Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition

Disclosure: Have met Bird a few times now at readings. She’s an excellent human. The book discusses, in part, mental health issues, addiction and rehabilitation, of which I have no experience. Review copy was purchased with help from my supporters on Patreon. With huge thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing.

Review: The first poem in In These Days of Prohibition is titled ‘A Surreal Joke’, a piece which stands on its own as an introduction to the book’s treatment of mental illness and emotional truth while acting as a small, powerful ars poetica. George Szirtes’ review of Bird’s last collection, The Hat-stand Union, published in the Spring 2014 issue of Poetry London, signs off with: ‘Any poetic voice is perceived as an angle to the world and Caroline Bird’s voice is precisely that. I am perfectly convinced by the angle. It’s just that I don’t want things all angle.’ Though Szirtes’ critique is largely celebratory, there are a lot of assumptions at work in his last point, not least that angle-free poetry is possible or desirable. Bird’s five collections are marked by their operation within a weird, restless, hyperreal and, more often than not, (certainly more often than credited) quietly tragic imaginative space. ‘A Surreal Joke’ ends with the speaker in conversation with their ‘assigned counsellor’ (noting the tone of coercion in ‘assigned’):

‘My assigned counsellor told me I used
poetry to hide from myself, unhook
the ballast from my life; a floating ruse
of surreal jokes. He stole my notebook.
I said, they’re not jokes. He said, maybe try
to write the simple truth? I said, why?’

It’s worth bearing in mind that the poet recently discussed her time recovering from addiction in an interview with the Evening Standard, and clearly there is some degree to which the protagonists of In These Days of Prohibition and their creator overlap. What’s just as clear in these lines, however, is that ‘the simple truth’ has little overlap with the poems’ ambitions as art, and the ‘not jokes’ they want to convey; poetry is not autobiography, even when it presents as such. Note also that the speaker here does not directly contradict the counsellor’s suggestions, though the book embodies what his perspective overlooks; the question of whether truth is accessible in the first instance, or truthfully communicable in the second. In ‘A Surreal Joke’, the speaker’s defence against the assumption that surrealism and comedy may be read and positioned as antithetical to ‘truth’ or ‘seriousness’ seems like an assertion that it is possible to write truthfully without granting the reader access to one’s private reality. Or, as Bird herself puts it in the video above, ‘this poem is true but contains no facts’.

The variety of dramatic shapes Bird’s poems take is impressive; with few exceptions, the poems in In These Days of Prohibition wrong-foot the reader, pushing the poem into unexpected places, recontextualising or destabilising everything that went before. ‘Sentinel of Anything’, for example, begins:

‘I am guarding this sofa with my life         my nights
are long                but I do not sleep             Roger    Copy that
Over      4:08 AM a suspicious beep          4:11 AM Beep
has not returned              4:22 AM               think I imagined beep’

The poem drifts between grim comedy and outright anxiety; the first line signals that all is not well, that an unseen other is interfering with the scene, the speaker is unable to confirm their reality. The set-up is silly, the speaker’s determination and sense of duty wildly out of synch with ‘a suspicious beep’ and the bedsit which ‘smells / of lemons    Is this suspect?’ Ordinarily this would play out by leaning into the disproportion, but ‘Sentinel of Anything’ maintains its tension by not quite delivering the big laugh the opening ostensibly promises. Lines like, ‘These items are now under / my protection   I solemnly vow to keep them safe / If needs be I’ll die’, do nothing to dispel the idea that the speaker is not performing, that this is not another ‘surreal joke’. Their unprompted will to self-destruction begins to feel horribly real. The speaker’s various threads of thought become tangled and confused, and the close, ‘what matters is / I am true to my word     over    6:55 was me breathing’ take on a terrible literalness, the speaker not waving, but drowning.

Then, there’s a majestic work of beauty like ‘Beatification’, whose first line runs: ‘My father was a hundred and five years old when he discovered the pleasures of crystal meth’. The poem plays out the way ‘Sentinel of Anything’ does not, pushing the premise toward exaggeration, as the centenarian finally enjoys his body and sexuality without compromise. The only reference to the past is his reminiscence of a youthful courtship: ‘Those days were clogged with woollen tights and shame’; though the book to this point has been doused in a creeping sense of wrongdoing and guilt, this is the first time ‘shame’ has been explicitly articulated, the first of three instances in the book, one in each section. This seems like more than coincidence, and I’d argue that the collection’s three-act structure is built around processing socially-inscribed guilt and making tentative steps toward accepting oneself as worthy of love, both by the self and by others. Of course, this could be over-emphasising one aspect of a collection that is at least as concerned with its boisterous, breathless poem-by-poem action as it is with sustaining a dramatic arc. In any case, ‘Beatification’ is on one hand a beautifully committed scene of sexual comedy, as the speaker’s father describes his new business plan: ‘Bondage. Water Sports. Sadomasochism. People will pay good money to lick the toilet seat of a silver fox’. On the other, the poem is weirdly touching:

‘‘But you’re a hundred and five years old…’ He sunk in his sweater. ‘…Which is all the more reason’, I added, ‘not to waste another minute.’’

The timing is glorious, but if the poem enacts a struggle between humour and pathos, the latter ultimately wins out. As the speaker attempts to bring her father normal pensioner things – ‘the Radio Times and that John le Carre audiobook you asked for’ – he is lost in the embrace of a bodybuilder: ‘He wasn’t coming down again. Not for anyone. He was with the angels now.’ Like ‘Sentinel of Anything’, these lines push the reader just a hair back from the poem’s basic conceit, the closing sentence’s overfamiliarity made strange by its unique surroundings. The poem’s closure is a dramatic opening.

Though the book’s three sections aren’t explicitly tied to any one theme, there are dominant notes in each; where the first seems mostly concerned with mental wellbeing, the second explores romantic intimacy, though guilt and the unreliability of the perceiving self are present in both. ‘To Be Explicit’ and ‘Adultery for Atheists’ face each other on opposing pages, and might well be companion pieces. Both are short-lined, comprised of a relentless single sentence at a high emotional pitch, and where the former seems to outline the speaker’s desire for a fast, intense, but ultimately doomed encounter (‘pocket just one / souvenir feather and / leave you in peace.’), the latter is consumed with guilt, quite possibly from the explicit desires of its partner-poem. It spills from line to line with wry, self-chastising irony and anger:

‘[It’s lucky I] know of no
rational reason to carry these
pellets in my heart absorbing
shame like tampons somehow
expanding inside me’

The poem ends with another characteristically stylish dramatic turn. Where the speech up until this point inhabited the conceptual nowhere of lyric thought, the last few lines bring it back to the abruptly unsettled, physical here and now:

‘[what luck to be so unperturbed by] this
very peculiar black cat sitting
on my bed after midnight just
staring at me calmly.’

One thing I’m noticing by analysing Bird’s poems is how difficult they are to quote in chunks, how they demand to sit in context with the entire piece. For all the pinpoint execution of the conceit, the beautifully disorienting hyperreality and the tonal humour, the poems in this middle section are laced with what feels like self-loathing, barely being held beneath the surface. There is a nightmarish bite to these pieces, and the free reign Bird gives to these self-destructive voices made my heart hurt.

All of which makes the tentatively hopeful notes, the air of calm, in the final act a hard-won pleasure. It’s introduced by an epigraph from James Tate: ‘But we still believe we will come through it! / I signal this news / by lifting a little finger’. Tate’s wry rejection or deflation of uncomplicated belief is an apt tone for a series of poems whose victories are often small, compromised and precarious. The first, ‘Public Resource’, is a brief inquiry into social expectations about survivor narratives:

‘There is a place called The Open
where brave people put things.’

‘Public Resource’ argues, gently and with great humour, that a public impulse (or ‘hunger’, in the poem’s terms) for uplifting stories from brave strangers does not reflect the inner reality experienced by survivors themselves. As Bird puts it:

‘The will be no rising
smoke, after-odour, no bell-ringer […]
no consequence unless
you dive in with it.’

Like Tate’s own muted celebration, the poem seems to recognise that the reward for ‘coming through’ is little more than the opportunity to raise a little finger in acknowledgement and keep going, the endless hunger of The Open be damned. The section is also marked by its several attempts to render something approaching, if not self-love, then self-kindness or acceptance, however hedged it might be. ‘Megan Married Herself’ has no business being as moving and heartfelt as it is, conveying real breath-catching joy through a situation that is patently absurd:

‘She strode down the aisle to ‘At Last’ by Etta James,
faced the celebrant like a keen soldier reporting for duty,
her voice shaky yet sure. I do. I do.’

The jokes are spot-on, beautifully timed and pitched, but the poem creates an inner, emotional space in which Megan’s marriage is worthy of dignity, celebration, delight. The poem knows exactly where the line is between vanity and social-norm-rejecting comfort in one’s own being, and leans heavily into the latter. Given all that’s gone before in In These Days of Prohibition, the guilt and inward-facing castigation that pushes down on much of the collection, ‘Megan Married Herself’ is a remarkable break, a small sunburst.

Though a few poems, particularly in this last section, don’t have the same emotional fizz as the best in the book (several of which I haven’t discussed here; a good half dozen are straight on my dream-anthology longlist), when a poem’s dramatic argument is not quite up to Bird’s usual standard it is still buoyed by dynamic associative play, a serious glee in its weird logical leaps. When everything comes together, as in ‘A Toddler Creates Thunder by Dancing on a Manhole’, it’s a wonder to behold. The poem’s energy is in a league of its own, and embodies everything that makes In These Days of Prohibition the beautiful, essentially optimistic work it is. ‘A Toddler…’ is unusual in the collection for its positioning the poet-figure as a visible observer, neither the poem’s focal point or wholly moved to the sidelines. The speaker exists as a kind of foil to the toddler, who is one of a pair of twins operating as a performer-audience or active-self/critical-self partnership, carrying with them a childlike purity of thought and action (‘Toddlers always dance like marionettes, / their brains still learning the strings’) that clearly leaves a mark on the in-poem poet:

‘the tiny dancer is a celebrity, applauded
by her own mirror image. […] I pick up my phone, type
‘I’m sorry’ then delete it.’

