’s title poem is similarly concerned with understanding the present by honouring the past. Here, the tradition of garage music is commemorated or elegised, by a poem that seems in tension between a kind of nostalgia for a time of legendary musical figures (Larry Levan, James Brown and Willi Ninja feature), an acknowledgement their significance to the present (‘some / of us don’t know it is your grave / we dance on’), and a recognition of the pitfalls of idolising the past, becoming stuck on ‘a taste we’ve been / trying to recreate ever since’. The poem is alive in the richness of its imagination, doing in language what Levan did in music:

‘I see your hand in the abandon
of a couple, middle of the floor,
sliding quick and slick as a skin-fade
by the hand of a Puerto Rican clipper-man
who wields a cutthroat like a paintbrush.’

Chingonyi connects Levan to the mythical figure Legba, which Dawes’ introduction describes as a shape-shifter, a communicator between mortals and immortals, and a survivor of a wound that leaves him with a ‘phantom limp’. Levan, the poem subtly suggests, keeps a tradition alive that goes back much longer than any of its contemporary practitioners.

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In the subsequent poem, ‘Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee’, the poet recalls his own adolescent discovery of garage in a ‘white-flight- / satellite-town’ in Essex. Chingonyi is at pains to tell this story in its full complexity, and the poem acknowledges the misogyny and machismo of teenage boyhood (‘the underwear section of Littlewoods catalog’, ‘Victor’s dad’s latest copy of Escort’) and art as access to social hierarchy:

‘slick lyrics I could earn stripes
by reciting tomorrow lunch in front of anyone who’d listen’

‘Assemblies,
talent shows, tours of local junior schools, and lunchtimes
in the music room making haphazard recordings onto TDK
cassettes, broken tabs Sellotaped, a surfeit of fame secure.’

On the other side is hard-won self-esteem and sense of belonging through artistic discipline, and at the heart of the poem is the discovery of a recording of his four-year-old self and the ‘kettle drum pitch’ of his father’s voice. There is quietness amid the bravado, silence in a poem devoted to sound:

‘If I throw off the reason I’ve adopted he sat next to me
that day as I rewound the tape and asked me again
and again till the streetlights bloomed through the still-
open curtains and settled in the lacquer of the table.’

All of which makes the poem’s close, ‘Eminem ruined everything’, a bodyblow. The music industry’s compulsion to promote whiteness intercedes, forces the young poet to ‘rattle off the Slim Shady LP line for line’, confronted by the fact that:

‘no amount of practice could conjure pale skin and blue eyes.
The eyes that made Marshall a poet and me just another
brother who could rhyme’

The poem ends abruptly and unjustly, ‘anyone with sense knew it was all about hip hop now.’ The whole story, the time spent learning a tradition from roots to branches, is rendered irrelevant with a single publication.

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This entrapment by the demands of white culture is at the heart of the sequence calling a spade a spade, with an epigraph from American poet Thomas Sayers Ellis:

I no longer write
white writing
yet white writing
won’t stop writing me

The poems are tight, eleven-line stanzas (almost every line eleven syllables), a precision and levelness of tone that allows a kind of distance from the deep hurt and dehumanisation taking place in each tableau. In ‘The N Word’, the speaker addresses the appropriation of hate speech into contemporary middle class argot, ignoring its extremely recent acceptability in ‘a Pinter script’, or ‘polite conversation’, ‘making wine from the bad blood of history.’ In ‘The Conservatoire System’, the question of visibility is unravelled, a poem too knotted and complex to quote in part:

‘All of that to fetch up here, on secondment
to the institute of whiteface minstrelsy –
where I must flay myself nightly or risk
the indignity of being seen, in blackness,
as I am or as I’ve been taught, from without,
I am; an unconvincing Everyman.
But why would I want to be that dry bastard
with his pronouncements on all that can be seen
and practice this, his art of self-effacement, by which
he shakes off the vulgarity of being,
the better to make himself praiseworthy?’

The poem ties the speaker’s blackness to his unconvincingness – who needs/fails to be convinced? – and the assumption that white male actors (consider Martin ‘Everyhobbit’ Freeman) are best suited to be the audience stand-in, observer and commentator. The luxury of being everyone and no-one is contrasted with the choice faced by black performers to be either hypervisible or overlooked. Successful mediocrity is for white people.

The following piece, ‘On Reading “Colloquy in Black Rock”’, a 1946 Robert Lowell poem, draws attention to an academic unwillingness to address casual hate speech in canonical works, ‘The seminar tutor tiptoes round you now’. The labour involved in unpicking contemporary social norms is left to the student (‘Ours is to note the working mind behind the word’), to acknowledge that one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated poets had no compunction about considering black people in terms of ‘us and them’. The cumulative effect of these pieces is a painful reminder that ‘blind casting’ is suspiciously selective, that the US is not the only anglophone nation with a culture of racism to confront. The poems pose a question Chingonyi expresses, in a review of Daljit Nagra: ‘what would happen if we were allowed to be in our full complexity’? What could poets of colour achieve if they weren’t obliged to fight racist assumptions every time they put pen to paper? Extrapolating from this, how can white readers change how we read (who we believe? who we prioritise in our reading lists and festival lineups?) to make this a reality?

In her essay ‘Not a British Subject’, Sandeep Parmar does vital work identifying trends in publishing poets of colour in the UK, that to be accepted in the cultural centre the poet is encouraged to emphasise their own difference or marginality for a white readership, her concern that ‘increased visibility of BAME poets is superficial and, when the dust settles, British poetry will return to a largely monochromatic, monolingual expression of sameness’. (Her conversation with Juliana Spahr in the recent issue of Tender is also required reading.) The Color of James Brown’s Scream draws strength from its literary and musical touchstones, asserts the value of artistic communities outwith the poetry mainstream, and refuses to simplify its acts of witness for the benefit of the uninformed. Its demand that we educate ourselves about, for example, the history of black music in the UK, is an assertion of value and not a performance of otherness; as Khavita Bhanot recently put it in Media Diversified, the book does not ‘diversify’ so much as ‘decolonise’, challenge what non-marginalised poetry readers might consider culturally valuable.

