The Lyric is in Another Castle: Poetry and Video Games

Intro: Huge thanks to a number of people I’ve bored to death by talking about writing this without actually writing the blessed thing. Particularly in the past while though, big shout outs to Harry Giles, Ron Villanueva and Heather Parry for kicking some of the bigger ideas around, and deep gratitude to Muireann Crowley for insightful close reading and structural editing. A reader’s note: this is a bit of a long’un, and it’s divided into three sections. Take them as you will. Video games and poetry. Here goes.

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Sidekick Books published the first volume of their Coin Opera anthologies back in 2009, and more recently I’ve noticed poets increasingly keen to introduce the worlds or experiences of playing games into their work: in Grun-tu-molani Vidyan Ravinthiran uses the buggy surrealism of Fallout 3 as a metaphor; Harry Giles has created a text-based video game, Raik; R.A. Villanueva has cited Mario’s design as a major influence on his artistic practice in Reliquaria; Will Harris uses Halo 2 as an arena for self-reflection in Ten: Poets of the New Generation; another Complete Works fellow, the twice Ted Hughes Prize-nominated Jay Bernard, notes how the falling platforms in the Mario games helped shape The Red and Yellow Nothing, specifically in terms of breaking down hierarchies of register, the ‘high’ poem and ‘low’ game.

But poets have been referencing and taking inspiration from other genres since day dot, and that doesn’t make a poem into a film or a painting. So, let’s quickly take a look from a reverse angle, at the ways video games have drawn on poetry. Here’s the first scene from Kentucky Route Zero (2013), the video is an hour long, but you only need to watch a minute or so, from 6m20s onward:

The game draws the player into its dreamy, surreal atmosphere by having the player compose, from a multiple-choice sequence, a haiku. There’s no fail-state; any combination you choose is legitimate and, as far as advancing the game is concerned, successful. The game isn’t ‘beaten’, just experienced; there’s no high score metric, only what the player invests in terms of thought and energy. The game uses poetry as a mechanic (layman’s terms: a way the player interacts with the game) to allow the player to enter the game’s headspace, to assert that there is no right or wrong way to play and that maintaining a state of interpretative alertness is what the game values most.

Here’s the first thing the player sees in Night in the Woods (2017); again, I’m focusing on the first minute:

Like Kentucky, the player is asked to fill in the blanks in a weird and allusive intro (much of which the game elaborates on in the main storyline), with short lines of left-aligned text with line-breaks, and, right at the end, and honest-to-god full rhyme. The game wants to establish an atmosphere of loss, unease and the occult, and chooses the slippery non-linearity of short-form poetry to do the work. Poetry recurs throughout the game: a major character is Selmers the poet, an important scene is a poetry reading in a library, a few portentous figures speak in riddles and rhymes. Night in the Woods is, in part, a coming of age story in a far more kitchen-sink-realistic setting than Kentucky, but it recognises the capacity of poetry to alter how the reader/player encounters language. The first scenes in both these games are, partly, invitations to the player to engage in a way that games rarely do, with emotional sensitivity and a generative, curious approach to meaning-making.

But games have been referencing and taking inspiration from other genres since day dot, etc. So, let’s take a look at a very well-known piece of level design, the first stage of the first Super Mario Bros game, developed by Shigeru Miyamoto and the team at Nintendo. Here it is in action:

How does this relate to poetry? Isn’t the same attention to detail and design present in fiction? It sure is, particularly in short/flash fiction, but what makes poetry and short prose different is their relatively urgent need to establish their terms of engagement. Where a novel can spend a relatively long time acclimatising the reader, for shorter artistic forms like a poem (even a book of poems, which can generally be easily read in one sitting) or a single Mario level, economy of expression is vital. auntie pixelante has written an extremely meticulous piece of analysis on how this level works. It’s worth reading in full, but the key question pixelante poses is:

How does the game teach the player what they need to know to play the game, just by playing the game?

pixelante goes on to explain how the positioning of Mario – the player’s in-game avatar, the game’s lyric self – relative to the world around him invites exploration and a gradual encounter with the inhabitants and obstacles of the game world. pixelante describes the sensation as “To the right, hold on tight” – Super Mario Bros was released in 1985, and to this day a huge majority of 2d platforming games hold “the goal is to your right” as a foundational principle. It’s tempting to pun on Mario’s movement across the screen and the rightward movement of words across a page, but this only works for languages that run left-to-right. The important takeaway is that the game equips the player with the necessary skills to beat the game’s challenges immediately before the player requires them.

This, I think, is a decent entry point to discuss how design priorities in poetry and video games overlap. Super Mario Bros doesn’t tell the player explicitly “you are Mario” or “you decide Mario’s movements within the limitations imposed by the developers”, but the player’s experience of other games, combined with the developers’ contextual design, make it an easy step. Poetry’s relationship with its own in-game avatars is somewhat more complex, to say the least, but the assumption “you are inhabiting/witnessing the poet’s point of view”, or “in the act of moving your eye across the page you are responsible for the poem’s progression” is fairly commonplace. The interpretive limitations imposed or suggested by the poet are usually much harder to articulate; partly, perhaps, because some of the conventions of lyric poetry’s dramatization of the self are so common as to be invisible. More on that later.

How many poets have you been? How many strangers’ emotional states have you embodied? How often, though, did the poet explicitly tell you, “hey, time to be me for a second, hope you like weird, inscrutable feelings”? The assumption that the speaking ‘I’ will a) correspond to the human whose name is on the front cover, much as Mario’s is on his; b) remain uncomplicatedly within the reader-player’s comprehension throughout; and c) demand some degree of empathic communion is as commonplace as a two-dimensional avatar advancing to the right. There are exceptions, beautiful ones, but contemporary poetry in these islands tends to abide by these autobiographical conventions unless clearly indicated otherwise. Work in persona, or fictional poetry tends to be formally marked, like the speakers from classical myth of Alice Oswald’s ‘Tithonus’, or Sandeep Parmar’s Eidolon, for example.