Taken in its own local context, the poem reads very much like a real-life anecdote, but in relation to an entire book in which real-life has been held at arm’s length, the metaphorical potential the poem has, in terms of its discussions of how one encounters one’s self, is deceptively hefty. This, I think, is what Bird does best, presenting difficult and quietly unsettling ideas about surviving in a world hostile to your wellbeing, but in terms which at first glance seem works of entertainment first and foremost. It’s a pretty old-timey word, but I think ‘parable’ is the one that fits best. Bird’s finest work marries the mundane, granular stuff of daily coping strategies with the kind of imaginative situation that stays long in the memory.

Further Reading: Interview in the Evening Standard

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Amaan Hyder – At Hajj

Disclosure: Have not met Hyder. The book discusses several aspects of Islam including the eponymous pilgrimage, and the experiences of moving to a hostile new country, of which I have no experience, and many nuances of which I’ve probably missed. Review copy provided by Penned in the Margins. Huge thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing this review.

The old man has fallen over. He runs over to him and lifts him and the old man holds onto his arm and takes hold of his stick and he tries to sit the old man down but in his position it is more comfortable for him to lean on the cane. It is easier standing up. Sitting down, the man would be dependent on him completely.’ (‘At Hajj’)

Review: At Hajj is Amaan Hyder’s first collection. It’s comprised of a series of narrative scenes from the eponymous pilgrimage to Mecca woven among more traditionally lyric pieces, most, if not all, of which are set in an unspecified British space. The book’s twin threads are not connected explicitly (bar one poem which discusses trans-generational attitudes to religious traditions), and it’s reasonable to believe they may be enacted by different characters, the various scenes at Mecca told from the point of view of at least one man and at least one woman, and all in third person. Certainly the self at the heart of the book’s lyric poems is notable by their relative absence, performing fascinating acts of narrative positioning to keep the poem’s focus on the lives of others; the speaker’s parents, brother, friends, neighbours and neighbourhood:

‘You’re going to look back and

I’m going to look back and
there’s been this van up and down
past the shop really slow.’

The first instalment of the ‘At Hajj’ sequence, meanwhile, introduces a book-long quiet attentiveness to the thoughts and actions of others:

He sees people standing to pray, putting their hands on their knees and drawing up and going down to touch their foreheads to the ground. These are the movements his thoughts make. […] They sit long after the prayers are over and ask what they have to ask for.’

The ‘At Hajj’ poems are all printed in italics, a typographic convention that usually indicates quotation, emphasis, or voices-off. Here, it seems to act as the introduction to a special world, or an alternate form of address, a different frame of mind. The language is plain and spare and methodical. Its painstaking, precise description of the body and its motions feel strange on a first read; it is unusual to be asked to spend so much thought on so ordinary a motion. The passage of time in this scene is key: the ‘he’ doing the watching has clearly been doing so for a substantial span of time, watching the prayers without praying himself. There’s a kind of mirroring between how carefully Hyder has crafted the passage, in its precise ambiguity, and the attention the figure in the poem gives to the worshippers; there is more than one level in ‘the movements his thoughts make’. The last line pushed me gently off-balance too: are they asking for advice on what to ask for, or is this an elegant way of describing the manifold things people request in prayer? Perhaps this careful observation of the everyday, this dedicated, time-consuming attentiveness to the bodies and thoughts of others is the poet’s own act of worship.

The spiritual and the profane are blended and combined throughout the book. In two poems, ‘Mohammed’s Mobile’ and ‘Calling Mohammed’ Hyder imagines the prophet as a contemporary, partly filtered through the speaker’s brother of the same name. The former begins:

‘I think Mohammed peace be upon him would have had one of those phones that aren’t big or black like you sometimes get in old TV programmes. […] I feel that he would have written his name on the back of his phone because he was a good man. […] I am certain that he would have kept his phone switched off so that he would not disturb other people.’

As in ‘At Hajj’, the most prominent note in both the poems’ atmosphere and its subject matter is this openness, this willingness to speak simply and invite understanding. The opening lines of ‘Mohammed’s Mobile’ enthusiastically inhabit this sincere subjectivity (‘I think…’, ‘I feel…’), lending the speaker a kind of moral certitude  which compliments the casual confidence of their imaginative leaps. The whole poem might well be in a child’s voice, the way children, faced with difficult and alien ideas, attempt to draw them nearer to their own experiences, like asking why there are no dinosaurs in the Bible. The second half of the poem expresses this tone formally, as the prose gives way to ballad meter, with its rumbling, uncomplicated rhythms:

‘My brother’s called Mohammed.
He’s always in our room.
He’s stopped watching TV
and he hates middle school. […]

‘To make my brother happy
we go out on our bikes.
We stay away from others,
eat Bountys in the night.’

The poem’s objects are beautiful in their specificity, ‘The [phone] I mean is the one Faraan my cousin has’, the Bounty bars, their very singularity giving them radiance. The final stanza becomes its own sacred space for the two brothers, safe with the explicit treasure of sweets and the unspoken one of familial solidarity. Where, exactly, the historical-religious figure of Mohammed fits in this scene is hazy, as the poem is definitively rooted in earthly concerns, contemporary consumer society and family politics. The speaker’s imaginative lens provides space for what might be a deeply personal, immediately present interpretation of the prophet, somewhat at odds with the book’s frank, straightforwardly realist presentation of religious acts in its central sequence.

Few of the collection’s lyrics are so readily unpacked, however, and Hyder’s ability to convey meaning tonally and atmospherically is truly remarkable (presuming that I’m picking it up as intended). Many of these short poems create a sensory space for the reader to inhabit, by way of brief snatches of conventional syntax among ostensibly disconnected ideas or images. Here’s the opening section, Alif, from ‘The Clot’:

‘What is a fit?
A holy thing is a fit.
A life is a fit.

I hear fifty machines stitching,
inking a grip.
Someone came to the door.

Someone was listening to us.
When I wake I am told what happened.
I pressed eject, mouths my father.

I pressed enough, mouths my mother.
She leaves in a car that shoots light.’

The drama conveyed in a few dozen words is incredible. The haiku-like opening stanza is a formula one could spend hours exploring, the vital qualities of ‘holy’ and ‘life’ left tantalisingly undefined. The following stanzas’ combination of autonomous machines with human listeners creates a kind of dread that could not have been rationally expressed; the fact that the father and mother cannot physically speak, and communicate only in the low-tech language of magnetic tape, is deeply unsettling. That last line makes my hair stand on end, the passive verb, the supernatural vehicle.

Using similar techniques for near-opposite purposes, the opening lines from ‘Wet Collected’:

‘Dancers stamp
Earth! Earth!

Coy Beau, not gym,
don’t bury him in muscle.

The way of flightless birds.
Emerging first,

a drip diving hairs in a beard.’

Who the dancers are, whether they are vocalising ‘earth’ or whether this is the message their dancing bodies convey, is less important than the atmosphere those lines suggest, their notes of physical action, communal movement, joy in the sensory. Whether ‘Beau’ moves like a flightless bird, is a flightless bird, or the moisture in his beard is redolent of flightless birds is less important than the sensation of thinking all these things (probably more) at once. It’s a unique poem in At Hajj, a dreamy interlude in a book in which sensual pleasures are rare.

Bodies, as noted already, are in focus throughout the collection. ‘Sleeves’ is a gorgeous, playful poem about gift-giving and emotional labour. The poem closes as the speaker and his friend share a secret, intimate moment: ‘I put my hands in the pockets with his and our fingers overlapping go in and press and circle and out like zigzags snug-tight hot and the heat is another layer around us too’. The precision, again, is part of the way the poem expresses love. Even ‘What Were Giraffes?’, with its weird, catastrophically suggestive opening line, ‘Remember horses? They were like horses’, keeps the animal’s body at the centre of its thinking: ‘a tough skin / patterned like baked earth’, ‘They had thick eyelashes, Mohawk mane hair’. ‘What Were Giraffes?’ is partly, I think, an attempt to reconcile an unusual body with the human observer’s impulse to impose on the body the category ‘comic / gold’. The poem defends giraffes’ innate worth in a world where they are gone for good, closing on a note both defiant and accusatory, ‘Those were giraffes.’ However ludic its terms, the poem asks the reader how one considers the living worthy or unworthy of respect and survival, what it is about giraffes’ outlandishness that makes their destruction acceptable.

To return to the book’s central sequence, ‘At Hajj’, it’s remarkable how ordinary it often feels. These passages, as noted above, are at times both highly specific – in terms of the physical movement of bodies, the interpersonal dynamics of the pilgrims, the behaviour of a dog – and notably unfixed – there are at most a handful of proper nouns, and although it is heavily suggested that a multitude of peoples and tongues are present, the text denotes them only as speaking ‘in his/her language’. There is no attempt, in other words, to provide ‘local colour’, the market-friendly mangoes demanded by Western publishers and editors, as critiqued in Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation. Perhaps, then, this is one meaning of the italics; a typographical note that readers such as myself have been provided only conditional access to these scenes by narrators who themselves may be working by interpretation. Body language, as in ‘The old man motions that he will wait and gives him stones and tells him to throw them for him’, seems to operate on an equal footing to the spoken.

The poems also seem reserved, if not somewhat sceptical, about one’s access to the spiritual plane. Among their accounts of pilgrims’ struggles to move safely through a crowd, journeying in the desert with only a dog for company, and campsite politics, there is only one short section that even mentions divine immanence, and that with heavy irony:

Some onlookers believed that such a spirit was in the mall now, guiding the insiders round, giving them the energy. Yes, and some had their servants carry them the whole Hajj. There was no ghost in the mall but corporate spectre.’

What’s more visible in these narratives than spiritual uplift are physical sacrifices made on the behalf of others. Two separate sections note that their protagonists have hurt their shoulders: a man holds back a crowd to let an elderly man safely use the public toilet; a woman guides an elderly woman get through a bottleneck in the crowd. The narrative voice remains neutral throughout, their suffering simply another fact in an accumulation of facts: ‘What she knows very keenly now is the pain in her shoulder.’, ‘He thinks on what he had done. He puts a hand to his shoulder which aches.

Although these italicised passages in Mecca are more obviously disconnected to the lyrics set in the West, they are strongly connected by their characterisation of society as a great, unfeeling and irresistible threat punctuated by moments of kindness, ‘Save announcements / of change, it has made a mockery of / all of us’ (‘Inheritable Landscape’). The pilgrims risk their bodies to help those who need it, a man hides the flaws in his friend’s gift, or, in one of the most remarkable poems in the book, ‘Grain’, the weary repetitions of the pantoum form converts the opening stanza:

‘We will look back on our time
as ruined lives and think doing
good work will bear some reward,
but it gives only false impression.’

into a final, hopeful, if to some degree ironised, assertion:

‘Good work will bear some reward.’