Tl;dr: A challenging, much-needed book from a thoughtful and skilful writer. Better yet, it’ll only set you back a fiver.

Further reading: Review by Nisha Ramayya in Ambit

Buy The Color of James Brown’s Scream direct from the poet

Chingonyi on Daljit Nagra, Kei Miller, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Hannah Lowe and Helen Mort

Interview with Cadaverine Magazine

Khavita Bhanot: Decolonise, not Diversify in Media Diversified

Sandeep Parmar: Not a British Subject in The LA Review of Books

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing this, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, and you can cancel at any time. Thanks for reading.

Stanza 2016 Diary – Saturday 5 March

Full Disclosure: Part two of a two-part series on being at StAnza poetry festival. Still a paid gig, all of yesterday’s caveats apply.

10am: Aase Berg, Clare Best, SJ Fowler, Andrew McMillan, Justin Stephenson: Poetry Breakfast

As I sit down to write this on the mezzanine in the Byre, a poem translated by my pal Jessica Johannesson Gaitán has appeared projected on the far wall. Sometimes wee particles of unexpected joy hurl themselves at you and your heart is glad. Hey Jess! Your poem is wonderful. It’s called ‘Cathedral 2.0’, about a computer recreation of St Andrews cathedral, and has lines like ‘a tissue sustained by professionalised gaming-aesthetics’; ‘There are no stars upon my linen / or on the inside of my eyelids’.

After a morning’s formalities of tea and introductions, the Saturday morning panel was themed around the body in poetry. McMillan, whose book physical won the Guardian First Book Award (AND MY HEART), opened proceedings by introducing a few of the book’s guiding lights: Thom Gunn, whose candidness inspired him as a young reader, his free discussion of love, baths, and the AIDS crisis; Sharon Olds, who seemed to give permission to a confessional openness; and the Yorkshire poet Geoff Hattersley, bringing his daily factory shiftwork to the realm of poetry. Later, McMillan would speak about the politics of telling other people’s stories – an electrician whose granddaughter had died, and four days later was back at work – arguing that his duty as a poet was to bear witness: ‘the only way to go is to be totally sincere’. It’s this sincerity that marks McMillan’s work, and his questions about whether a straight male poet could have ‘gotten away’ with his poems about women’s lives and sexuality (‘Leda to her daughters’, ‘the things men take’) does raise important questions about who the reader ‘permits’ to speak for whom, and why.

Clare Best’s poetry about her mastectomy – breast cancer has affected every woman in her family, and Best took the decision to have the operation voluntarily – was similarly frank and clear-eyed about making choices about one’s own body, about taking control before control is taken away. Aase Berg, who performed yesterday, complimented this idea in a book on her pregnancy, ‘Transfer Fat’; she talked about how women writing on pregnancy are expected to ‘be the warm mother’, even though in reality she did not feel in control of her own body: ‘nature is not a Disney film, it is a Werner Herzog film’. She extended a similar critique to readerly expectations of poetry, that there is a Disneyfied, narcissistic approach to reading, that ‘you go out into the woods and meet a totem animal, a nice deer who likes you’. Poetry has the power to resist a self-centred, comfortable culture, the power to be unlikeable.

Stephenson played his video interpretation of Canadian poet bpNichol’s work, a neat, twisty poem about the process of writing and interpretation, how the physical tools of writing become part of the writing’s meaning: ‘this is a pen moving on paper / metaphorically this is a pen moving on paper / metaphorically the page is a window. it is not.’ Fowler made the very fine point that poetry culture tends to lean altogether too heavily on the idea of the individual genius producing ‘golden nuggets’ from the void. A lot of Fowler’s work comes in facilitating collaboration, and his project today involved tearing up a copy of his own collection and distributing its pages among the audience, who, on cue, read all pages at once; the resulting wall of voices was a neat metaphor for breaking hierarchies. In practice, it was pretty apt, as the audible individuals were the ones who just kept talking long enough. Mulling this over, one notes that one routinely just keeps talking longer than one should. Hm.

The panel concluded with Berg and McMillan’s valuable thoughts about exploitation in poetry – a tendency to beautify or poeticise suffering or other people’s stories. Berg’s collection Hackers features on the cover a photo of a Dutch sex worker; Berg questioned her own motivation – the poet described the image as ‘a Trojan horse’ for the collection to do its work, and recognised the complicated politics of exploiting others’ bodies or acts of witness to one’s own artistic benefit.

1pm: Em Strang, Samuel Tongue, Briget Khursheed, Lindsay McGregor: New Writers Showcase

Anna Crowe’s remarkably effective patiently-smiling-while-audience-settles-down brought the Council Chamber to order for readings from four recent winners of the Scottish Book Trust’s New Writers Award. Em Strang, whose first full collection, Bird Woman, is coming out this year with Shearsman, read a long poem, a nightmarey folk tale full of fire and horses and cries in a language that might have been Scandanavian(?), entirely from memory. It left an Atmosphere in the room unlike anything I’ve seen at the festival thus far. ‘It isn’t our land but it’s all we need. It stood up to the night for a long time.’