The most Mario poet I can think of from the past few decades (which I say with all love and respect) is Seamus Heaney. Here’s the first two stanzas of St Kevin and the Blackbird:

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

‘And then’ sets the poem in motion. The saint’s posture and location are established in logical order: Kevin appears, then his cell, then the episode’s obstruction. Though I hesitate to draw too neat a comparison, Miyamoto’s design of the first Mario level parallels Heaney’s in its presentations of protagonist, setting, antagonist. In other words, the blackbird as it ‘settles down to nest’ is the poem’s goomba. Also worth noting how Heaney builds the poem’s tension, by comparing a human arm to a beam in a building. It’s a natural progression, given that the only elements in the poem thus far are a human and his building, but the word ‘stiff’ is the poem’s first dissonance: Kevin’s arm is not masonry, he is in pain, and it will only get worse.

This is fairly elementary stuff, (which makes it useful for my purposes, if unrepresentative of Heaney’s oeuvre) but it’s worth noting how the nursery-school tone is already working to prepare the reader for what’s to come. The language is insistently ordinary and the syntax on-rushing and linear. Each clause adds to our ability to inhabit the scene without subtracting from anything that went before. The poet wants the reader to keep moving right: there’s no pressing need to go back up the page, or back along the line.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

Kevin’s interiority and a huge spiritual concept are breezed over. Heaney probably doesn’t want the reader to linger on the implications of being ‘linked / Into the network of eternal life’, not yet at least, and it’s significant that it is contained by the poem’s first subordinate clause, a grammatically optional extra. That the clause sits between such unassuming words as ‘and’ and ‘is’ makes the sentence feel like it’s itching to get on with things. Likewise, the consequence of the blackbird’s nesting is almost parodically plain: Kevin must hold out his hand for weeks, no questions asked. The alternative is so unthinkable the poem doesn’t allow the reader a pause to consider it until the end of both the stanza and the drama’s conclusion; the reader cannot rest until Kevin does.

This is the end of the first half of the poem; twelve lines, only three sentences. Heaney has built a little obstacle course for the reader, in such simplistic language, imagery and syntax that it’s nearly invisible. But there’s an asterisk below these lines, a whole second half of the poem:

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

If the first half of the poem has the reader going ‘to the right, hold on tight’, the second allows the platform to fall from under us: if the first half of the poem felt like a tutorial, that’s because it was, and here’s the test proper. The first line undoes everything in terms of drama and presents a whole new set of challenges, but ones the reader has been prepared for. The throwaway note about eternal life, the description of Kevin’s arms as ‘stiff’, the real sacrifice his ostensibly simple decisions imply are all laid out, one by one, more difficult versions of the questions a careful reader will have begun to consider already: the poem demands nothing the reader hasn’t been primed to encounter. Where Mario jumps to a flagpole with a congratulatory jingle, Heaney rewards the reader with what feels like a truer, deeper insight into the poem’s subject. The triple-repetition of ‘forgotten’ and the chiasmatic ‘on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name’ are a musical full stop, a syntactic flourish to impress a sense completion upon the reader. (I hear ‘in the name of the father, the name of the son, and the name of the holy spirit,’ in the rhythm of those last lines.) That conclusion wouldn’t feel half as satisfying, however, without the poem’s meticulous outfitting of the reader with the tools necessary to handle the poem’s final lines, to make that final victorious leap.

Few poets are as teacherly as Heaney, and few games as intricately designed as the Mario series, but I think the basic idea is sound. Shigeru Miyamoto designed Mario to be beaten, or at least beatable. The joy in the game is that its challenges appear difficult, and sometimes genuinely are, but an unambiguous win state can be achieved by internalising the game’s rules and conventions. Heaney is a more complex artist than I’m presenting him here, but I do think that his poems are often laid out with a relatively clear goal in mind, and a relatively clear means of reaching it. I think that’s one of the key reasons Heaney’s work was (and is) so popular; like Miyamoto, he baked into his ludic spaces the tools the reader needed for successful interpretation. His poems often push towards some formal or thematic closure; pay attention to how his metaphors are constructed, how the poem moves, and reach the castle at the end, the rhetorical dopamine hit of a linguistic puzzle completed.

 

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A second note: something video games do better than almost any other genre is embodiment, allowing a player to manoeuvre a body through a three-dimensional environment. Many of the most popular titles in gaming involve some kind of enactment of power-fantasy: with a few inputs you might climb a building, kill an enemy half a mile away,  or be an indestructible goat. For the purposes of this essay, I’m more interested in games that refuse or subvert these expectations of power.

In the beautiful, odd and addictive Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (2016), the player-character is the eponymous cleaner, an unnamed Alaensee girlbeast. Earlier in the essay I talked a bit about how Mario carefully teaches the player the game’s rules with the intention of guiding them to victory; Diaries does not. The player is dumped unceremoniously into the janitor’s (literally) cursed life and must figure out everything from sleeping to eating to avoiding cops by trial and error, working toward a victory state that may never come. Unlike Mario, there is no castle at the end, and the fireworks are for everyone but you. Here’s the trailer:

The game tells you that you feel sick, you feel hungry, you are exhausted: you buy medicine, you eat, you sleep. So far, so human. After two in-game days, however, a new command appears: your body feels weird and itchy, you need to gendershift, and leaves you to it, as the screen starts to wobble and in-game text glitches beyond legibility. Managing her gender is just one more tick on the janitor’s embodied to-do list, something she has dealt with long before you started piloting her through her day, a fact so banal the game didn’t even think to mention it. There is something like an ‘ending’ to the game, but unlike Mario, life goes on as normal afterwards; there is still trash to pick up, and you’re the one who’s going to do it.