It only takes the faintest gesture toward the great evils at work in the world to remember how important, and radical, a thought this is, how substantial change begins with kindness for the vulnerable and contempt for the powerful, how one’s body may be a tool for fighting oppression. At Hajj is intelligent, kind and resolute in its politics, curious, precise and inventive in its aesthetics. It’s a book worth spending time over, worth keeping in mind.

Further Reading: “Coats” by Amaan Hyder in The Guardian

Review of At Hajj by Jeremy Noel-Tod in The Times

Review of At Hajj by Richie McCaffery in The Poetry School

PS: If you found this useful or informative and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.

Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman, eds., – Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back [interview]

Disclosure: Have not met Khairani Barokka or Daniel Sluman before, I remember Sandra Alland being one of the first performers I saw live in Edinburgh when I moved here in 2008, though I don’t think we met. The following conversation was conducted over email over the course of a month or two, and huge thanks to Okka, Dan and San for their time and energy, and for keeping track of the italics. My copy of Stairs and Whispers was paid for in part with support from my backers on Patreon, and is available in all good bookshops (it’s currently cheapest direct from Nine Arches, if you prefer online stores).

DC: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself as a poet/artist (whichever sounds right to you!)? What have you been working on before Stairs And Whispers?

Sandra Alland: I’m a writer and interdisciplinary artist. Writing, filming and editing for Stairs and Whispers has been a huge part of my life since late 2014. During that time, I began and finished work on a commission from Disability Arts Online and SICK! to co-curate a playlist of 10 films and co-create five new short documentaries about D/deaf and disabled artists (A Conversation With… and Unapologetic Self-Portraits). I also researched and wrote two short stories as commissioned collaborations for Manchester’s Comma Press (Protest! Stories of Resistance and Thought X: Fictions and Hypotheticals), and adapted one of them (‘Equivalence’, about the nature of the ‘I’ in story-telling, gender variance, disability and physics) for an accessible multimedia performance commissioned by Anatomy (Summerhall) and Transpose (Barbican). Before Stairs and Whispers I did similar things, though usually not so many at once or because I was asked to! I’ve been really blessed these past few years. Really blessed and really exhausted. But usually I spend my time writing, making low-budget films featuring queer and trans D/deaf and disabled artists, curating arts events, working at crap jobs, and sleeping badly.

Khairani Barokka: I’ve been an independent interdisciplinary artist, writer, and researcher since 2011, after studying new media at NYU Tisch’s ITP, a BA in Sociology/Anthropology (with minors in Russian and African Studies, yet still have not visited Russia or anywhere in Africa), and prior stints in aid work and journalism back in Indonesia. I’m currently doing a PhD at Goldsmiths in the Visual Cultures Department, working on a long-standing project cripping and queering stories of Southeast Asian girls, particularly in art historical archives and contemporary media. My work revolves around the limits of visuality, decolonising theory, and access translation as artistic praxis – which can go in so many incredible directions, particularly with respect to feminisms, and often with humour. Before moving to the UK in 2015, I travelled for work in residencies, trying to survive with inadequate healthcare (that level of nightmarishness is, with any luck, over, but those experiences continue to influence current work), and was an independent writer and arts consultant. I created and co-created projects, workshops, lectures, curriculum analyses, and shows for theatre melding poetry and performance art. Most recently, I designed, wrote and illustrated a long poem called Indigenous Species (Tilted Axis Press 2016), co-edited HEAT: A Southeast Asian Urban Anthology (Fixi 2016), and have been publishing essays, poems, and fiction, with my first poetry collection Rope out in October from Nine Arches. Before joining the Stairs and Whispers team, just before poem selections were about to be made, I’d been in touch with Sandra through a friend who saw us doing related work, and connected us, and had read with Dan on a Poetry and Mental Health panel at London Book Fair. So I already thought they were ace; little did I know how meaningful it would be to have them as colleagues for Stairs and Whispers.

Daniel Sluman: I’m a writer, editor, and occasional student, and I’ve been writing mainly poetry for the last ten years. I did a BA and MA in the University of Gloucestershire and I stumbled upon disability studies sometime then. In 2012 Nine Arches Press published my debut poetry collection Absence has a weight of its own, and then the terrible in 2015, and since then I’ve been impatiently getting through my own medical stuff and getting ready for a PHD in Disability Poetics at Birmingham City University later this year.

About four years ago, I was involved with an online poetry anthology called Fit To Work: Poets Against Atos. This was a reaction to the Tory cuts and the government’s general position on disability, and it was through co-editing this project and reading Beauty is a Verb (an American collection of poetry and prose from disabled writers) that got me thinking about what would later become Stairs and Whispers.

 

DC: How did Stairs And Whispers come together? What conversations did you have? What did you want to achieve?

Dan: Markie Burnhope and myself started talking to Nine Arches Press publisher Jane Commane about this anthology four years ago. The motivation for the book was partially down to a desire to respond to the Tory welfare cuts and the general way disability was being talked about in the media at the time (not that much has changed), including negative aspects to the narrative put forward around the time of the Paralympics. On a more general level, I guess this anthology has come together out of necessity; there just aren’t enough books out there that talk from or about disabled and D/deaf experience. As the project developed with Okka and San we talked more about intersectionality and the kinds of things we wanted the book to say in terms of moving away from the medical model of disability.

San: When the project got going in October 2014, Markie and Daniel invited me to join their ace selves as editor. We dreamt together about what kind of anthology we wanted to shape – one that showcased disabled and D/deaf poets without pity or supercrip narratives, engaged with intersectional activism and access, and addressed the current political climate in the UK.

Our call-out went into the world in January 2015, and we also invited people to submit. Parallel to the written call-out, I spoke with Jane about including British Sign Language poetry, as some Deaf poets don’t use written English (or don’t use it solely). With the help of Deaf poets Donna Williams and Alison Smith, I created several captioned BSL call-outs for submissions of BSL and other performance-based film-poems. By the final deadlines in the autumn we had amassed a large pile of brilliant poetry.

In early 2016, Nine Arches didn’t receive some hoped-for funding and Markie sadly had to step down because of health issues. Dan and I also decided to take a break to reassess what sort of timeline we could manage. In July, reinvigorated by rest and a grant from Arts Council England, we decided to search for a new third editor. We wooed Khairani Barokka to join the team. We were impressed by her submission to the anthology, the scope and range of her work on the page and stage, and her previous editorial work. And how lucky we were that she said yes!

Together Okka, Daniel and I re-imagined what Stairs and Whispers might be, and created a manageable (and exciting!) plan of action for three disabled and chronically-ill co-editors working with what we hoped would be about 50 poets. In terms of shaping the content and form of the book, we had an overall ‘feel’ that we wanted, but I think we were also guided by the poets themselves.

Okka: Oh, the conversations we had. I almost wish we’d recorded some of them–there were so many nuanced aspects of each poem submitted that we went over in detail, over Skypes and innumerable emails across our three locations. It should be known that Daniel, Sandra and I all have somewhat distinct tastes in terms of poetry, and discovering the similarities and (at times, pleasantly surprising) differences between which poems we gravitated towards and away from was a great journey. We changed our minds at times about certain pieces when placed in context with others, as we also were clear about not wanting to clump poems and poets together by perceived subject matter, definitely not according to any medical model of disability, i.e. “sight-impaired poets”, “autistic poets”. What we tried to and I think managed to achieve was the idea of the book itself being its own poem, and being structured as such: our section titles are “Bodies”, “Rules”, “Maps”, “Dreams”, and “Legends”. We also decided to include excerpts from some cover letters that we found illuminating to the poetry. On a personal level, being a non-Brit, and having some non-Brits in the anthology, it was very gratifying to be able to use my understandings towards widening the scope of inclusion and non-Western perspectives on D/deafness and disability with these two co-editors.

 

DC: ‘The book being its own poem’ sums it up really nicely. It presents critical essays, visual art, the ‘Short Definitions for Complex Ideas’ section, as a vital part of the poems’ domain; it seems to suggest that a reader moving from mainstream, able-bodied or neurotypical poetry will need to do a lot of new learning or unlearning. The shape Stairs and Whispers takes seems very purposeful in that sense, how it provides so many new (to me at least!) tools and perspectives. Was it always your intention to include so much critical work (which I loved, obviously!)?

Okka: Unlearning is a great word, though I personally co-edited the book with the mindset that this wasn’t primarily for abled readers to be introduced into our worlds, but for D/deaf and disabled poets to find each other and be allowed to speak in our own words, without catering to an imaginary “universal” abled reader. Also, it needs noting that this is also about D/deaf and disabled poets learning from and about each other–our lives and bodily experiences differ so greatly, and nobody has full knowledge of “all D/deaf and disabled perspectives”, because that is impossible. There are literally innumerable disability and D/deaf cultures and experiences in the world. We as co-editors learned plenty from these poems as well, and we thought it only apt that these modes of translating experiences were integral to the structure of the book. I see this book also as a compendium of translation, that fills in the huge gaps in how poetry (itself already always a translation of inner worlds) is usually presented sans necessary tools of understanding.

San: Aye, Okka nails it. We very specifically shaped the book for disabled and D/deaf readers, watchers and listeners. The call-out started with a quote that I also used in my essay, from Jim Ferris, about ‘writing with a crip audience in mind’ and letting go of ‘the myth of universality’. There is real value and power in writing *to* your people and not just about them. We did indeed always plan to have the critical work. From the get-go we planned introductory essays from the editors, and to invite at least three others to contribute. The short definitions Okka and I developed much later, as a tool for anyone, including others in the book. As Okka mentions, there is such diversity within our communities, and diversity of opinion and vocabulary, that we always have new things to learn from each other. There’s often an assumption that a disabled person inherently knows about or ‘gets’ access, but that person might only understand their own barriers and not have considered those of others. It’s super-important in disabled, D/deaf, neurodiverse and/or mad communities to consider cross-disability difference, and also intersecting systems of oppression. And to learn the complex reasons why someone might not want to use the same label as you, for example. Importantly, the critical essays in the book place disabled and D/deaf poetics into the realm of ‘studied’ poetry. We are often assumed to be less valid than other poets, or to be writing for therapy and thus without artistic merit. Essays like those of Abi Palmer and Nuala Watt blow those ideas out of the water. They beautifully demonstrate the literary value, unique formal inventiveness, and sheer poetic scope of disabled and D/deaf poetry. Okka and Raymond Antrobus also weave together threads from vital personal and structural viewpoints, as do the interspersed short quotes by contributors including Raisa Kabir, Cathy Bryant and Colin Hambrook.