Samuel Tongue is the poetry editor at the Glasgow Review of Books and read short lyric poems on language, the materiality of words (the poem ‘Alef-Bet’ analyses how the physical shape of letters affects what they do, ‘alef’ being ‘a stag head already tracking thought’), science and faith. One proposed the ‘extended phenotype’ (the theory that the environment a creature alters may be considered part of its DNA, cf beaver dams) for humans might be the ‘unplumbed lavatory’ left in the street. Tongue’s poems were thoughtful, generous and precise.

Briget Khursheed’s poems also paid close attention to scientific research and the natural world, with a poem for John Smith, the builder for a large part of Walter Scott’s Abottsford estate, admiring the craftwork of the windows into ‘The Little Gothic Orangery’ he had made, insisting ‘but I had nothing to do with the oranges’. Another observes otters and stoats in their natural habitats, ‘maybe dancing, maybe charming a rabbit’, ‘writhing rodent maps’. A poem about the exact moment Khursheed’s father died, with the line ‘heather so perfect it might hide Tunnocks wrappers’ is witty and heartbreaking.

Finally, Lindsay McGregor explored her new collection The Weepers, a historical group of paid mourners (‘rent-a-crowd’). The book concerns the scattering of her partner’s ashes, and ranges from medieval saints plucking out their eyes to escape unwanted courtship (‘she’ll cure the vision of anyone who asks / she is a lesson to us all’) to the life and times of the fairly monstrous Duke of Sutherland, one of the key perpetrators of the Highland Clearances and a firm believer in the efficacy of steam for just about any problem you could think of, but primarily lazy peasants. A poem on scattering ashes under a frozen lake to be eaten by fish is particulary powerful: ‘I let them / feed, then, fishing deep, I net them. / We must eat.’

2.15pm Martyn Crucefix on The Daodejing and Pascale Petit on Tomas Tranströmer Past and Present

Minidisclosure: I’ve met Petit a couple of times.

The Daodejing is a fifth or sixth century BCE document from China, reportly containing all the wisdom of a single librarian from the royal court, who wrote it all down at the behest of a gatekeeper on his way out into the wilderness; as Crucefix notes, that’s probably just a nice story. What’s certain is its concern with effective statecraft, with wisdom extremely tempting to transfer to the present day, as Harry Giles did with his minimalist Orcadian versions in Tonguit. Crucefix’s own versions turn the ‘sage’ or ‘wise teacher’ character into a woman, on the grounds that the text recurrently insists that good government uses ‘female’ power, ‘rising up from below’; this seems an odd and slightly distracting decision, not least given the text’s own advice to refrain from interference while exercising power. But Crucefix’s general interpretation is extremely valuable, insisting on the theory that those who desire power are worst equipped to wield it, ‘those who delight in the sword delight in its function’; he has clearly made an extensive study of the Daodejing and he seemed completely in his element guiding a tour through its ideas.

Petit’s talk on Tomas Tranströmer was a real pleasure, a thoughtful, incisive and evidently delighted close read of some of her favourite poems. Starting with his name, which in Swedish (I’m guessing with some creative license?) goes something like ‘tran (crane, as in the bird)’ ‘stromer (fast-flowing river)’; Petit took this as an aspect of the poet’s habitual birds-eye views and rapid changes of direction. Starting with his first published poem, ‘Prelude’, ‘waking up is a parachute jump from dreams’, Petit follows his ‘filmic’ zoom in/pan out techniques, the way Tranströmer renders abstract ideas in the comprehensibly immediate physical and sensory world.

Also key to Tranströmer’s work is his love of music, particularly Schubert – his poem ‘Schubertiana’ Petit named as a masterwork. Here, he explores the idea that from a particular point in New York one can look at the homes of eight million people; the city is framed as galaxy, and ‘within this galaxy coffee cups are pushed across the counter’; ‘plants have thoughts’, ‘I know that somewhere in those rooms Schubert is being played, and it is more important than anything else’. In ‘Allegro’, ‘I raise my Hayden flag… we do not surrender but want peace’. Among the technical artistry is an engaged and grounded political mind, a value system that considers coffee cups and music, the small pieces of ‘the vast machinery of a vital organism’ as important as the organism itself.

5pm: Fiona Benson and Andrew McMillan: Five O’Clock Verses

Minidisclosure: I’ve previously reviewed both poets, and have had brief twitter chats with McMillan.

It’s been a couple of years since I first read Bright Travellers, Benson’s first collection. I hardly recognised those same poems, and hearing them read so passionately, and at such an intense emotional frequency, did that thing that I pretty much considered an industry cliché – it made them sound like new poems. The honesty and openness of ‘Love Letters to Vincent’ [Van Gogh], which could easily seem silly, workshoppy – imagine you are in a frustrating and emotionally unviable relationship with a historical figure – are in Benson’s hands totally convincing, viscerally affecting. There is powerful, wrenching emotional reality to these scenes, the Great Artist’s simultaneous dependency and disgust on the narrator, the narrator’s pity and desire, the nostalgia for the better person subject to ‘a vertiginous dark which is never done with you, old pal’ and the self-hatred for their own weakness, ‘and I let you in, and I let you in, and I let you in’. It was something special.

McMillan’s work carries a similar emotional maturity, often hidden behind the absurdity of the poems’ surface action; ‘the men are weeping in the gym’ (introduced as ‘If you’ve ever wondered what has happened to 21st century masculinity, watch men try to talk to each other in the gym. It’s like awkward ballet’) in particular benefitted from a live reading, the little ridiculous twists in each line getting properly drawn out: ‘they have turned water … into protein shakes’. The couple of new poems on show were also beautiful: ‘Fraternal’ has the poet watching his nephew looking after his new baby sister: ‘he is pretending to parent her… this is how we learn the basic wants of people… the body is needful, it must be undressed’. ‘Curtain’ is a brief and disarmingly candid account of a failed sexual encounter backstage, which ends with the speaker with his cock out, bowing deeply. It’s probably coincidental, but this poem came shortly after McMillan shared some of his less appreciative reviews; a recurring idea was keeping one’s feet on the ground. In any case, the reading was one of the best I’ve ever seen at StAnza, two hugely talented and confident poets giving everything for the audience. More of this sort of thing.