There are points of reference in the janitor’s experiences I understand: the feeling of being overwhelmed, confused and dog-tired chimes with the game’s thoughts about, and my own experience of, wage labour. But there are many things that are alien, both literally and metaphorically, and the game waits patiently, if uncompromisingly, for the player to work their way across that initial gap of understanding. The feelings of satisfaction to be had in Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor are not the buzz of overcoming a set-piece challenge like a skilful jump, but in finding a way to survive, long-term, in a hostile environment; the game isn’t going to let you turn your rags to riches, but you can make a life here, if you are patient and attentive to the world. The game is difficult, but not punishingly so; you might flail around for a while, but it’s a colourful, bright, upbeat place to flail around in, and you’ll almost certainly get there eventually. There are at least a couple of ways of looking at this kind of design. It may be a critique of big-budget games that spell out the means of success to the player, or rely on the player’s familiarity with generic conventions, and in doing so detract from the fun of achieving that success. Possibly, it is about establishing a relationship with the player on much more flexible terms, a relationship based on trust, that the player is an intelligent being who can process something more complex than direct commands.

The first poem of Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby (2017) is ‘Sign of the Anchor’. Here’s the first line:

I stood at the dangerous shore.

Already this is a bit weird. The tense is odd: this action was completed in the past. The heavy adjective ‘dangerous’ feels ungainly, leading, even as the sentence itself is decisively self-contained.

Sleeves rolled up to my shoulders.
My fringe lifted in the wind in a long salute and I pushed it back.
Live your wish, Live your wish, said the sea.
I wanted to be like the shells on the beach, rubbed smooth and cracked open.

This feels something like mock-heroism, bathos: rolling one’s sleeves speaks of defiance, but rolling them up to one’s shoulders is, in terms of meaningful gestures, somewhere between illegible and comic. Likewise, the speaker’s untameable fringe saluting the sea is hard to parse, particularly as the speaker seems to immediately repress it. The degree of irony present in the sea’s wishy-washy speech or the speaker’s desire to be like sea-shells changes every time I meet it.

It feels like the sea’s words have prompted the speaker’s wish to be ‘rubbed smooth and cracked open’; though they are possibly heard only in the speaker’s mind, the poem’s magical realism means there’s no reason why it shouldn’t have literally expressed itself, though in that case the sea is a deeply unhelpful character. The act of being rubbed smooth and cracked open, meanwhile, speaks of a long process of erosion, of being worn down to a literal breaking point. The somewhat comic lines that preceded it make it easy to breeze over this distressingly explicit wish for self-destruction, however drawn-out and unspectacular.

And I held my arms out, tipped my head back, pictured my protective symbols.
I opened my eyes and saw the sign of the anchor burning.
I had to go.

If the previous line didn’t alert the reader that something untoward is afoot, now it’s clear the poem has shifted into something occult and uncanny. The flatness of the speaker’s tone, which earlier in the poem contributed to the archness of their self-presentation, does not modulate as they describe what seems like a supernatural or magical rite. What was affecting in its restraint is now unsettling in its absence of concern. The poem’s title appears, in flames in the sky: to the speaker, the meaning of the sign is obvious; to the reader, the import of ‘the sign of the anchor’, either in its natural state or in combustion, either does not matter or cannot be directly accessed.

I shouted some words but they were lost when the waves crashed.
And ash rained from the sky.
I was far out, in wet denim, and the shore was a jolt when I looked back.

Suddenly the scene is apocalyptic. The vagueness of ‘shout[ing] some words’ feels like a lost cause when pitted against the force of the sea, while the ash raining from the sky – from the burning anchor? is it an active, physical presence? – sounds almost biblical, a holy plague. The speaker is lost and alone in the middle of a catastrophe, in wet denim.

This last detail is casual, but says so much about what this poem is trying to do, I think. It’s such a humdrum thing to mention when the world is almost literally on fire, and in doing so alters the tone of the poem immensely. It calls back to the speaker’s sleeves and fringe in the opening lines, their relatively petty discomforts; bringing them back here, at the poem’s climax, is such a deflation of sea and fire and ash as to be a potent statement in itself. The speaker is still in danger, the distance from shore and safety is still the poem’s final consideration, but the merely unpleasant discomfort of wet denim is of at least comparable urgency. The poem has almost come full circle, giving full voice to a state of catastrophic hopelessness but maintaining a grip on the mundane; it leaves the reader poised between the two.

My first encounter with ‘Sign of the Anchor’ was something much closer to mere confusion: the above is a reading informed by a close engagement with the rest of the book. What most closely connects Berry’s approach here and the design behind Diaries is in their willingness to place the reader or player in a state of productive uncertainty, over a fair proportion of the book or game’s duration. Where Mario and Heaney present their tools and related obstacles in such close proximity it’s impossible to miss the context in which they are best employed, Diaries and Stranger, Baby first provide a potentially confusing environment, and place their faith in the reader to adapt their strategies accordingly. That the title of the first poem in Stranger, Baby – its level 1-1 – refers to an inscrutable element within the poem (an anchor weighs one down? holds one steady? a ward? a warning?) prepares the reader for a book that resists easy summation, whose difficulty harmonises with its emotional complexity.

 

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A recent trend in single-poet collections – to my knowledge, at least – is the incorporation of relatively straightforward prose sections into the main body of the poetry book. Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular (2017), Sophie Collins’ Who is Mary Sue? (2018), and Inua Ellams’ #Afterhours (2017), for example, all prominently feature critical or narrative prose. These sections make space for the poet to step out from behind the lyric curtain, to communicate in a register much closer to direct speech. The game of lyric interpretation, of the reader’s triangulation of meaning, is temporarily suspended.