Okka: Wonderful response, San. I’d also like to add that with regards to your question, I think it’s a fallacy to say someone is “moving away from mainstream/able-bodied poetry” – firstly, I know so, so many writers who would consider themselves disabled in some way who don’t disclose. Is their writing somehow “able-bodied poetry” because of this lack of disclosure? I’d argue no, and that just as queer readings may be interpreted from texts assumed to be heteronormative, there have always been disabled/crip/D/deaf writers and literature that are actually part of the “mainstream”/canons, but haven’t been disclosed as such.

Dan: I definitely share in Okka’s assertion about learning from the editing process. I discovered so much about other disabilities and D/deaf culture especially, and the experience as a whole is something that I think will be fundamental for me going forward within disability studies academically.

In terms of the shape of the book, considering we had such a diverse range of writers submitting work I think we would have missed out on a lot if we didn’t have the critical pieces, visual works, and the audio versions of poems as well. I think the latter is a must for any poetry journal or anthology as it is, but the critical pieces elaborate further on disability as an experience of otherness, and help destabilise assumptions around it as a health issue and not a social one amongst other things. I really feel like we managed to get a balance with this book in making something for us and about us, but also that able-bodied readers can learn so much from the anthology if they want to.

DC: Could you talk a little bit about how Stairs and Whispers has been received by disabled and D/deaf readers and artists? Have you noticed new work or conversations developing since its publication?

Okka: For sure we’ve all seen enthusiasm and support on social media from readers, with varying connections to D/deaf and disabled communities, which means the world. Having taken the book with me to Jakarta and spoken about it there, as well as noticing the interest from the US, I can say that our commitment as co-editors to making the book accessible and multimedia is seen as novel and exciting. Hopefully it will inspire other such efforts. In touring the anthology to London, Birmingham and Ledbury, we’ve been approached by people really enthused about the work who want this ethos of access and inclusion to spread to more poetry events, which is exactly what we were hoping for. And I think on a more intimate, person-to-person level, we’ve seen some increased pride in identifying as disabled as a political statement, sans shame. Which is also spot-on in terms of our objectives.

San: I’m going to embrace that word, Okka: ‘intimate’. This project has intimately changed my life. I couldn’t say I had a poetry community in the UK or Scotland before this, and I’ve been here ten years. I think ableism is so prevalent that many of us just drop out, or step/wheel back from things. And there’s such a focus on live events that some people just can’t be ‘in’ in the first place. Not to mention cis- and hetero-sexism, (trans)misogyny, racism, classism.

Working on Stairs and Whispers over the past three years I suddenly discovered I have this massive, and massively varied, community of ultra-gifted writers and performers. When we finally got into a room together for the launch at Birmingham Uni – the first time I met Daniel, and only the third time I met Okka – and 25 poets from the book showed up (only a few of whom I knew before then), I nearly started weeping. There we were, and we had mandated for an accessible stage and BSL interpreters and captioned films and projected text and audio description and gender-neutral accessible toilets and a room to rest in if we were exhausted or couldn’t deal with people or lights. And we got it all. And we will never settle for less again.

That went straight into my gut, you know? That and the beyond stellar readings and performances.

It’s still early days for Stairs and Whispers, but things have definitely been sparking. I feel like I’ve known these poets forever, and that things just flow so naturally between us and beyond us. Scottish Poetry Library is doing an Edinburgh event. Contributors Raymond Antrobus and Lisa Kelly are editing a Deaf issue of Magma Poetry. Goldsmiths and TCW are featuring a group of our London POC contributors at their upcoming diversity conference. And people are coming out of the woodwork to say, ‘Hey, I’m a crip too.’ There’s something, as Okka suggests, about a critical mass… when marginalised and often-erased cultures are valued, are lauded, something switches on. All the actions of disabled and D/deaf people resisting negative government policies and media depictions seem to be getting through a bit, and we’re finding each other – even when things are dire. Obviously that’s not all due to this book, ha! But this collection of poetry does seem to be resonating with our communities, fuelling the flames as it were – and helping to get others to notice just how hot our poetries are.

Okka: Thank you for making me laugh at “hot poetries”, which is definitely the title of Stairs and Whispers Part Two. Yes, straight in the gut is correct. I unabashedly wept at Stairs and Whispers‘ event at Ledbury Poetry Festival, specifically during Nuala Watts’ and Andra Simons’ performances, if I recall. San and Dan were very kind about my emotional nakedness, as they always are! It was just the culmination of years of trying for these kinds of experiences on the scale we’re now able to do them in, with a bolstering of support from two fellow crip co-editors and newfound poet colleagues. And the trying has been incredibly difficult at times, as I’m sure both of my fellow co-interviewees can attest. It’s a real feeling of poetry as multiple, going beyond inclusivity to something more honest, a sense of not only being “allowed” to be in a space, but to dictate the terms of that space, to create that space ourselves, to write for ourselves, to ask for what we need and demand no less; it’s an opening up and a bursting through.

Dan: I keep an eye on the Goodreads website a lot and I’ve been noticing more and more people from all over add the book to their virtual shelves, and that’s a wonderful feeling. If this book helps develop and increase awareness of writing from and about disability then that’s brilliant. I remember the effect Beauty is a Verb had on me when I first read it and how I suddenly felt aware that I was part of a wider community and with similar experiences and aims. Whether this happens for anyone reading Stairs and Whispers, I have no idea, but it’s that coming together, that moving people closer and feeling less alone that on a base level I really hope we can achieve. Like San has just said about the launches – I felt exactly the same, it was a really emotional definitive moment and if a few others feel it from Stairs and Whispers then that really is something I’m super proud of being a part of.

DC: Harry Giles, Abi Palmer and Andra Simons had an amazing conversation on accessibility and marginalisation on the Lunar Poetry Podcast last December. They discussed accessibility in the physical sense of venue hire/performance spaces alongside access to social/networking spaces, where a lot of the pivotal conversations about projects and funding happen. Can you think of instances in which accessibility has been done well? Or, what would you advise arts organisations to do to make their programmes truly accessible?

Okka: Speaking of Lunar Poetry Podcasts, I just recorded a conversation for them with Sandra, Giles L. Turnbull, and Raymond Antrobus (all in Stairs and Whispers) about access to publishing–I recommend readers have a listen, as it covers a lot of ground in terms of the questions you’re asking. In terms of accessibility being done well, there is never going to be an event that is 100% accessible to all human bodies, as there exists such variation of needs among our species – but while I can continue to cheekily toot our own horn? I think our three events for the anthology so far have been relatively marvellous for access, in no small part due to Sandra’s meticulous organisation of access needs for us as guidelines, needs that Daniel and I have long needed and tried to implement in our own ways. We had people remarking on how natural it felt for us to describe how we and our fellow poets looked for sight-impaired audience members, to have BSL interpretation, to have audio description. A room with a cot for me to lie down and rest on at Ledbury between events was definitely a personal highlight. In summation, it looks likely I will never fall out of love with Stairs and Whispers and what it’s brought to us in terms of both community and pushing the craft of poetry further. Thanks again for your interest in this project, Dave, much appreciated.

San: Yes indeed, thanks Dave, for your dedicated engagement with the book and its ideas! That podcast interviewing Andra and Abi (both also in SAW, we are everywhere mwa ha ha) was indeed brilliant. But disabled and D/deaf people have been saying this stuff forever. When non-disabled and hearing people ignored our predecessors, they went off and provided excellent access in their own artistic practice and communities. I’ve attended countless amazing events with multiple and complex kinds of access; pretty much all of them have been organised by disabled and/or D/deaf people. Birds of Paradise Theatre in Glasgow, Alison Smith’s Disability Meets Digital in Manchester, DaDa Fest in Liverpool, anything Julie McNamara or Jess Thom does. Sins Invalid over in the States.

Sadly, I haven’t yet been to a single poetry community event with good access that I didn’t co-organise, or that didn’t offer basic access because I demanded it as part of my participation. My least favourite thing is when they offer access for me and then never again. There is some improvement, though, and in Scotland some film and cabaret programmers have taken on trying to always offer at least wheelchair access (including stages and toilets!), captioned films and BSL for their events.

That bed Okka mentions in Ledbury was indeed a highlight. But we only got to the place where a lovely human organised a quiet space with a cot for us after a lot of difficult conversations. After having to justify neurodiverse, mobility and chronic pain access to non-disabled people, in painful and monetary terms. It was still our labour that got us there, though it’s such a relief when a good organiser gets it.

I can’t summarise my advice here without both exhausting myself and boring everyone to death! But here’s some pointers. Do an access assessment of your event or magazine, and hire disabled and D/deaf consultants. Ask your audience and community what they need. Remember to think about intersectional things, like financial access, and safety concerns for POC and/or trans people. Don’t exoticise BSL, and don’t think you’re done once you’ve provided it. And do some research; most of this stuff is not that mysterious. The amount of educating and free emotional (and physical) labour we put in can be overwhelming, so maybe pause before asking us for favours.

Okka: Resounding amen. Eternal echo.

 

Stairs and Whispers is available now, £14.99 from Nine Arches Press.

Further Reading: Lunar Poetry Podcast with Khairani Barokka, Sandra Alland, Raymond Antrobus and Giles L Turnbull.

Lunar Poetry Podcast with Harry Giles, Abi Palmer and Andra Simons.

Stairs and Whispers and Nuala Watt at Proletarian Poetry.

Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular

Disclosure: Met Alsadir briefly at a reading in Edinburgh in 2016. As ever, the book discusses many experiences outwith my own, not least motherhood and the pressures and anxieties women experience regarding public speech. Many thanks to Muireann Crowley for editorial and structural advice. Review copy purchased with help from my supporters on Patreon.

‘Transparence interests me, wrote Louise Bourgeois in a notebook. I want to be transparent. If people could see through me, they could not help loving me, forgive me.’