 

8pm Nora Gomringer: Poetry Centre Stage

Every time I’ve been at StAnza there’s been some cool sound or noise poetry event, but this was the first time I’ve seen it in pride of place in one of the main event slots. Gomringer is considered a leading German-language poet (acc to Annie Rutherford, who provided a bilingual introduction), and alongside jazz drummer Philip Schultz did a little bit to expand some ideas about what poetry can do, what it looks like, and how many squeaky dog toys may be employed in its creation. Gomringer and Schultz introduced their double act as taking the words of others (including the poet’s father, Eugen Gomringer), and reproducing them in new formats. The pair had a huge amount of energy and bounced off each other beautifully; Gomringer has a huge amount of stage presence and charisma, Schultz’s creative use of unusual percussion props its own kind of physical comedy.

Gomringer’s opening piece was a sound poem that involved play with the component sounds of the word ‘perfection’ (and kind of broke the ice by permitting some weird noises and silly faces). Other highlights included Dorothy Parker’s ‘Frustration’ (‘If I had a shiny gun…’) as performed by a nightclub singer; a performance based around the I Ching, one of the oldest written Chinese texts, including a really sharp bit of silent sound poetry (I guess you’d have to have been there); an autobiographical piece called ‘Family Thing’ in which the poet imagines herself a sister, instead of her seven brothers: ‘if my mother is the mother of invention then invention is my sister, my sister is… invention’. The set closed with a cute piece on being asked to babysit a dog that only speaks English and being given a book’s worth of instructions called ‘How to Love Dog’.

At this point the Fife transport system dictated I must head for the hills, having consumed far in excess of one’s poetry RDA. I know this is a paid gig and superlatives are expected, but it’s a true fact that I’ve never seen crowds like it at StAnza, and paid or not I’ll be coming back next year.

[PS: apologies to everyone I didn’t get a proper chat with on account of running around headless.]

StAnza 2016 Diary – Friday 4 March

Full Disclosure: I am writing this post and tomorrow’s post as part of my role writing for StAnza (it’s a paid post, £150 plus expenses) – so while I’ve got a pretty free hand to write in whatever way I feel works best, I’ve agreed that if I found anything egregiously bad I would politely refrain from mentioning it. So yep, this is as close as I’ll ever get to a sponsored post, but one I’ve no big qualms about writing. I’ve been coming to StAnza since I moved to Scotland seven years ago, it has a special place in my heart and it’s really cool to be working with them.

SO

Day 1 – 10.30am Jo Bell: 52 Ways of Writing a Poem

Mini disclosure: Jo’s a pal and in this context I’d feel weird referring to her as ‘Bell’.

Jo Bell’s wildly successful writing group 52 was recognised by Sabotage Reviews last year for the vital work it did in nurturing a fully functioning community of practice. The group provided space and support for (six hundred!) new writers to explore their ideas and share them with a caring and receptive audience – a kind of empowering first contact that many folk might take for granted. This motivating spirit of generosity characterised this morning’s workshop, which ran in a warm, bright, airy room on the top floor of St Andrews’ Public Library.

Jo agreed (cheers Jo!) to let me sit in on as an active participant, and damned if I didn’t actually write a few word-clusters that in flattering light might look like poems (wee 5-7-5 things, but it felt good anyway). Jo’s first assertion – no apologising, no self-deprication – set the tone for the morning; it’s not a place to show off to the person next to you, it’s a time to be mindful about your own work and to write the best piece that you’re capable of. Simple stuff, but surprisingly effective, and by the end of the two-hour session the creative meats in my brain were tingling merrily. Here’s the one I wrote in response to the prompt ‘Write to a part of your body’, to my slightly rubbish right eye:

green eye, stay with me
you keep things in perspective
ho ho. seriously

IN JUST ONE SESSION YOU TOO CAN WRITE LIKE THIS.

1pm Kirsten Luckins: Poetry Café

Kirsten (pronounced in the Nordic fashion) Luckins is the Northern programme co-ordinator for Apples and Snakes and a performance poet. (#overheardatStAnza: ‘she says she’s a performance poet but her words are great!’) The Poetry Café shows include a (mac & cheese or scotch, both noms) pie and a pint, and combined with the big comfy chairs in the Byre Studio theatre was a perfect decompressor after a couple hours down the Emotion Mines.

Luckins was launching her first full-length collection, The Trouble With Compassion (Burning Eye), organised loosely around the poet’s Buddhism (‘buddhish’ in her own words), and accompanying principles of love and empathy, WITH HILARIOUS CONSEQUENCES. So her opening piece, ‘Inkless’, has the poet’s persona seething in the mire of writer’s block while some other poets (a handle delivered with steadily increasing bile) ‘sort of hollowed myself out and let [the words] pass through’; ‘I am merely one such flailing wave’.

‘In Which the poet attempts to apply the compassion technique…’ (the actual title is longer but I cannot recall it) sees the poet at a yoga retreat in the Highlands with a woman ‘from London’ – where ‘from London’ means ‘extremely irritating’, acc. Luckins – who ‘out of all of us here, just, really needs this?’, who phones home at the earliest convenience to report There’s nothing here! The poem’s target isn’t a wild affront to poetry audience sensibilities, but the poem’s refrain – ‘may she be happy, may she be well, may she be free from suffering’ – is an important and challenging little twist. The theatre was properly stowed and there was a pretty sizeable line at the author signing queue.