As is the relationship between poet and reader: this kind of suspension could not adequately be performed by a poet like Heaney, who – for better or worse – figures the poet-reader relationship in similar terms to teacher-pupil, master-apprentice. However kindly and nurturing Heaney’s work often is, it is predicated on a power differential that is either absent or more fluid in Berry’s work (and that of many of her peers). For Heaney to step down from the lectern would necessitate an abdication of authority or control, which, for Alsadir, Collins and Ellams, seems less of a concern. While they have no fewer ideas to communicate and explore than Heaney, and certainly no less ambition to render them poetically, the means by which these ideas are communicated – plainly, conversationally, without the messy and vatic apparatus of lyricism – allows the reader to become something more like a collaborator, a co-conspirator. Here’s Alsadir in Fourth Person Singular:

‘Only to this you [a figure that allows the poet to speak into a “social imaginary”] can one speak as (I), in the fourth person singular. You are that indefinite stranger. Can you hear me? I’m writing from elsewhere. This book is for you (whoever you are).’

Ellams in #Afterhours:

‘I chose #Afterhours as a title because it summoned three aspects of the project: 1/ In poetry, the tradition of subtitling a poem informed by another poet with the word ‘After’ and the author’s name. 2/ Turning 30 and approaching the ‘noonlight’ of my years, frames my youth as ‘early hours’, and the subsequent years as after those hours. 3/ For writers, the stereotype of ‘burning the midnight oil’ – working late after the standard hours of work.’

Collins in Who Is Mary Sue?:

‘I note that, in literary fiction, when a female writer’s female protagonist is considered up to scratch, she is often taken to be a thinly disguised version of the author’s non-idealised self.’

For these poets, appearing out from behind the lyric mask (arguably into a lit-crit mask, which is at least a less cryptic mask) and speaking plainly about their artistic goals is no great loss of stature. It’s wonderful to see #Afterhours recognised in the Ted Hughes Prize shortlist; I do wonder, however, whether Ellams’ decision to include exploratory essays and memoirs alongside and in dialogue with his poems counted against him during the rest of prize season, challenging as they do the reader’s preconceptions about what a poetry book looks like, and what it contains. (It’s worth that the Ted Hughes Prize has a history of recognising formally unconventional projects.) Are such prosaic interludes a distant cousin of videogaming’s ‘casual’ modes, which take lengths to make games playable and enjoyable to everyone and not just the initiated, time- and resource-abundant few?

Broken fourth walls are somewhat harder to categorise in games, and it’s also rare that the game is the work of a single developer. A noteworthy exception on both counts is The Beginner’s Guide (2015). Here, real-life developer Davey Wreden voiced an in-game character named Davey Wreden who had stolen a series of short games made by a friend and arranged them as his own game with his own critical commentary, which he named The Beginner’s Guide. This briefly but embarrassingly short-circuited a critical community ill-equipped for drawing nuanced distinctions between game creators and their creations.

An altogether less metatextually fraught example is Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (2017). Foddy is the developer and narrator of the game, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that, in a game so preoccupied with failure, loss and perseverance, that the player’s continual, massive failures are consoled by Foddy reading lines of poetry, by Blake, Dickinson, Rossetti, Gibran and many others:

(Yes, that is a man in a cauldron using a sledgehammer for locomotion. In a lovely twist, his name is Diogenes, the philosopher whose truth-seeking lantern Heaney takes as his symbol in his 1987 collection The Haw Lantern. A coincidence, sure, but a fun one.)

Schadenfreude is definitely in play here, but poetry also seems to have paved a way for the developer to speak seriously and plainly to the player, just as the game speaks to them mechanically. You make a mistake and fall, losing minutes or hours of progress with no choice but keeping going or giving up; Foddy persuades you to try again, with poetic wisdom:

“She smiled in defeat,
With unconquerable eyes.”
– Atticus

The two modes of communication work in harmony, serving the player at least the appearance of equal footing with the artist whose work is the site of collaboration, however frictive the collaboration might be. Throughout the game, Foddy intervenes to apologise for the game’s difficulty, comment on the disposability of much of digital culture, reassure the player that rest is necessary and important; he is a determinedly nurturing presence in a game he has designed to be punishing. In the final sections, Foddy narrates how, to get this far, the player must share certain priorities around artistic failure, and about the paradox inherent in how failure, sadness and frustration is something the reader-player avoids in life, but seeks out in art.

 

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I hope you can excuse a lack of a definitive conclusion here; I’m sticking to the roots of the word ‘essay’ – to weigh something up or test something out – and I think trying to tie a neat conclusive bow around these ideas might ask too much of them. Maybe it’s that approaches to critical reading that overlook poetry’s potential as a space for play miss a lot of what makes art worth experiencing, or that the poet-reader relationship is not necessarily instructional or confrontational.  If nothing else, I hope they’ve given you a new way of thinking your way into poetry (and video games!), and I certainly hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Thanks for playing.

 

Works Cited:

Poetry

Kirstin Irving and Jon Stone (eds.) – Coin Opera & Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge

Vidyan Ravinthiran – Grun-tu-molani

Harry Giles – Raik

R.A. Villanueva – Reliquaria

Karen McCarthy Woolf (ed.) – Ten: Poets of the New Generation

Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

Sandeep Parmar – Eidolon

Seamus Heaney – The Haw Lantern, The Spirit Level

Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby

Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular

Sophie Collins – Who is Mary Sue?

Inua Ellams – #Afterhours

 

Games

Cardboard Computer – Kentucky Route Zero

Infinite Fall – Night in the Woods

Nintendo – Super Mario Bros

auntie pixelante – To the Right, Hold on Tight

Coffee Stain Publishing – Goat Simulator

tinyBuild GAMES – Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor

Everything Unlimited Ltd. – The Beginner’s Guide

Bennett Foddy – Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy

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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.