‘This book is for you (whoever you are)’
(Nuar Alsadir, Fourth Person Singular)

Review: A few pages in to a section of ‘Night Fragments’, a series of short stanzas written by the poet at 3.15am during a bout of writer’s block, the printed text is accompanied by a photograph of a page from a notebook, ‘All messy may / All messy maybe. / So messy it can’t stay on the page’. The handwriting in the photo is itself messy, paying no attention to the ruled lines and margins; without the reproduced text above it, it might be unintelligible. ‘Night Fragments’ is introduced by a lyric essay about the ‘true’, unedited self, Nietzsche’s aphorisms (‘little stabs at happiness’), writing that accesses the ‘sublime core’ by puncturing the conscious mind with something unexpected or disruptive, and enlisting the unconscious, dreaming mind into the creative process. Fourth Person Singular habitually takes an ostensibly simple, accessible thought (in this case, “I want to write in a way that is authentic”) and worries at its edges, unravels a series of possible avenues of enquiry until the very idea that someone might sit down at a blank page and merely begin feels breathtakingly hubristic.

The photograph in ‘Night Fragments’ seems something like a gesture of good faith. The rest of the book might be meticulously choreographed, it suggests, but these lines are just what the reader has been offered, notes written in the middle of the night, profound, nonsensical or both depending on your disposition; one fragment reads, in full: ‘I’m sure I’m breaking the rules – / let me hear them from the ones who care.’ Fourth Person Singular has no contents page, no poem titles in the traditional sense, and the several ‘sections’ are implied rather than signposted. The book may just as easily be read as a single, long poem in numerous formal guises, each of which is in conversation with the others. It’s a challenging book to read, to cross-reference the many recurring motifs (dogs, shame, crows, war) that insist on second, third sweeps. There’s also a lot of freedom for the reader to connect these ideas, though Fourth Person Singular warns against ‘a kind of intellectual Pointillism’, projecting one’s own meaning onto an unsupporting text.

The attempts in Night Fragments to access a socially unfettered self are part of a book-spanning concern with shame. From birth, Alsadir argues, via DW Winnicott’s research on child psychology, shame is a powerful inhibitor, an editor of disruptive or uncomfortable speech through one’s own mind’s projection of the future disapproval of others. Among the book’s opening aphorisms, the speaker (which the book seems to suggest is not-exactly-Alsadir, or one Alsadir among many) says ‘I have given a name to my shame and call it ‘dog’.’ It’s partly pitched for comedy, I think, but it finds a counterpoint thirty pages later in ‘Sketch 37’, which features the speaker’s dog’s joyful investigation of his own piss-marks. Here, a margin-note reads ‘kuntaton: most doglike, most shameless –’. The earlier line reads as self-deprecating, almost despairing, that undertone of ‘black dog’, but the act of naming it after its antithesis contextualises it, defangs it. By spacing this movement half a book apart, it incorporates the book’s thought processes as a key element of this (still understated, literally marginal) shift.

Or, maybe a dog returning with unselfconscious delight to the places he has soiled is a crude metaphor for the lyric impulse, which Alsadir describes as:

‘a kind of compulsion to invent explanations as a way of searching for and attempting to master what you fear finding that has already been experienced, an unthought known or a known that has been thought by a version of self that is yet to come’

The desire to – in Bourgeois’ words – be transparent, loved and forgiven comes into direct conflict with the socially conditioned instinct to amend oneself for the sake of palatability to others; ‘why is it’, Alsadir asks, ‘that writing a lyric poem that has an I that matches up with the person I consider myself to be in my everyday life induces shame?’ What the book does not say explicitly, but heavily suggests, is that not everyone is taught this self-editing impulse equally. A passage near the start of the book is one of several references to male figures failing to contain or control themselves:

‘The man across from me – lips narrowed, brows tilting downward towards his nose & falling into each other – stomps a foot. The stomp discharges his anger – a grain bounces off the door of the subway car and hits my eye – ’

Hardly coincidental, then, that this conflict between shame, social nicety and the lyric impulse has often been interrogated by women poets (Fourth Person Singular quotes H.D. and Marianne Moore on the matter), at a rate which seems to have intensified over the past few years: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (2009), Anne Carson’s Red Doc> (2013) (which Alsadir reviewed insightfully in the Spring 2014 issue of Poetry Review), Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation (2016), Denise Riley’s Say Something Back (2016), Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby (2017), all spend a significant amount of time on the basic permissibility of writing one’s true self, safely and with due respect. When Alsadir notes how Norman Mailer valorised the lines ‘Don’t waste your energy and your time … throwing stones at the dogs that bark at you on the way. Ignore them’, it’s significant that these dogs are ‘on the way’, on a journey, outwith a domestic, private interior. Unlike Alsadir, he does not appear to have an internalised shame-dog to ignore simultaneously.

The artful lyric essays in Fourth Person Singular are not just critical apparatus, then, but a full acknowledgement of the difficulty of writing lyric poems while retaining a connection to the multifaceted, untidy truth of one’s experiences. The book is in this sense experimental, as much a critique of the state of the lyric as it is the truest, simplest distillation of lyric principles for an individual the genre does not exactly accommodate. The essays are a fascinating exploration into an aesthetic tension of the poet’s relationship with lyric poetry; as Alsadir states, shortly after a brief deconstruction of a graffiti artist’s concise, provocative, ‘FUCK LYRIC’:

‘even though I’d developed an aversion to confessional poetry, the poems I found moving, which served as my measure of a poem’s value, were invariably lyric, written in the first person and addressed – as is all speech – to a second person […] a you without whom the poet wouldn’t, or, perhaps couldn’t, have been written.’

How to work in a genre that structurally does not love you back? The investigation that follows is one of the most thorough conceptualisations of the lyric transaction between (imagined) poet and (imagined) reader I’ve encountered, as it attempts to locate the exchange phenomenologically while retaining a sense of the beauty that exchange embodies. It’s extraordinary, and the way the essay ties together its ideas, returns to its original thought in a new, startling, intimate light, is worth the price of admission alone.

‘What works intellectually doesn’t always work in the gut and vice versa – the basis of discord and interesting music.’

Though the book is, unashamedly, an intellectual challenge, it’s no less human and messy and peculiar. There are some pretty delightful puns thrown in at the margins: ‘electric ecstasy / elecstasy’; a defaced notice in an elevator: ‘NO P[O]ETS’; ‘a crow, a caw, / a flapparition’. These things delight me beyond words, and are no less a valid artistic strategy than the more recognisably ‘serious’ passages. The latter of these puns is found in a section about the poet’s daughters; they are not mentioned in the book until this point (page 52 of 66), and seem to call back to an earlier discussion of objects and motherhood. Alsadir (via Heidegger) describes tools as existing in two states: ‘ready-at-hand’ for their proper use, or ‘present-at-hand’ once they are broken, their sudden uselessness making them finally visible to the user. Not only this, but ‘An object needs to be defamiliarized in order to be grasped, understood as separate from its use’:

‘What was formerly a mere object becomes an object-to-subject relationship, lyric.’

On a first read, the book’s opening section feels like a curiosity shop of philosophical non-sequiturs and free association. As more of these free-floating ideas are mobilised into the book’s deeper lines of inquiry, the unity of Fourth Person Singular starts to emerge, as its focus on the question of what lyric is, what (and who) it is for becomes clearer.

The example of malfunctioning tools and human-objects is one of the book’s several approaches to defining lyric, the passage concluding that: ‘Like a mother, an object in use is phenomenologically transparent’. (I’ve just noticed the ‘parent’ hiding in ‘transparent’.) When the book dwells on the poet’s domestic space, the idea of ‘mother’ existing as a tool or role to be used (the poet coins the term ‘Autoplot: the unconscious’s scheme to take over your story of self’) is not so much outright debunked as it sits quietly in the background, an uncomfortable awareness the reader must bear while encountering these scenes. The feeling is not assuaged by the opening line, ‘I send them into another room so I can think. They fill me with their gift given – stolen – want it back – never! – too precious refuse’. Keeping the earlier formulation of motherhood in mind, these lines seem perfectly congruous; the children are unaware of their ready-at-hand mother, the mother is resentful of this aspect of her tool-ness. But the speaker also seems to implicate herself in the unconscious transaction being played out: ‘my pain is in my guise, the many roles I play on autopilot.’ The larger social or cultural structures that shape these autopilot settings are not quite within the poem’s remit, but can be fairly easily extrapolated. But the fact the book spends so long in this space, long enough to complicate the simple object-subject (read: lyric) relationship between parent and children, is itself a potent counter to objectification. Just by existing, by positioning domestic life and domestic space as worthy of critical-philosophical interrogation, the section aims towards a rendering of family life that is both philosophically alert and ‘work[s] in the gut’; within a conceptual exploration of the lyric, there is space for haircare, sandwich politics, the early onset of childhood nihilism. It manages to be genuinely, quietly heartwrenching without a jarring tonal shift from earlier, more philosophically intensive sections.

My experience of reading Fourth Person Singular, as one of the multitudes contained in the ‘whoever you are’ which constitutes one pole of the book’s lyric diagram, is sometimes of trying to keep up with a lot of ideas travelling in different directions, and at high speed. Others, it’s like playing Gone Home, a video game in which the player moves between the artefacts of a person’s experiences and tries to piece together some emotional, if not always narratively linear, sense (of course, the poet has anticipated such a feeling, talking about Hemingway’s strategy: ‘take out the event and leave only its reverberations’; or her warning about ‘our inability to bear what is before us – the absences, the unknown’). While the nature of aphorism means some don’t quite hit the spot – tying an 80s ad campaign for Coca Cola to Lacan’s ‘the Real’ feels a more like a party trick than a meaningful question – the book is bursting with ideas, itching to take assumptions about lyric poetry, about constructions of the self/other, and acknowledge their fundamental complexity. In the book’s central essay, the speaker questions how to make ‘the I of a poem maintain the same multiplicity as you’, and a generous reader might point to Fourth Person Singular as a damn good answer. The lack of left-aligned rectangles of text should not deter readers of lyric poetry, hopefully for whom this won’t be a first encounter with alternative lyrical forms. They’d be missing out on one of the strangest, most provocative books of poetry to arrive in these islands in many years.

Further Reading: Interview with Alsadir: Liverpool University Press

PS: If you found this useful or informative and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.