2.15pm: Valerie Laws and Aase Berg: Border Crossings

Crime-fiction writer and poet Valerie Laws kicked off the Border Crossings show with a neat series of poems on anatomy and death, ‘how the body responds in extreme conditions’, interwoven with poems about her personal life, including a pretty moving piece about her mother’s dementia resulting in a delusion that she was married to two identical men with the same name – that the poem emerges with a sense of ironic humour and fair steeliness in the face of some grim circumstances is impressive. Elsewhere is an exploration of Facebook profiles of people who have passed away – in these poems at least the profile survives its owner ‘like a horse whose jockey is long since gone’. The possibility that one might write on a dead loved one’s wall or tag them into conversations is a lovely metaphor for grief and remembrance; the off-hand disparagement of selfie culture felt a little off-topic in the context.

Aase Berg is a Swedish surrealist, and while I’ll defend the rights of anyone to say it’s difficult to keep a surrealist poetry reading engaging (particularly a surrealism as dense and meaningful as Berg’s), I still feel privileged to have heard her perform. There’s a rich undercurrent in the poems she read about troubling subterranean forces, in which ‘continental plates topple’, ‘one always holds the harpoon alone’, ‘in the shell runs the nerves’ thin ghost’, ‘unwhale of rubber rooms’. Berg introduced her most recent collection as concerning ‘horses, men & parasites’, which is all I need, really. Notable lines include: ‘we are legion. expect us always’, ‘we have always been good at very complicated love’, ‘birds are never free, they are in complete control’. I’m not going to pretend I understood every line, or that I recommend surrealism as a consistent diet any more than I’d recommend anecdotal realism as the same, but dang. It put a smile on my face and made a few folk uncomfortable. There’s a series of her poems here if you fancy a taster.

5pm: Anna Crowe, Michael Donhauser, Odile Kennel, Don Paterson: VERSschmuggel (verse smuggling)

In a packed-out Parliament Hall (to reiterate: this is a busy StAnza) was a real joy of an event, an English-, Gàidhlig- and German-language translation project called VERSschmuggel, in which six Scottish-based poets and six German-language poets – armed with little more than a bilingual dictionary, an intermediary translator and the threat of being locked in a room until they’d finished – produced an entire anthology of translations and versions, much of it utterly beautiful. About five minutes into the set between Anna Crowe and Odile Kennel I’d decided to buy the book, which isn’t officially out until May, so, smugness.

Crowe and Kennel’s poems were thoughtful, playful, stoic pieces, delving into deep time and natural resilience, which I’m a proper sucker for. ‘Mended Fence, Barra’ has a epigram from Donne’s ‘Essays in Divinity, which begins ‘Let no smalnesse retard thee if thou beest not a Cedar to help towards a palace […] yet thou art a shrub to shelter a lambe, or to feed a bird’. The poem itself is an exercise in close focus:

‘Purely utilitarian, this link-work
has a beauty that’s all pro tem, ad hoc,
with textures suggestive of the wider picture,
differences: a study in tensions’

Then there was the totally gorgeous nonsense poem ‘Bestial Questions’, which begins:

‘questions on animals
and animals on quest
for festering nests
of gestating cockroaches
hoaching, encroaching
on rockhopper penguins
grasshopping dingoes
that sing to the moon
crooning to spoonbills […]’

I defy you to not be charmed to the back teeth. Later was Don Paterson, performing with translations again from Kennel, as Michael Donhauser was absent with illness. Paterson spoke of long translating sessions that sprang to life on the discovery of a shared love for nihilistic self-loathing, and the assertion that ‘it’s in the syntax that you find the sophistication of the thought’. Donhauser’s poems are small and slight enough to maybe make them worth reading side by side with Paterson’s translation:

‘Vielleicht                                                                            Maybe
regnet es                                                                             the rain’s on
vielleicht                                                                              Maybe
warden es                                                                           there will be
Tage sein                                                                             days to come

Alles bleibt                                                                          all that stays
ist Schein                                                                             is guise
alles steigt                                                                           all that rises
ist licht                                                                                  is light
und erlischt                                                                        and goes out’

Keep your eyes on the Freight Books folks for more news on the anthology’s publication. It’s a wee bit great.

8pm Lemn Sissay and Don Paterson: Poetry Centre Stage

The final show of the day ran in the Byre Main theatre and was live streamed into the Byre’s Studio theatre, which is a cracking idea and, again, was relaxed, warm and full of good vibes. Sissay, who took the stage first, is an incredible performer, and managed to maintain a staggering level of energy, wit and good humour through an entire forty-five minute set, and that after some deeply tedious and weirdly hostile heckling from an old dude in the audience who really ought to get a lifetime ban. For the record, Sissay responded with more warmth and grace than when the same joker – unbelievably – tried it with Paterson.

Sissay’s set ran the span of his career, his earliest poem written at sixteen called ‘**** This’, in which the only audible words were non-swears. He began with an incredible, weird parable named ‘Morning Breaks’, which you can watch here in full. It’s a brave and impassioned poem, a real gift. Elsewhere are neat and intricate pieces like ‘Lost Key’, which riffs on matters of trust and good faith with barely a few phrases, ‘Architecture’ – ‘each wave wants to be tidal / each subtext wants to be a title’ – the beautifully economic ‘Sarcasm’, which as Sissay noted doesn’t work in text. This was my first encounter with him either performing or on the page, and it won’t be the last.