Some (But Not All) Of The Good Books I Read In 2015, According To Ill-Defined And Highly Subjective Criteria

Full Disclosure: I, too, dislike end of year lists. They’re usually either confusingly partisan or uselessly inclusive, have as much potential to upset as to enlighten, and given that I literally spent the year talking about what books I like, this might well be a waste of time. HOWEVER, I do think there’s something to be said for taking stock of the year, doing a bit of memorialising before pushing off into a big bright shiny new one, and maybe underlining a few things that you might have missed first time round.

So this piece is less about which books I thought were Best Poetry Books 2015™, which would rely on a largely arbitrary and probably deeply compromised set of aesthetic norms and value systems (specifically, my reading history as an academically-trained white bro), and more about which books changed how I read, shed light on the (often unconscious) assumptions I bring to this or that poem. Maybe that’s not the kind of recommendation you’re really after; maybe you’ve already crossed these bridges; maybe this all misses the point in ways I can’t imagine.

Whatever the case, thanks for reading.

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Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe)

In October, the poet and critic Sandeep Parmar wrote in The Guardian about Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, praising its formal innovation and timely examination of racism both daily and structural, concluding that ‘In Britain, we don’t talk about race and poetry enough’. In December Parmar published the essay ‘Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK’ in the LA Review of Books. It’s a clear-eyed, intensely well-researched and damning appraisal of how monolithic British and Irish poetry remains; it demands that white readers work harder to make space for BAME poets that doesn’t insist on a kind of self-exoticising that leaves the white-as-central/normal, BAME-as-other binary untarnished.

Ten: The New Wave, with its generous selections of, among noteworthy others, Jay Bernard, Kayo Chingonyi and Warsan Shire, is not only a great example of how to anthologize (relatively few poets, a large enough selection to allow the reader to inhabit the poet’s idiosyncracies), but provides concrete ballast for Parmar’s argument: the dominance of white poets in the UK is not for want of talented BAME poets. What is it for?

Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric

A poetry book that reached a huge readership, and a powerful response to the question of whether poetry needs an active social conscience.  Citizen is a beautifully, intricately composed piece of poetic work; every word is purposeful, each tableau masterfully pitched and weighted. If Citizen isn’t poetry, we all need to get new hobbies.

Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade

Loop of Jade is a curious, angry and humane collection that makes lyric poetry carry an uncommon amount of emotional and philosophical freight. A book that does that lovely thing of slowly releasing its deeper arguments as you pay closer attention. Incidentally, Howe’s critical prose is also staggeringly good.

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Okay so turns out writing these blurby things is causing me borderline physical pain. The above three books are the ones I would happily and without reserve recommend to just about anyone. Here, in alphabetical order and by no means authoritatively, are some other really good books I read for the first time this year, which I’d also happily lend to people that I like and who like reading poems. NB: my memory sucks, and I’m not necessarily as up to date as I’d like to be. If you’ve recommendations please leave them in the comments; BAME, LGBT and women poets are preferred.

AK Blakemore – Humbert Summer [sharp, dramatic, making alt lit/post-internet tropes FUN]
Harry Giles – Tonguit [probably the best politically-minded poetry I’ve ever read, also funny af]
John Glenday – The Golden Mean [humane, elegiac, heartbreakingly graceful]
Melissa Lee Houghton – Beautiful Girls (2013) [stark, clear-eyed, narrative poetry at its best]
Kathleen Jamie – The Bonniest Companie [mindful, deep time-y, bolshy as fuck]
Rebecca Perry – Beauty/Beauty [generous, earnest, far stranger than I think I gave credit for first time round]
Warsan Shire – Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011) [can’t believe yous let me go this far without reading this book, get your shit together]

Tl;dr: next year I’m keeping a spreadsheet. Thanks to everyone who reads this thing, and particularly to the folk contributing to my work via Patreon – it not only makes it so much easier for me to keep doing the work I’m already doing, it’s also the best motivator I’ve ever had. See you all in 2016, and from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Harry Giles – Tonguit

Full Disclosure: Harry’s a pal. I was in the same writing group as him for a while and saw drafts of a couple of the poems in Tonguit back then. Briefly discussed his pamphlets Visa Wedding and Oam on this blog when he was shortlisted for the Edwin Morgan Prize last year. I contribute to his Patreon, and his advice on setting up my own (and more generally his thoughts on regarding artistic labour as labour) remains invaluable. NB: Many poems in Tonguit are in Scots, and Giles has provided standard English glosses on his blog; the pdf might be useful for this review. Also note that wordpress can’t render the proper formatting of many of the poems quoted here.

Review: The word ‘tonguit’ pretty neatly maps onto the English word ‘tongued’, referring to a sort of inquisitive probing motion, a sensory and sensuous exploration. In Giles’ first collection the word’s secondary meaning of ‘language’ (or ‘acted upon by language’) is loud and clear. The first lines of the book’s first poem, ‘Brave’, declare:

‘Acause incomer will aywis be a clarty wird,
acause this tongue A gabber wi will nivver be the real Mackay, A sing.’

Giles both acknowledges and performs the complicated act of self-positioning that appears in various guises and contexts throughout the book. It’s tempting to quote from ‘Visa Wedding’ (‘Listen, hit’s semple: // in Orkney A’m English; / in England A’m Scottish; / in Scotland, Orcadian’), but that poem makes explicit what most, if not all, the other poems in this collection seem to understand as a prerequisite; that the world is strange, and one’s own position within it arbitrary, confusing and often subject to aggressive social pressures. On a cursory read Tonguit might appear kind of piebald, with deft formal experiments sitting alongside political flyting and geeky concrete poems, but they are all underwritten by a hyperawareness of bizarre and violent systems of power. These systems, Tonguit heavily implies, infect every aspect of daily life; labour, housing, travel, public services, pop culture, mental health, even the most intimate personal interactions are subject to interference from capital and the state. The poems’ often elaborate conceits seem to indicate the effort necessary to even begin criticising (or offering alternatives to) these in-built, ready-made oppressions; even then, there is no guarantee of escaping complicity.