The State of Poetry Criticism – July 2017 Update

Disclosure: Many thanks to Órla Ní Mhuirí for her advice regarding the ethical questions involved in publishing the data collected here. Thanks to the Association of Internet Researchers for their extremely useful resources, to Muireann Crowley for edits, and to Charles Whalley for advice about data and spreadsheets.

Report: This is a relatively brief update to the data I presented two months ago. As before, this is a purely statistical study, solely of poetry criticism. The data’s limitations, outlined in the previous article, still apply.

In the interests of transparency, I am making the raw data from which these numbers are drawn public. You can view the dataset here, please feel free to share the link.

Some preliminary notes: The names of reviewers have been anonymised. The goal of this project is to illuminate editorial practices, and providing a list of critics’ names felt like a distraction. The problems this project explores are connected to structural matters like editorial practices and the commissioning of critics, not with the individual critics themselves. Although their names are, ultimately, already public, the ethical questions asked by the Association of Internet Researchers advised caution.

The names of poets and their books have been provided, however. As poets are, in theory, a step removed from the editorial process, I felt that they are sufficiently safely removed from the structures under critique in this study. At worst, I think, the data exposes an ongoing fascination with the minor works of Paul Muldoon.

I may have made mistakes, either by accident or ignorance. This is a more or less solo project, and typos, accidental data entries and plain screw-ups are far from impossible. Regarding the gender and race of the poets included here, my resources are contributors’ biographies and search engines. If you notice inaccuracies in the data, please let me know in the comments.

If you would like to use the data collected here, please feel free, just cite the source. If you’re feeling very generous you could link to my Patreon. That would be cool of you.

Updates: The data set now covers eight platforms, adding Modern Poetry in Translation, and expands all records to January 2013. This has more than doubled the size of the data set, and hopefully provides a more robust picture of contemporary mainstream poetry criticism. If you can think of any notable omissions, please let me know in the comments. Criteria for potential additions: the publication must i) regularly publish a significant number of reviews of poetry, ii) either be a poetry-only publication, or have a clearly defined poetry section, iii) have existed since 2013, either online or in print or both. I have so far not included the LRB and TLS, as they are covered by the VIDA Count, but given those numbers are themselves two years old, they are prime candidates.

The project now covers January 2013 – July 2017, covering 110 issues of seven magazines, and four years’ worth of reviews from The Guardian. All told, 1025 articles have been recorded, reviewing a total of 1943 books. It has revealed the following:

  • Only 4.3% of all articles are written by people of colour, a total of 44. Breaking these down by year: 7 articles by critics of colour were published in 2013; 8 in 2014; 5 in 2015; 9 in 2016; 15 so far in 2017. Of those 15 so far this year, 12 have been published in Poetry London 87Poetry Review 107:1 and Poetry Review 107:2. Three issues of two magazines account for a third of all reviews by critics of colour published since January 2013.
  • The proportion of books by poets of colour reviewed drops from 9.6% (47 books) to 8.1% (156 books) in the extended data set. Again, breaking this number down by year: 24 books by poets of colour were reviewed in 2013; 28 in 2014; 31 in 2015; 38 in 2016; 35 so far in 2017.
  • The proportion of female critics also drops significantly in the extended data set, from 44.8% to 41.5%. Poetry Ireland Review (31.3% female critics) and PN Review (25.7%) show the greatest disparity.
  • Likewise, the proportion of books by female poets reviewed falls from 45.9% to 38.6%. In this case, The Guardian (29.9% of books reviewed are by women), PN Review (28.7%) and Modern Poetry in Translation (20.8%) show the greatest disparity.
  • While female critics review men (427 books) and women (475 books) almost evenly, male critics overwhelmingly review other men (660 books to 270 by women).
  • Men review significantly fewer books per article (1.69) than women (2.16), consistent across almost all platforms.
  • Bloodaxe books have been reviewed 217 times, Faber books 178 times, Carcanet 175, Cape 84, Seren 82, Shearsman 80 and Picador 73. 51 of The Guardian‘s 194 reviews (26.2%) were of Faber books.

Adding only two further years’ worth of data makes a marked difference to the data. On one hand, this indicates rapid change between 2015-17, mostly in positive, inclusive directions; on the other, it should remind us of just how homogeneous this community has been, and how recently.

The tables below show these statistics in full. Note that the second table, in which percentages do not add up to 100, does not include data for anthologies or books with multiple authors.

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Inua Ellams – #Afterhours

Disclosure: I think I met Inua at a reading in Edinburgh three/four years ago. Have chatted a few times on Twitter. I’m mentioned in this book! One of the diary entries mentions Sean O’Brien’s review of Happiness and my response to it. The book explores, among a great many other things, the experience of a family moving from Nigeria to Ireland, then England, and the effects of structural racism they suffered. I don’t have personal experience of any of this. Thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for removing glaring generalisations and structural editing.

“The work of being an artist is intimately linked with the work of personal development” – Lebo Mashile, South African poet.

Review: #Afterhours is a project Inua Ellams designed and enacted over the course of a year as writer in residence at the National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre. It involved selecting poems by British and Irish poets published from each of the first eighteen years of Ellams’ life, and resetting them (Ellams’ terminology) to accommodate his own experiences. The poems – both the originals and Ellams’ resettings – and explanatory diary entries are included in the book of the same name, published by Nine Arches. It comes with an introduction in which Ellams explains:

‘I hoped the project would show the ways poetry transcends time, borders, history, culture, race and empire, to illustrate cultural differences and similarities.’

It’s a utopian prospect, and, for all my reservations about poetry transcending anything (too often the word is used as a free pass for privileged poets to dismiss the effects of that privilege), an encouraging one; Ellams’ sincerity and his determination to prove his belief in the essential goodness of people is rather contagious. By organising this project as a conversation – ostensibly between himself and other artists, but between himself and the reader as a matter of course – each piece comes with space for decompression, for turning over the implications of what’s been and what’s to come, particularly around poems that touch on matters of death or emotional harm. #Afterhours takes both the wellbeing and the understanding of the reader as a matter of central importance, let literary kudos fall where it may, a radical gesture in a scene that still equates self-protective emotional insensitivity, irony or literary ‘seriousness’ with a mastery of craft. Note that care is not spoon-feeding; at key junctures Ellams leaves certain things unwritten, or, in the case of the four intricate and starkly beautiful sketches that appear in lieu of prose introductions, everything. The goal seems less to infringe upon the potential for creative responses to creative work, but to provide a middle ground between poet and reader, specifically a reader unfamiliar with the cultural realities Ellams inhabits.

The first poem is ‘No Return #After Iain Crichton Smith’. Crichton Smith’s original is about his childhood home on Lewis; it’s a wry, downbeat, often cynical poem about a place ‘indifferent to the rumours and the stories’ that no longer fit the island of the poet’s memory. Lewis is ‘stony, persistent’ after its stories, dances and music ‘have gone away to another country’. Most importantly for Ellams’ poem, perhaps, it mourns the loss of storytellers, a long tradition of creative historians, a literary genre in which #Afterhours absolutely takes its place. It’s no surprise then, that Ellams’ ‘No Return’ reserves so much space and some of its best lines for ‘The griots, the wise ones’: ‘These stories decorate your bloodline like antiques’. Ellams’ poem is a celebration of what endures as much as Crichton Smith’s is an elegy for what does not; both poets recognise, however, their personal estrangement from their originary cultures. The piece is a fine introduction to the project at large, a poem that holds at once the persistence of the poet’s roots and the pain of the poet’s uprooting, the creative possibilities, or responsibilities, of both.

The diary entry to ‘An English Dream #After Douglas Dunn’, discusses ‘sonder’, the vertigo one feels when considering the billions of subjectivities that exist alongside our own. The poem concerns a phone conversation the poet had with a friend, relating all that had passed since his departure from high school in Ireland. Dunn’s original, with its narrator running through a strange forest in a full tweed suit, seems to give Ellams permission to loosen his own narrative reins, to invite some imaginative chaos. The friend, Jack, gives the poet an overload of data, causing a kind of hyperstimulated dissociation:

‘Then I was fighting for my crumbling world and watching
in multiplying fractures the bubble of it burst, the cracks
leading one way, holes down the other and myself peering
from inside its falling walls’

The most impressive poems in #Afterhours, I think, come when this kind of imaginative messiness is given space to combine with Ellams’ flair with more linear narratives. ‘Fury’ and ‘Photograph: Ram Sacrificing’, for example, both establish a defined and comprehensible space for the reader to inhabit, while allowing the poems’ emotional states to become briefly ungoverned, or ungovernable, ‘Here are four men, their knives, a rope, / a gutter with sludge slow-moving through its gut’. These states would not work half as well, of course, without the carefully measured, relaxed rhythms far more common throughout the book; the times when this pattern is broken, as when a literally unreadable sketch replaces a prose introduction, are some of the most surprising and powerful moments in the collection.

Perhaps this is a philosophical tension in Ellams’ work as much as an aesthetic one. In a late diary entry he talks about his faith, how his conception of religion as ‘a belief in a vague order to things, and that I will find that order if I look for it; a path will always emerge’. This is explicitly connected to his creative work: ‘I think poetry is impossible without faith. […] faith that meaning will be made, that a vague reason and order will rise from the impulse to write’. There’s a kind of punning going on between the two processes, between spirituality and aesthetics; his formulation of reading a poem, ‘allow[ing] the poem to enter us’, is very similar to the spiritual phenomenon of kenosis, the emptying of self in order to admit divine presence. Given all this, it’s possible that the poems I personally find most engaging are those which manifest a kind of formal disarray, a poetic crisis that pressurises or counterbalances the faith Ellams clearly finds such an empowering, nourishing force. ‘Fury’ imagines the violent dismemberment of cruel and vicious people, is the poem in which a belief in the orderly path is most obviously denied, with its uncharacteristically short, aggressive lines, its lack of explanation. It is a moment in which the subconscious takes over, ‘all the glass- / and-grass-weaved // weaponry I failed / to let taste blood’. Maybe it’s the permission granted to a diversity of responses to injustice (peace, dialogue, violent dismemberment) that makes it chime so harmoniously. Maybe it’s an uncharitable response to a book so full of grace and patience to draw attention to its one moment of (purely imaginative) retribution.