I’ve seen Paterson read so often that the poems are pretty close to earworms, particularly ‘Wave’ (‘I hit the beach and swept away the town’) and ‘To Dundee City Council’ (‘that fine country called the fuck away’), and I could make a fair dig at reciting his introductions, of which ‘A Powercut’ is a bit of a favourite. Both are great though, and it was a bit of a treat to see him read with some exploratory license, airing some new aphorisms – ‘I’d no more contribute to an anthology of aphorisms than crap in a communal latrine’; ‘a poet is someone in the aphorism business for the money’ – and a full reading of ‘Bathysphere’ from Rain, which I’d never heard aloud and had always baffled me slightly. It still baffles me slightly, but less so. There’s nothing like a bit of metaphysical horror to take you home, ‘leaving you with something to whistle’. Much as I’m instinctively suspicious of anyone who gets introduced as ‘surely Scotland’s finest ever poet, and that’s a crowded field’ (how could anyone live up to eternity?) Paterson’s a responsive and generous performer, maybe the best of his generation at making the words mean as much off the page as on.

I type this as tedious English students hoot and holler along North Street, as I lie deep in the warm embrace of a comfy bed in Hoppity House guesthouse (I am not making this up, there are three-foot cuddly rabbits in the hall and it is DELIGHTFUL). I will have pancakes in the morning and there is only the end of this sentence between us. A mañana, Saint Anza.

PS: Part two is here!

Damilola Odelola – Lost & Found

Full Disclosure: None. New poet. Copy purchased with help from Patreon funders.

Review: On the surface, Odelola’s pamphlet is structurally straightforward. There are four named poems, in order: ‘Those McDonald’s Boys’, ‘Lost’, ‘Found’, ‘The Boys Outside McDonald’s’; the middle poems are both nine-part sequences, a series of short, complex, interconnected scenes. The book’s mirrored structure asks the reader to hold two poems in mind at once, to draw connections between one idea and another. The implication, from a structural level, is that these poems are interested in building a conversation that can sustain ambiguity and plural perspectives. Odelola is a software programmer, and self-published her first collection, #000000, online; there’s something Twine-y about the ‘Lost’ and ‘Found’ sequences, the way corresponding poems demand a level of non-linear reading, imaginative agility.

Lost & Found seems driven by a deep understanding of life in contemporary Brixton (explicitly the parts that remain ungentrified), a desire to convey its complications without simplifying or softening in the name of reader comfort. Significantly, its top priority seems to be Brixton’s own citizens; in British poetry there remains an assumed white middle class readership, and Lost & Found works hard to push away from it. The opening poem acknowledges a tendency among this cultural majority to dismiss ‘Those McDonald’s boys’ as violent or aggressive, to consider their incarceration (‘his reflection / In the bars keys rattle against’, the ‘comforting sound of sirens / Only shout when a brother is down’), as something inescapable or inherently justifiable. Odelola makes their immediate circumstances absolutely clear:

‘This is a war they were born into,
Their mothers had to fight in,
Their fathers had to love in.’

The poem moves from surface appearances, the arm’s-length ‘those boys’ in the first stanza:

‘With their black coats
And their black trousers,
And their black Air Force Ones’

to the internal, inclusive, immediate ‘these boys’ in the last:

‘With their black hearts,
And their black souls,
And their red blood,
And their red blood,
And their red blood,
Are at attention.
Fists clenched so tight
The life in them can’t be snatched at will.’

‘Those McDonald’s Boys’ makes a shape that repeats through the book, a movement towards care, compassion and empathy. Odelola’s tone is uncompromising and unsentimental, providing the young men’s experiences with a context spacious enough to make sense of their responses. The disapproving sniffiness of the poem’s title gives way to (though remains a vital self-sustaining function of) a larger society that leaves them with little more than the understanding ‘That everything / Has been taken / From them. / So they try to reclaim / This piece of pavement as their own.’ Note that if the poem does not judge these young men, it doesn’t defend them either; their actions are not framed as one side of a clear-cut moral binary but as an extension of a culture that has a far greater capacity for systemic violence than a handful of dispossessed individuals. That Odelola tells this story with such suggestive precision and imaginative economy is kind of stunning.

3 DRJ

The corresponding piece that closes the book, ‘The Boys Outside McDonald’s’, builds on this work, expanding the poem’s world to include Brixton history (‘pre hipster invasion’, as per the book’s dedication), the Windrush generation, Electric Avenue, the work of 20th/21st century black poets:

‘you can read the way
Zephaniah has placed you on thrones,
Or how Nichols has painted you the colour
Of love, leaving you no choice but to

Smile when you look in mirrors.’

These poems not only counter a harmful cultural perception of young black men with insight and dignity, it also opens a world of experience and self-definition beyond an immediate, geographically and conceptually bound dispossession; the poem and book conclude, significantly I think, focused on community and networks of support:

‘Pass through the market and talk to the man
Who sells meat in the first stall from the main road.

He knows your mum, she talks about you to him […]

He knows she’s praying for you,
He knows you don’t care for God
He’ll tell you that she loves you,

Because he knows sometimes you’re not sure.’

The gesture is complicated and nuanced – the poet talks about the meat seller talking about his mother talking about him – the poem’s addressee is imaginatively surrounded with love and acceptance, and seems to be invited into a state of productive uncertainty, capacity for change, to ‘Remember that your feet were meant to move’.