[Note also that, as with Kathleen Jamie’s The Bonniest Companie, Tonguit’s unglossed use of Scots is an assertion of the language’s place within a broader spectrum of Englishes, and is its own small subversion of the dominant mode; moreover, the ‘magpie’ (Giles’ descriptor) nature of this Scots asserts a plasticity and openness within that national tradition. The book seems to find in its Scots a linguistic space relatively unsullied by the centralised authority of standard English, which in Tonguit is more often than not the language of corrupt business, government and cultural paternalism. Perhaps just as importantly, the Scots in Tonguit sounds friggin lush.]

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So far as I can tell, there is only one poem which features both an autobiographically recognisable, anecdotal voice (aka Default Player Character in the Contemporary UK Poetry RPG) and standard English: ‘Piercings’, which directly engages with the speaker’s first queer relationship. I don’t think it’s accidental that this particular poem utilises the book’s most direct means of communication; perhaps employing Scots or a poetic conceit would have mystified a scene whose clear and uneuphamistic expression still remains relatively rare in the politer corners of poetry culture. That said, the poem’s real transgression seems more in its flaunting of social niceties, specifically in the feeling of loss, bordering on betrayal, when the speaker understands that his former lover has ‘pulled // out every metal sign, become / employable, less obvious’. Capital has a place for queer people, the poem suggests, provided they can leave their non-normative markers at the door.

Tonguit’s several excellent love poems operate under a vital intuition, namely that it’s probably better for everyone’s nerves if you leave it to the reader’s imagination. ‘Poem in which nouns, verbs and adjectives have been replaced by entries from the Wikipedia page List of Fantasy Worlds’ is aptly titled and creatively arrayed:

‘Don’t belkan to me, don’t tir like
I’m lodoss to your emelan blest,
like I’ll xen when you tortall my deverry tarth,
ooo, I’d landover earthsea with you, panem. […]

eidolon to pern me, tamriel! Harn me till
all my mundus aurbis one glorantha !’

The gist is all there, and with some pretty delightful nerdiness to boot. Giles is also a games creator, and there’s a kind of purposeful playfulness to many of the book’s pieces. The reader takes on the poem’s specific circumstances and adapts their approach to fit; that act of adaptation, of shifting one’s perspective, is vital to the poem’s meaning. ‘Sermon’, in which a speech by the Prime Minister to the Munich Security Conference has had the word ‘terrorism’ replaced with ‘love’, is a real highlight in its demonstration of how any word, sufficiently stripped of meaning and context, may be weaponised. Of course, every poem asks the reader to follow certain conceptual commands, it just happens that these rarely ask more than ‘imagine a poet in a field, feeling things’ or ‘imagine they’ve read Kierkegaard after an episode of Downton Abbey’. Giles trusts the reader’s capacity to play, or play along, and to see genuine subversive value in it.

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‘Your Strengths’, for example, is composed of government-mandated questions from the UK Citizenship test, a Department of Work & Pensions psychometric test (which was proven to give the same result regardless of user input, ie ‘you are fit to work’) and a DWP Work Capability Test. In performance, Giles delivers the fusillade of intrusive, personal, loaded questions with ever-increasing aggression and scorn as the Kafkaish horror unfolds. Those under interrogation, the poem suggests, have been forced into such a position of weakness that the questions barely need to make sense; indeed the senselessness is likely part of a state-sanctioned exercise in humiliation:

‘Do you lose concentration on a daily basis?
Do you lose control of bowels at least once a month?
What must all dogs wear in public?
Can you cope with minor changes to routine?
Can you complete a simple task?
Can you complete a simple, everyday task?
Can you complete normal activities without overwhelming fear or anxiety?
Can you sustain any personal action?

Do you always say thank you, even for little things?’

By the end of the poem, the line between the abusive governmental voice and the voice of the poet finding potential for subversion within that voice is difficult to distinguish: are questions like ‘Are you able to look at things and see the big picture?’, ‘Can you let bygones be bygones?’, ‘Do you always try to get even?’ provocations to political action or reminders of the governmental will to violence?

Happily, Giles overtly political-minded work does far more than rail against the darkness, and leaves ample room for interpretive or discursive thought. A series of poems from his pamphlet Oam – first written as part of a campaign to reopen Govanhill public baths in Glasgow – forms a hopeful and deeply human centrepiece; where amassed power terrorises, community organisation in Tonguit performs small, sustainable, subversive acts of love. ‘The Hairdest Man in Govanhill’ is a beautiful bit of caricature, unravelling toxic masculine ‘hardness’ into something nurturing and communitarian:

‘The hairdest man in Govanhill has airms like rebar fae
cartin aboot auld folks’ messages.
He spits that haird hit colfs potholes.
He pisses that haird hit dichts stairwalls
blast-cleans
n hit smells o roses n aw. […]

He’s that bluidy haird he’s a hairt tattooed wi Dulux on his bicep n aw hit says is A LUV YE.’

The comedy is straightforward, but the poem’s celebration of selflessness and generosity (‘he’ll staund in fer a missin goal post / ithoot ye e’en askin’) in the face of the decimated public service budgets is pointed and urgent. Likewise, contemplative pieces like ‘In yer haunds thare are nae deid hings’ ‘Blue Ghaists’ and ‘Govanhill Baths, July 2013’ broadcast their political messages quietly and subtly through their insistence on this particular place’s vital importance, investing the baths with history, social context, and the simple fact of its immediate value as a service. The latter piece, a haiku sequence, places the then-derelict baths into the realm of natural cycles, endurance and renewal:

‘steel shutters / brusts
fae reid brick a bluimin
purpie horn

[…]

boots on auld
white tiles / something saft gies wey,
some wee herb’