The book’s warmth is most powerfully embodied in ‘Steven’s Lungs #After Pascale Petit’. The poem, written for a friend who committed suicide, has the air of a plotless lucid dream – another departure from the #Afterwords norm – but which makes perfect sense when the source of meaning in the poem is located not in narrative progression but the mood suggested by the movements of Petit’s original, ‘My Father’s Lungs’. Here, Petit notes almost without affect that ‘I’m no longer interested / in whether he loves me or not’, leaving the reader to consider what the poem is otherwise asking of itself. In presenting her father’s body as a neutral, almost inanimate object in which the poet’s subjectivity is undeniably present, however, the poem seems to frame it as an aesthetic alternative space, one marked by ‘an octave of pure silver’, ‘a swirl of starlight’ the poet ‘can fly through, into his chest’. The poem’s closing lines, which speak of ‘my next task: / I am gathering lungmoss for my pillow, / making a bed in his body’ suggest the beginning of something recuperative, domestic, peaceful. Ellams’ version is initially more interested in the real character of the poem’s title, who ‘held my gaze / in fits of soaring laughter’. In a book so focused on sharing stories, this poem draws determinedly back from the explicit, the vocabulary of radio taking the place of direct speech: ‘transmitters / growing in his ribcage’, ‘I’m piercing his white noise’. It’s a piece that recognises a final unknowability, Petit’s line ‘I’m no longer interested…’ ghosting the whole scene, and tries to find peace in that in-between state, both for the speaker and his lost friend. Few male poets achieve this kind of delicacy (perhaps Michael Longley, another poet of anti-masculinist love and metamorphosis), the capacity to present oneself as small and vulnerable and intimate, the quiet work of healing. ‘Steven’s Lungs’ is a poem worth celebrating.

The process of converting an original poem into a new, autonomous artefact is fascinating. As much as Ellams adapts the blueprints of poetic predecessors – it’s significant, I think, that this first poem’s elders are both familial and creative – his work is just as explicitly to find the most suitably Ellamsian poets in the existing canon. The old poems are transformed in the light of the new ones, and an aspect of #Afterhours’ work is arguing that Ellams deserves, indeed demonstrates that he already has, as much a stake in the existing canon as any white British or Irish poet. It seems significant that of all his poet exemplars, only one is of Black, Asian or minority ethnicity, Moniza Alvi, however much this is simply a reflection of the demographics of poets published in these islands from 1984 to 2002. On a recent Lunar Poetry Podcast, Rachel Long, Sunayana Bhargava and Tania Nwachukwu discuss how canonically central poets go unmarked, are simply ‘poets’, as distinct from, for example, ‘women poets’ and/or ‘black poets’. Nwachukwu argues:

‘It’s very important to have our own canon, but I also feel like it shouldn’t just be a canon for us. I feel our writers, black writers, deserve to be read by everyone else and if that means fighting for it to be part of the mainstream canon, then it definitely should be.’

Ellams seems to be enacting the same idea from a reverse angle. #Afterhours argues – almost entirely subtextually, simply by going about its business – that the British and Irish canon is not the sole property and inheritance of white poets, that the poetic mainstream can be made welcoming to every poet, should one have the will to do so. #Afterhours is built around the argument that Andrew Motion’s, Jo Shapcott’s or Robert Crawford’s poetry, for example, is no more or less defined by their physically, culturally and historically located identities than Ellams’ own; the difference is in the greater value assigned to centralised identities over marginalised ones. Perhaps this is distracting, however, from the book’s desire to be first and foremost a book of poems; as Ellams notes, ‘this isn’t the place for political historical discourse […] This is about poetry.’

I’m currently writing a thesis on Louis MacNeice and Northern Irish poetry, so I’ve been thinking about what poetic influence means in practice. To cut a long story short, it’s messy and weird. Considering influence in pragmatic, case-by-case terms suggested that the currency of literature is most often instinctive and impulsive, sensitive to the incidental, local context of the poem as much as the historical context in which the book finds itself. The most convincing theories of influence acknowledge empowerment on horizontal as well as vertical axes, peers as well as mentors, the fact that art is almost never made in heroic, father-killing solitude (as in the out of date Anxiety of Influence model), or even acting as trustee of our personal literary brand. Cross-generational conversation does not necessarily have to be a top-down, one-way experience either: as Ellams notes in his first introduction, his students’ interpretations of poems often cast new light on his own. The name on the front cover is only the first among many, and it’s heartening to see viable, communitarian models of authorship gaining mainstream publication. A book is no less valuable for being the work of many hands. In his own words: ‘I wanted […] to show, in utter transparency, that I was not the sole creator of the work I produced’; Ellams says this specifically about the poets whose work he resets, but it is just as true for the cast of daily, physically present members of a creative community who populate the spaces between his poems.

In recent years, Claudia Rankine, Vahni Capildeo and, this year, Nuar Alsadir, have opened up new possibilities regarding prose writing and the visual presentation of poetry. These books demonstrate how writing that looks like prose – is poetry such a small thing to be erased by typography? – may have the character and quality of poetry (precise composition, ambiguous or plural meaning, verbal music etc), and contextualise or amplify work more visibly authenticatable as poetry. #Afterhours is a fascinating project, not least in a time in which first collections feel increasingly, unhealthily pivotal to new poets’ careers. The gesture #Afterhours makes, putting communication with the reader first, downplaying the poet’s own authority and authorship, is hugely generous, open-minded, open-hearted, and I simply didn’t know how much I wanted a book like this until I read it.

Further Reading: Lunar Poetry Podcast 100: Octavia Collective, featuring Rachel Long, Sunayana Bhargava and Tania Nwachukwu. Full transcript.

Review by Billie McTernan in Brittle Paper.

Interview with Ellams on Barber Shop Chronicles, by What’s On Stage.

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

The State of Poetry Criticism

Disclosure: These numbers have been presented in earlier forms at a panel at The Business, organised by Sam Riviere at the University of Edinburgh, and at Special Relationships: Poetry Across the Atlantic Since 2000, a symposium at the University of Oxford. All my thanks to Muireann Crowley for being a sounding board and strengthening this article’s argumentative structure; to the Scottish Poetry Library for keeping a well-stocked and accessible magazine archive; to all folks at the symposium for their questions and inquiries about the project.

The figures cover a period of 24 months from April/Spring 2015 to May 2017 – while they do not account for every poetry review published in these islands, it certainly accounts for some of the most prestigious publishers of criticism, over a substantial period of time. Please note that these numbers do not refer to interviews, features, reports or other prose works, only what each magazine refers to in its contents as reviews.

Edit: Regarding the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, I somehow overlooked Tishani Doshi and Daljit Nagra’s wins in 2006 & 2007 respectively. Sincere apologies to Tishani, Daljit and the Forwards for this error.

Click the images below for a larger version of the data collected for this article.

Data:

Essay: In the past few years, it seems like poetry culture in these islands has been making small positive steps towards greater inclusivity – women of colour won both Forward Prizes in 2015 and 2016, and the 2014 anthology of new black, Asian and minority ethnic poets, Ten: The New Wave, edited by Karen McCarthy Woolf, has proven a successful springboard for its poets, eight out of ten of whom have since published pamphlets or full collections. Literary journals and magazines have been less encouraging, if not downright antagonistic: Vahni Capildeo’s Forward Prize win was met with evidence-free claims of nepotism from Private Eye; TS Eliot Prize winner Sarah Howe was described by her Sunday Times interviewer as having ‘sixth-formy emphasis on her own intelligence’ before admitting he just didn’t understand the work; Oxford professor emeritus Craig Raine accused Claudia Rankine of ‘moral narcissism’ in her Forward Prize-winning book Citizen. Prize culture, at least in the past few years, seems somewhat more advanced in its discourse around work by poets of colour than the critical culture surrounding it.

From this starting point I wanted to investigate a possible disconnect between prize culture and literary review culture. While not all critical responses have been as hostile as those above, the most common response to work by poets of colour has been total silence.

I decided to conduct a basic survey of poetry criticism and prize culture. I identified seven magazines which most regularly print a substantial amount of poetry criticism, and started counting. The questions this research asks are simple: whose poetry is reviewed? and who is commissioned to review it? Those publications are: The Guardian, The Poetry Review, Poetry London, PN Review, Poetry Wales, Poetry Ireland Review and Magma. In each case I studied issues dating from April/Spring 2015 to the present day (May 29 2017).

There are obvious limitations on the data I have collected. These figures cover gender and racial/ethnic distribution. They do not cover other intersections of cultural exclusion like class, disability, access to education, or sexuality, and on race and gender they are unsophisticated. For instance, unless a poet or critic identified as non-binary gender in their bio, I could not collect that data.

The racial categories I have used are also unsatisfactorily binary: ‘white’ and ‘people of colour’. The decision to assign a particular category to an individual was based on available biographical information and the individual’s self-description. This reductive binary is also a matter of expedience: so few poets and critics of colour are published that by grouping them together the overwhelming whiteness of British and Irish poetry criticism becomes impossible to ignore.

Finally, one additional side note on terminology: ‘articles’ refers to a full piece by a critic, which may criticise more than one book. “Critic Z reviews Poet A, Poet B and Poet C”, for example, is one article by one critic covering three books by three poets. You may also notice that in the final columns some of the percentages don’t add up to a hundred – this was when anthologies were being reviewed.

Let’s start by looking at race. The 2011 census reported that people self-identifying as black, Asian or minority ethnicity comprised 12.9% of the total UK population, 5.7% in Ireland. While I do not believe that simply meeting this arbitrary quota will necessarily produce radical change within poetry culture, it is, at the very least, a useful, basic benchmark for what representative inclusion might look like on a purely statistical level.

Of all seven magazines, only Poetry London and The Poetry Review meet this most basic figure. In this data set, only twenty articles were written by just twelve critics of colour. For comparison, 18 articles were written by white critics named David, and 39 articles were written by white women named Katherine. It’s worth noting, however, that women aren’t being adequately represented either.