3 JP

The ‘Lost’ and ‘Found’ sequences give space for Odelola to expand this act of witnessing, adding another series of stories into the book’s remit. Talking about the poems requires a slightly askew reading, taking in two corresponding sections at once. In section ‘#2’ (and I suddenly notice that hashtag symbol, and can’t help reading it as the social media function connecting related posts):

‘When he was 13, Seun became Sean in an effort to fit in with the Caribbeans
That only reflected him in their faces, not their throats’ (‘Lost’)

‘Today Sean return to Seun after realising that his sister was right; women
Like names that make you sing.’ (‘Found’)

Other sections connect much more obliquely, though no less suggestively, leaving space for the reader to navigate the blank spaces, as in ‘#8’:

‘Simon says it’s natural to grow apart from friends.
I tell him that this is not natural.
This is sawing off your right hand,
Very slowly,
With no anaesthetic,
But never quite believing it’s gone.’ (‘Lost’)

‘When a man finds that his tears will not melt his penis away,
His masculinity should be left unscathed.’ (‘Found’)

That little note in ‘Simon Says’ of a childish obedience to social norms is a wee bit beautiful. These sections hit hard and leave a deep ambiguity about whether their references to violence or suffering are wholly metaphorical, literal or somewhere between. Odelola trusts the reader to acknowledge the equal legitimacy of the expansive, optimistic attitudes in ‘Found’ and the scathing acts of witness in ‘Lost’:

‘Life leaks out of the holes they have riddled him with.
He lays in a street, for all the neighbours to see, a system’s dirty laundry.
He becomes a spectator sport, something to place your bets on,
He always loses.’

If an established, prize-winning poet-professor packed this much substance – the intimations of economic inequality, media representation of poverty and violence, the far-reaching culpability of a non-specific ‘they’ – into such a tiny stanza, I’d be no less impressed. Lost & Found is a powerful, fully-realised book, a pamphlet that feels very much like a completed artistic gesture.

tl;dr: It’s great, it’s £5, it’s here, it’s an important read.

Further Reading: Rory Waterman in TLS

Odelola on diversity in tech in Huffington Post

Odelola’s poem on Langston Hughes with Barbican Young Poets

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Andrew McMillan – physical

Full Disclosure: Saw McMillan read at the Forward Prize, this is my first time reading his work. Aware of several prize wins/nominations.

Review: To get it out of the way, one of the most infuriatingly shitty reviews I read in all of 2015, was by Gregory Woods in the Jan-Feb 2016 edition of PN Review (full text hastily but legibly screengrabbed here). Woods begins by comparing McMillan’s stylish and purposeful use of Yorkshire English to illiteracy, before suggesting it could only have been a result of mistakes by both poet and editor; concerns about non-standard English comprise about half his word count. Woods’ next argument, that McMillan is not being a gay poet correctly (his deployment of homophobic binaries on the topic is baffling, particularly given his academic career as a professor of LGBT studies) is utterly meaningless as critique and seems designed to cause personal hurt. Woods also belongs to the school of thought that the ‘new generation’ (whatever that means) has been ‘rendered half-mute by new taboos’ (whatever those might be). The review is close-minded, vindictive and barely literary; much like other critics of his generation, Woods cannot bring himself to consider McMillan’s ideas worth engaging on their own terms, nor can he abide the thought that someone might want to do things differently to himself. Regarding his pithy parting shot, if Woods had access to a half decent dictionary surely he would know that the singular ‘biceps’ is also perfectly acceptable; it’s this kind of monolithic thinking about minor details at the expense of the bigger picture that leaves his review intellectually bankrupt. As a lifelong member of a half-mute generation, unbelievable horseshit like this can get in the fucking sea.

ANYWAY.

physical is McMillan’s first full collection, and includes the sequence ‘protest of the physical’, which was published as a pamphlet by Red Squirrel Press in 2013. The book clocks in at around 45 pages, a handful of which feature section titles and epigrams; it simultaneously feels ruthlessly efficient and deeply invested in the importance of white space on the page. It’s tempting to read this editorial approach as commensurate with the poems’ attitude to the body; ‘Jacob with the angel’ pointedly talks about its protagonists in terms of their physical fitness:

‘no soft parts of stomachs           no inch of them hung loose
like old sacking from the muscle’

I don’t think this is uncomplicated praise for the flawlessness of strength or bodily aesthetics, however, particularly not alongside a poem like ‘the men are weeping in the gym’, of which more later. Here, the inability of either Jacob or the angel to give way, to permit weakness or vulnerability, fades into the allegorical reading of the second stanza, in which Jacob ‘is beating on himself’, bruised and already forgetful: ‘on waking / he isn’t sure if he has dreamt it’. The poem seems to be characterised as much by the unfulfilling aftermath as the rational-thought-transcending act (and even that is framed as happening ‘the way the weather / or the stock market happens’ – which is to say, I think, as a result of intensely complex, but strangely desire-less or agency-less systems). The resolution to remain anonymous in the first stanza –

‘because names would add a history
and the tasting of the flesh and blood of someone
is something out of time’

– leads directly to Jacob’s closing request ‘for ink to be brought / he says writing something down keeps it alive’. It’s very much up for debate whether memorialising is a good thing, however; certainly it flies in the face of the first stanza’s argument for preserving the one-off, no-strings sanctity of their meeting.

3 JP

‘Jacob with the angel’ establishes an important point of friction in the collection. Throughout its lyrical moments of intimacy – or, more often, physically proximate solitude – there is a deep sense of unease about the processes that turn these private moments into the poems’ public gestures. Numerous individual pieces, (‘screen’, ‘Saturday night’, ‘if it wasn’t for the nights’, the excoriatingly sad ‘a gift’) even in their beautifully articulated understandings of emotional and physical exchange, seem to have at their heart a desire to explain themselves, even to apologise. The poems’ action remains just at the edge of focus, as the poem attempts to recreate the conditions in which their protagonists’ decisions start to make sense. McMillan’s speaker (though the book indicates autobiography, I’m not entirely comfortable just taking it for granted) presents the poems’ lovers unsparingly, often pitifully; in ‘screen’, the speaker watches his lover watch porn, because ‘I knew / that you would end up loving me too / much I thought you needed other idols’. What makes these pieces powerful, makes them so heartbreakingly comprehensible, is their willingness to demonstrate the speaker’s own culpability without reaching for self-defensive explanations. Though the poems seem to stand at a clinical remove from their often extremely vulnerable subjects, there is little space for romanticism; the first instinct of ‘Jacob and the angel’ is to take it ‘literally’ before ‘allegorically’, and it is in the allegory that the true mint is betrayed.