Deep time is a vital source of meaning in Tonguit, which locates these gains and losses within geological contexts (see ‘Pantoum on Reading Wikipedia’s Timeline of the Far Future’). The book holds a kind of dual perspective between the locally immediate needs of human beings and the fact that on a big enough timescale, even the Holocene extinction will barely register. Even this apocalyptic undercurrent has wonderfully uplifting moments, however, like the weirdly celebratory poems for crickets, ‘Song for a Lover as Magicicada’ and ‘If you measure the distance between the teeth they’ll tell you’. The former invokes the predictable mathematical patterns that determine cicada life cycles, the latter the discovery by researchers at the University of St Andrews that:

‘it turns out the fossil of a cricket
is a lossless audio codec
is a phonograph cylinder expecting the right
mandrel and needle
hey Indestructible Record Company you know squat
against the fossil record’

The cricket’s song survives, and the microscopic focus invoked by the poem finds traction against the inconceivable vastness of time through which such a small thing has passed intact. There’s something deeply reassuring about seeing humanity’s place in such grand schemes, of asserting that yes, our own lives are tiny on this scale, but on that scale (the one valorised in the Govanhill poems) they simply cannot be overvalued. And both scales are valid. Tonguit asks the reader to consider its scenes from strange vantage points, to permit alternative systems of meaning; this drive to hold multiple, ostensibly contradictory, ideas in tension is one of the book’s great pleasures.

3 JP

The long view and the contemporary are intimately bound in ‘Aald rede fir biggin a kintra’ (‘Old advice for building a country’), a sequence of versions after the Tao Te Ching (a 6th century BCE document from the Zhou dynasty court), dated to September 2014, the time of the Scottish independence referendum. Unlike elsewhere in the collection, ‘Aald rede’ is written in Orcadian, which Giles notes has ‘a different but related grammar, orthography and vocabulary’; the choice seems to indicate the deeply personal nature of the subject matter, but also to lend the piece an added strangeness, amplified by the decision in Giles’ English glosses not to provide a direct crib. The poem demands extra work of the (non-Orcadian) reader to draw out its meanings. Here’s a sample, from ‘57’:

‘the mair the laas
the peurer the fock
the sneller the blads
the mair the strowe
the sleer the sleyts
the waar the wark
the mair the ring
the mair the crime

syne

dinno deu
n fock transform thirsels
mak still
n fock govern thirsels
grow teum
n fock growe fouth
want no
n fock growe haemelt’

Giving the poem enough attention to work out its meaning is very much worth the effort (‘laas’, which doesn’t seem to appear in the glossary, means ‘laws’; I first read it as ‘loss’). Suffice to say the government who applied this philosophy would please its citizens better than its shareholders.

Tonguit sees the need for immediate and radical political change, and celebrates direct action; it acknowledges that this moment is just one in a vast history. It offers its heart to the reader in deeply personal poems about marriage, love, loss; it buries the confessional behind arbitrary language functions and semantic emptiness. It is dazzlingly ostentatious; it is stark and delicate. It sets all manner of stalwart presbyterian hackles ablaze at its attempt to seek balance and mindfulness in a world that hates both. But this, too, is a heartening aspect of a book that in other hands might have appeared too all-singing or over-reliant on gimmick; Tonguit enacts variousness as much as it valorises it, and in its hard-won optimism is a powerful and timely meeting of formal weirdness and deeply human political philosophy.

Tl;dr: This is an awesome book, unusual and surprising and featuring some incredible moments of calm and imaginative generosity. With multiple readings the surface playfulness gives way to deep considerations about the nature of power, and language’s complicity. Read it.

Further reading: harrygiles.org; @harrygiles

You can buy Tonguit from Freight Books or your choice of ethical book wholesalers.

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

Edwin Morgan Prize 2014 – Claire Askew, Niall Campbell, Harry Giles

So this is something a little different. The Edwin Morgan Prize shortlist has been announced, it’s Scotland’s biggest award for poetry, a huge deal for promoting poets under 30, and (even better) a very strong shortlist has been selected.

Full Disclosure: Three of the poets in question I know personally (Askew, Campbell and Giles) and the others have given me permission to write a paragraph or two as a sort of primer on their work. I hope you’ll indulge the air of positivity for now; only Niall Campbell and Tom Chivers have their first collections in the public domain, once the others do I’ll be the first to give them a sound reviewing. For clarity, in this post I’ll be discussing Askew’s most recent poems in the Winter edition of the Istanbul Review, Campbell’s recent collection Moontide, and Giles’ pamphlets Visa Wedding and Oam.

Claire Askew:

Askew and myself were in the same creative writing class back in 08/09, and even then, her poetry made the home, family and particularly the lives of older women the centre of her focus. This thoroughly unfashionable commitment seems to have paid total dividends judging by her most recent work, themselves very much connected to what she was writing on back in ye olde days.

‘The axe of the house’ concerns (what we can assume is) the poet’s move into a new house, whose previous owner has passed away. It’s a deeply unsettling piece that forces the reader to question who the key player really is: the speaker (and occasional narrator), June, the previous owner, Mary, next door neighbour and medium between the two? From the outset June’s presence is – very literally – overwhelming, ‘Her smell is on everything: / lavender, talc, menthol and something medical / behind it all’, so much so the narrator feels obliged to say ‘sorry / aloud, splitting floorboards, hauling down / ancient steel blinds that unravel and clatter / like train-wires or hail’. The poem establishes that this act of homemaking first requires a clearance, a difficult, violent and intrusive one, which eliminates the life that went before. Implicitly, it places the young homeowners in the same boat as the men who break in in section iv, ‘They took a bit, a bagful, all valuable: / jewellery, stuff they could carry’; implicitly, the dream in which

Inside, there’s only a folding stool

and June, folded down onto it.
Her hair’s been done.
She has on white, seamed gloves,

a string of beads like tiny,
iridescent eyes. She says
nothing, though you wait a long time.

places June as a silent, well-made, and judging part of the furniture. The closing section, ‘The axe’, uses its eponymous symbol as a kind of fulcrum around which the poem revolves, a quiet, threatening presence ‘buried erect and shining, / L of light, in the heart / of the shed.’ The close of the poem is a brilliant slice of nightmare, a kind of Frost-like short story all of its own, as the countryside and wildlife gradually decay, the narrator and the axe outliving everything.