The Guardian: until the past few weeks, in which Kate Kellaway reviewed Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds and Ben Wilkinson reviewed Daljit Nagra’s British Museum, The Guardian had not published a review of a poet of colour in four hundred and forty six days, when Sandeep Parmar reviewed Vahni Capildeo’s Forward Prize-winning Measures of Expatriation on February 19 2016. Incidentally, Parmar’s article was also the last time The Guardian published a review by a critic of colour, a run which is currently ongoing at four hundred and sixty-five days. It is also the first time The Guardian has reviewed a poet of colour who has not won a national prize since Kellaway covered Karen McCarthy Woolf’s An Aviary of Small Birds on November 23 2014. You’ll remember Woolf as the editor of Ten: The New Wave. For reference, the last time this happened for a white poet was two weeks ago, when Nicholas Lezard reviewed Bethany W Pope.

PN Review’s poor showing of just ten reviews of books by poets of colour is somewhat misleading. Of these ten, five were pamphlets covered in Alison Brackenbury’s round-up articles, in which each book is lucky to receive more than a few sentences of critical attention. Of the five full collections, only one was given its own solo review, Alex Wong’s Poems Without Irony, published by Carcanet, where PN Review editor Michael Schmidt works as Publisher. In two years’ worth of criticism – 138 articles totalling around 140,000 words, at a conservative estimate – PN Review dedicated roughly 2,500 words to poets of colour, about 1.5% of its review space.

The Poetry Review boasts some relatively positive statistics. A major factor in these unusually high numbers is Kayo Chingonyi. Chingonyi is a British-Zambian poet and critic who co-edited the Autumn 2016 issue of The Poetry Review, commissioning 2 of its seven total critics of colour, and 7 of its 23 reviews of poets of colour; in the following issue, Chingonyi himself reviewed two more poets of colour. Across the board, Chingonyi wrote or comissioned 30% of all articles by people of colour in the UK and Ireland in the past two years. This is an unreasonable burden to place on one individual.

Poetry London’s positive statistics are also a result of a temporary change in editorship. The Summer 2017 issue, published last week, was edited by Martha Kapos and Sam Buchan-Watts, and featured five reviews by critics of colour, and reviews of nine books by poets of colour; this single issue accounts for 38% of Poetry London‘s reviews by critics of colour in the past two years, and 36% of its reviews of poets of colour.

It’s also worth noting that the twelve critics of colour who did achieve publication are exceptionally qualified: these writers have a disproportionately high number of literary prizes, lectureships, editorships, academic and artistic residencies behind them for their career stage. Dzifa Benson’s background offers a small variation on this trend: her residencies at Tate Britain, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Institute of Contemporary Arts were for performance theatre, not poetry. Again, she was commissioned by Kayo Chingonyi. It is an observable fact that white editors do not open doors for critics of colour unless they have already been institutionally verified several times over.

This is what I mean when I say just hitting quotas is not enough. A quota will not tell you when poets of colour are included as an afterthought or a token gesture. It will not ensure that the attention given to poets of colour is in any way a sustained, committed endeavour. If people of colour are not included at vital, decision-making positions, the systematic exclusion of people of colour in poetry criticism will not change, not least because white critics and editors are not sharing the burden of responsibility.

On gender, things are relatively encouraging. Aside from the PN Review and Poetry Ireland Review, most publications are approaching a basic level of gender parity, with Poetry Wales, Poetry Review and The Guardian leaning marginally in favour of female critics. All three are edited by women, and the Poetry Review‘s editorial practice has changed markedly since Emily Berry’s tenure began last year. In almost every case, however, female critics review more books per article than their male counterparts, and men disproportionately review other men.

As a poetry critic, being given space to review a single book is a chance to make a significant contribution to a critical conversation. These reviews are overwhelmingly commissioned to men, a total of 157 compared to just 72 by women across all platforms. Even more intriguingly, while women review male and female poets about equally (33 women to 34 men, with 5 anthologies), men almost exclusively review other men, by 128 to 22. Simply put, male critics and poets alike are routinely given more space and prestige than their female colleagues.

This is most starkly illustrated by Alison Brackenbury’s role as resident pamphlet reviewer at PN Review, where she accounts for ten of the thirty-five total articles by women and seventy of the one hundred books reviewed by a female critic. There is a gendered labour gap at work at the magazine which aptly matches its apathy towards poets of colour. PN Review is by white men, for white men.

At the outset of this paper I mentioned how recent victories for poets of colour might be seen as a sign of positive change. It is, however, vital to put these results into historical context. I studied four major poetry prizes: The Forward Prize (established 1992); The TS Eliot Prize (established 1993); The Costa Prize (formerly the Whitbread Prize, which has been running a poetry award since 1985); and the Ted Hughes Prize (established 2009). To give an idea of the resources awarded by each: the TS Eliot awards £20,000 to its winner; The Forward Prize £10,000 for Best Collection and £5,000 for Best First Collection; the Costa Prize awards £5,000 with a possible £30,000 if the book also wins Book of the Year; the Ted Hughes Prize awards £5,000.

The questions this data set asked were also very simple: who is shortlisted for these prizes, and who wins them?

Only the newly created Ted Hughes Prize has awarded more women than men, by 6 to 2, and no poet of colour has ever won.

Between 1985 and 2000, the Costa Prize was won only once by a woman, Carol Ann Duffy in 1993. Jane Yeh was the first poet of colour whose work featured on the shortlist in 2005, its twenty-first year. In its thirty-one year history, no poet of colour has ever won the Costa Prize.

In its twenty-four years, the TS Eliot Prize has been won only twice by poets of colour, and only seven times by female poets. Its first eight winners were white men, and Derek Walcott was the first poet of colour to win, in the 18th year of the prize’s operation.

In a similar vein, only three of the first twenty Forward Prize winners were women, and only in 2014, its twenty-third year, was the prize awarded to a poet of colour, Kei Miller. The Forward Prize for Best First Collection is slightly different, in that Kwame Dawes won in 1994. Between 1995 and 2004, the First Collection Prize had all-white shortlists until Jane Yeh was shortlisted in 2005.

It may also be worth noting that of the ten poets of colour to have won one of these five prizes, only three self-define as British: Daljit Nagra, Mona Arshi and Sarah Howe, both of whom won their prizes in 2015.

Since 1985, thirty poets of colour have been shortlisted for awards a total of forty-one times, with ten wins. To put this into context, in the same time period six white male poets – namely, Simon Armitage, Seamus Heaney, Don Paterson, Sean O’Brien, Robin Robertson and David Harsent – account for fifty-three shortlistings and twenty-one wins. Poets of colour were also disproportionately awarded the Forward Best First Collection, twelve out of the total of forty-one shortlistings and five of ten wins.

If encouragement can be taken anywhere, it is in the fact that of these forty-one shortlistings, twenty-two of them came in the past four years; while that does indeed mean that in the twenty-seven years from 1985 to 2012 only nineteen poets of colour were shortlisted for anything, it does suggest things are changing. If we take data from only the years 2013-2016, the percentage of poets of colour shortlisted rises to 18.6, and a remarkable 30% of all winners; likewise, the gender proportion is flipped, with 54.2% of female shortlistees and 55% of winners.

The idea that poetry prizes might be awarded to women is a relatively new one; that people of colour might also be rewarded for their work is newer still, and it is too early to say whether these changes mark a meaningful departure from the dominance of white male poets. Without a concordant commitment to the hiring of critics of colour and the reviewing of poets of colour, these islands lack the diverse critical culture necessary to understand in complex or nuanced terms the work of poets of colour. I fear that after these few positive years we – white critics and scholars – may consider the job done and turn a blind eye to the 100% white editors commissioning 96% white critics to write about 91% white poets. Prizes are a proven, if limited, antidote: of the eighty-five books by poets of colour reviewed in the featured data set, twenty-one were by prizewinners; indeed in The Guardian’s case, this is all but the only guarantee of critical attention.

As Sandeep Parmar notes in her seminal essay ‘Not A British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK’: ‘Mechanisms in place systematically reward poets of color who conform to particular modes of self-foreignizing, leaving the white voice of mainstream and avant-garde poetries in the United Kingdom intact and untroubled by the difficult responsibilities attached to both racism and nationalism.’ Kate Kellaway’s review of Ocean Vuong, for example, invokes troubling cultural and racial clichés and stereotypes by introducing the poet as ‘born on a rice farm’ in her first sentence, and indebted to a white male mentor, Ben Lerner, in her second. This impulse to deliberately other poets of colour is precisely why the dire lack of critics of colour is such an urgent issue.

Earlier I mentioned the backlash against poets of colour in the literary press; when white male poet Jacob Polley won the TS Eliot prize this year, not only was there a distinct lack of outrage, The Guardian reviewed his collection, featured ‘Every Creeping Thing’ as Poem of the Day, and commissioned him three times to talk about his life and work, with such softball questions as ‘One review described what Polley does as a calling, “a kind of secular transubstantiation”. Would he agree?’ Where poets of colour like Vuong and Sarah Howe have orientalising narratives imposed upon them, white poets are commissioned to write their own stories on national platforms.

The scholar Sara Ahmed notes in the conclusion of her book On Being Included: ‘When a category allows us to pass into the world, we might not notice that we inhabit that category. When we are stopped or held up by how we inhabit what we inhabit, then the terms of habitation are revealed to us.’ As white poets, critics and scholars, we must acknowledge how centralising and normalising whiteness makes our creative communities exclusive by design. We must demand not just token inclusion of poets and critics of colour but that they be given equal space, resources and agency to direct critical and creative discourses. In short, writers of colour should not be compelled to spend their careers talking about nothing but race.

The work of a poetry book is only partly within its covers; the conversation, argument or statement it proposes is maintained or denied by the attendant critical community. In malicious hands, a book may be mocked or dismissed or simply ignored if that book does not behave itself as the reader demands, if it does not reinforce a given critic’s prejudices. It doesn’t take much searching to find reviews that misread or misrepresent a book’s intentions, intentionally or otherwise, coercing it into a state of palatability, or silence.

Even a preliminary study of British and Irish poetry magazines and prizes shows how ingrained is the culture of structural racism and misogyny. I hope these figures may be useful, and that knowing the true nature of our community is the first step toward changing it. Thank you for reading.

PS: At the time of writing, the figures I am working from are in a somewhat scrappy form; I am working to make this project into a fully searchable database using Google spreadsheets; this process is turning up small discrepancies in the raw data (mostly regarding anthologies and pamphlets), and once I have complete statistics I will update this article. I also plan on keeping these facts regularly updated, and investigating up to five years’ worth of material for a clearer view of poetry criticism’s recent history in these islands, perhaps expanding the number of featured platforms.

If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.