At the centre of the collection is the sequence ‘protest of the physical’, in which the lyric essays elsewhere in the collection are allowed a degree of freedom to roam, the book’s emotional reservations or compromises (‘love / is giving everything too easily / then staying to try and claw it back’) put into a slightly broader social context. It’s partly a coming of age piece, characterised by a kind of earnest, brash curiosity that wants to transform its immediate surroundings (‘town as a dialogueheavy scene from a Ken Loach film’), and find in Thom Gunn’s poems an alternative reality, a counterweight to the outside world where graffiti reads ‘pits close / we still sink / into them’. The sequence is also pleasingly unconvinced about the essential otherness of the poet, as either paragon of higher thought or necessarily removed from their community:

‘station walkhome           man in the doorway
of The Mount looking up              g night luv
theory       the moon isn’t just for poets’

While ‘protest of the physical’ by its nature asks the reader to engage with some throwaway or slightly rambly thought-processing, it’s a welcome, rangy departure from the densely woven lyrics elsewhere in the book, and has a few of its best lines: ‘theory     we’ve confused happiness / with someone being able to say our name to us’. It may feel a little younger (whatever that means) in its occasional dreaminess or unironic hero-worship, but that element of embattled optimism carved out of a place that ‘carried // young men and women […] / as long as it could but       spinebroken / had to let them go’, is a valuable addition physical‘s emotional register.

sr31

Elsewhere, there’s something productively dissonant about the poems’ sure-footed, almost stately composure and the turmoil it conveys; after a close read or two, it was this apparently unbridgeable gap that started causing some serious heartsickness. The poems that arc towards closeness and understanding are notable in their relative absence. One such piece, ‘yoga’, starts off from a point of fairly conventional scepticism:

‘we are told to tell our bodies that they are beautiful
we are told not to pass judgement
on where the breath may fall’

The prefix ‘we are told’ acts as a kind of buffer while allowing the teacher’s message to pass on regardless, a kind of double bluff before the poem fully absorbs it: ‘it needs trust in the strengthofbody / of another to support your own’. At the conclusion, a full awareness and acceptance of both being a body and being subject to that body’s needs results in a deeply peaceful moment in the middle of a thoroughly unsettled collection:

‘I had forgotten that loving could feel so calming
telling you that your body was beautiful        sighing out
the brittle disappointments from the bones
having no judgement of what the body
may want to be doing    where the breath may fall’

This, I think, connects to the heart of the book’s ongoing discussion of masculinity, specifically a socially conventional masculinity that physical clearly views as toxic and harmful, both to the individual and those around him. Several poems deal directly with male identity politics that demand its adherents remain not only destructive but downright stunted. The aforementioned men weeping in the gym are cartoonish and childlike:

‘their hearts have grown too big
for their chests     their chests have grown too big
for their shirts     they are dressed like kids
who have forgotten their games kit’

The gesture, however, is at least to some degree self-directed; the very next piece is ‘strongman’, in which the speaker bench-presses his homophobic nephew and asks ‘what is masculinity if not taking the weight // of a boy and straining it from oneself?’ McMillan seems perfectly aware that the beautiful, muscular bodies that appear throughout the collection (and on the book’s cover) are subject to similar social norms; both ‘choke’ and ‘Leda to her daughters’ address directly a connection between physical beauty and physical violence. The failure of the men in the gym to accept ‘the thousands of tiny fracturings / needed to build something stronger’ identifies – much as in ‘yoga’ – that relatively little strength (physical or figurative) is needed to stay a safe distance from those you love, that it is far easier to push one’s emotional immaturity away than to confront it.

3 DRJ

Both ‘the men are weeping in the gym’ and ‘strongman’ play out masculinity’s failure to accommodate self-questioning or even self-love; despite the ostensible comedy in these scenes, physical makes it absolutely clear that this failure has very real victims. ‘Leda to her daughters’ is a sad, angry piece that renders clearly the neediness and violent thoughtlessness that accompanies the masculinity defined elsewhere in the book. The poem suggests that the myth’s most mundane aspect is

‘to pretend he didn’t understand

to think my outstretched hand might be an offering of food

daughter       to think that I would feed him’

Here, the act of wilful ignorance – an echo of ‘swearing […] that the words they mutter as they lift / are meaningless’ from ‘the men in the gym are weeping’ – is directly connected to the sexual abuse of the myth. The poem’s plain speech locates it in the absolutely contemporary, and the use of persona (one of very few in physical) allows the possibility that the speaker of the other poems might be more easily located as the thoughtless aggressor; as mentioned, physical is all too aware of its own capacity to harm. It’s uncompromising and sometimes angry in its expression, and like elsewhere in the book, its emotional frankness is what gives it such force. The photograph on the front cover, which first appears beautiful and alluring, the model’s fingers pushing fulsomely into his own side, starts to appear self-defensive and vulnerable, and a lot less sexy. It’s rare enough for a male poet to spend so much energy on such deep self-criticism, and in McMillan’s hands it becomes something uncommonly powerful.

tl;dr: physical is a complex and deeply human book, with some of the finest and most clear-eyed poems about love and personal-level power dynamics I’ve read in a long time.

Further Reading: Ben Wilkinson in The Guardian

Richard Scott in Ambit

Martyn Crucefix on his blog

Interview in the Yorkshire Post

McMillan on Thom Gunn in The Guardian

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing this, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, and you can cancel at any time. Thanks for reading.