The whole piece is illustrative of Askew’s strength with extended narrative; her best pieces are underwritten by their palpable reality, their strangeness by the underlying mundaneness. The other poems in the Istanbul Review are ‘Big Heat’, in which the narrative voice is given over to a woman on an unnamed island who assists the white, Anglophone tourists (again, we can assume, the poet seen from a reverse angle); in the poem she has the space to express herself that in reality she supresses: ‘I want to say / that crying is a stupid luxury / the island women can’t afford […]But I’m quiet, / pour a glassful for her from our fridge. / She sputters thank you in our language’. Again, the poet paints herself as not only a secondary character but one specifically excluded from the poem’s centre of authority. It’s kind of exhilarating. ‘Bad Moon’ is an excellent, good-humoured piece of deconstruction, and the palpable glee of its last stanza too good to spoil. If you get the chance, look it up.

Otherwise, Claire is @OneNightStanzas and runs a rather excellent blog.

 

Niall Campbell:

I reviewed Moontide way back when; I humbly ask you read that review instead of a ctrl+c-ctrl+v-ed version here. It would be unfair to the other shortlistees.

 

Harry Giles:

Visa Wedding pitches between America and Scotland, and it features (amongst other things) a speaking voice that is as assured and coherent as it is playful and resistant to taxonomy. The opening poem ‘Visa Wedding #1’ puts its cards on the table in (‘mongrel and magpie’) Scots, ‘Listen, hit’s semple’, before making a case that’s anything but. As the poem’s invocation of American and Scottish traditional standards suggest, the poem focuses on the performing ‘I’, its sense of self ‘tursit in that muckle myndin n ma’d-on / ancestry hit’s at lang n lenth hausable’; ‘Visa Wedding #1’ holds in its heart the hope, or ambition, that, since all selves are constructed anyway (cf the somewhat unconvincing nirvana entreated by the country-western lines ‘tak me hame tae the place / I belong’), the improvised nature of the poet’s own is no discredit.

Visa Wedding puts this first principle to good use in its several love poems, each of which take off from engagingly off-kilter perspectives, performing a neat turn in self-deprecating-self-aggrandisement in their bright and oddly scientific conceits (the seduction of rational, fact-based learning in ‘Curriculum’: ‘Get down and dirty // with transects, quadrants’; the moving amount of intellectual effort that brings ‘An Experiment was Carried Out’ to the conclusion: ‘I have failed to prove / the null hypothesis / that I do not love you.’). ‘Sermon’ is an excellent satirical set piece that rewires a speech given by the Prime Minister at the Munich Security Conference by replacing ‘terror/terrorists’ (or similar) into ‘love/lovers’: ‘We need to be / clear on where the origins of love lie’. The book’s most obvious bid for a complicated understanding of sexuality is in ‘Vows’: ‘one of the reasons I can put up with marrying you is / that we both think many-valued logics are / HOT / are much sexier than metaphors’. It might be a sign of the skill with which these ideas are deployed that it’s far easier to quote them than unpack them.

The closing poem, ‘Brave’, is a Ginsberg-y, Whitmanny declaration of contemporary Scotland: ‘I sing o a Scotland whit hinks thare#s likely some sort o God, rite? / whit wad like tae gang for sushi wan nite but cadna haundle chopsticks’. For a poem written at least two years prior to the current independence debate, it shows some remarkable prescience.

Oam: Poems fae Govanhill Baths, published in November 2013, exactly twelve months after Visa Wedding, shows a remarkable development both of the personal/political scope of Giles’ poems and the imaginative confidence of the books’ Scots. As the pamphlet’s afterword explains, Govanhill Baths Community Trust is now well underway in its four-year plan to fully reopen the swimming pool and ‘steamie’, and is already open as an arts venue. The reopening came after a seven-year long community-led campaign, and the book’s sense of the baths’ history is at the heart of its aesthetic. The poem ‘Scenes fae a protest’ puts the telling of this history into the hands of the protesters, brings it into clear-sighted and undramatic terms: ‘auld wifie brang a poly bag / luikit pangit wi sandwiches / Ah thocht ye’d need this’, ‘bluidy pineapple! whar / wad we get a pineapple? / naw thir wis mebbe / five hunner eggs but Ah nivvir / saw a pineapple’. The collection is about putting human experience first.

Oam aims to redress political balances, and, much like Visa Wedding, undermines social constraints as it goes. ‘The hairdest man in Govanhill’ is a totally joyful poem, simultaneously unravelling and rebuilding masculinity into something positive and communitarian: ‘the puils o his tears stap traffic / n weans sweem in thaim / n he greets hairder juist tae please thaim’. ‘Tae a cooncillor’ is a wee bit of political poetical genius, taking a template from Burns’ ‘To a Mouse’ in a way the bard might well have clandestinely approved. ‘Wee glaikit, skybald, fashious bastart, / whit unco warld make ye wir maister?’, the poem asks, and has a bloody rollicking time answering. It’s probably the sole note of anger, however ironic, in a book more concerned with asserting the best of the community’s achievements, and even then there’s a joy in its flyting:

Gin maraounjous wirds seem awfie sterie,
a weird whit’s oot o whack, a theory
owerfane – yer wrangs war peerie –
Ah’ll wiss insteid
ye see yersel as ithers see ye:
awready deid.

Harry too is active on the Twitters, and verily runneth a superb poetry-art-activism blog. For more of his work, I’d first check out this fantastic live performance of the series ‘Drone Poems‘.