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.

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Rishi Dastidar – Ticker-tape [Interview]

Disclosure: Have chatted with Rishi a bunch on Twitter, once in person, and is a supporter of my Patreon. This interview came about from a conversation Rishi and I had when the book was still being written (I think), and facilitated by Julia Forster from Nine Arches Press – they only asked for a wee note at the very end about where to buy the book, which I would have done anyway. For the purposes of the interview Rishi provided me with a proof of Ticker-tape.

Interview:

DC: Ticker-tape is your first full collection, congratulations! Could you tell us a bit about how the book came together? Did you have an idea about what you wanted from the finished article?

RD: Thank you!

The back story is that, towards the end of 2015 the brilliant Jane Commane of Nine Arches Press offered me some mentoring, which coincided with a sense that I had that I thought that I had enough depth and range in my poems that they could start to cohere into something bigger. I cobbled 60-something poems together pretty fast, and sent them to her, with no expectation at all. So I was absolutely gobsmacked when she said she wanted to take them on.

I didn’t have a grand, coherent vision for the book, apart from the sense that a) it had to be a proper calling card and b) ambitious in its own terms. I say that as someone coming to poetry late, and publishing a first book relatively late by current industry standards; so the paranoid bit of me worries that I might only get one shot at this – so to use baseball parlance, I am swinging for the fences here. Hence why the title poem, for example, is as long as it is – why wait to show off when you might not get another chance to?

One thing I should add is that I absolutely knew I had to wait for one final poem to arrive for the book to be finished, ‘These things boys do’. I cannot tell you why, nor how I knew, but I did know that the book would not be complete until there was a working draft of that ready to go, and that poem took the best part of a year to emerge.

What did make things easier is that I absolutely knew what my first poem and last poem would be, and that ‘Ticker-tape’ itself would be the spine of the book. Everything else has had to work within that architecture. And Jane has been brilliant in finding sequences, coincidences and patterns within the poems that I didn’t know were there. I had assumed early on that it might have a relatively traditional romantic arc to it, but she saw that actually that the book is a series of loops, and realising that both unlocked an interesting way of thinking about it, but also gave us permission to be bold when putting it together.

DC: You’ve piqued my curiosity about ‘These things boys do’! What was it that took so long to articulate?

You’ll forgive me if this is an inarticulate response to a question about articulacy, but I suspect it was a couple of things; 1) knowing that it would be one of the keystone poems in the book, one that would be an intersection of the overt and submerged themes of the book and so the idea ‘I must take the time to get this right’; 2) trying to be deft about navigating through topics which it could be very easy to be showy / clod-hoppy and hence tend towards offensiveness; 3) wrestling with a sense that its more personal to me than I might be letting on and indeed telling myself, and that leading to perhaps a state of paralysis / abeyance. There is also 4) I might have just been overthinking it all.

Looking at it again, it strikes me that maybe somewhere in my subconscious I was also aware of: 5) that it would be a poem that’s almost perfectly emblematic of my poetics, and what that is trying to do: shoving too much modernity into older lyric forms that can barely bear what they’re being asked to; letting gods and / or mythic beings rattle on and have their say; geographic yearning; riffs on capitalism, identity and technology; a keening sense of romance; oh and a post punk lyric steal.

DC: The opening poem, “The summers of Camus’ youth”, seems to suggest there’s something rotten under the surface of normative masculinity, the poem’s scene of casual, idyllic harassment concluded by the lines ‘These are healthy pleasures. / They certainly seem ideal to the young men.’ Do you have a sense of what contemporary masculinity is and how it impacts your poems?

RD: I don’t think I am grand enough to claim, or plugged into the relevant political debates, to suggest I have a strong sense of what contemporary masculinity might be right now… I can work outwards from me I suppose; I latched very early on to the idea of alpha vs beta males (viz my Twitter etc being ‘BetaRish’), and I don’t think its a coincidence that I, with little aforethought, have positioned myself towards the latter end of that spectrum. Even before I started writing it was clear to me that the alpha male was a tribe that I could not comfortably inhabit, and any way, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to – if to write is to observe is to be detached, how can you sit within a nexus of power, and not have your judgment corrupted? Better to be on the outside of all these things, as it were.

I didn’t set out to write about this explicitly, but what has become apparent is that I am interested in the codes through which younger men appear to be talking to each other, which is I guess at heart what ‘We Are Premier League’ and ‘Bantz’ revolve around. With the latter – that came from a Ladbible / Unilad piece which crossed my desk and I was just struck by the… ease with which all of what was said – however hateful, hurtful, disrespectful it was – could be washed away by the notion that it ‘wasn’t serious’ or meant seriously. Well, sorry, but get out of jail free cards don’t work like that. Words matter – betray them, and they’ll end up betraying you.

That sounds tremendously po-faced, and no doubt I have laughed along and with tremendously ill-judged, near the knuckle stuff too in my time, but I hope I have enough decency to know I should feel bad about it – and then do so.

One thing that is clear to me is that the level of education that you need to be a (straight) man and not – inadvertently or otherwise – cause offence has drastically increased since I was younger. That’s not a bad thing at all, but I would counsel a wee bit of patience as younger men become woke, as well as feeling bold enough to call themselves feminists. Of course that doesn’t mean one can’t demand higher standards of behaviour immediately.

Can I add one other thing here? A note in defence of Camus, seeing as it’s his words (which I assume are more than 50 years old now) I’m using to convey the idea that there is always ambiguity that surrounds any form of pleasure or hedonism. I hadn’t realised until reading Sarah Bakewell’s ‘At The Existentialist Café’ (which is tremendous and you all should read), how poverty-stricken his upbringing in Algeria had been and the sense that, in Bakewell’s words, he was “lost without the brilliant-white Mediterranean sun that had been the one compensation in his early life.”

DC: You’ve mentioned to me before how you’re cautious about being a man writing hetero love poems, how misogyny tends to be the default. How did you approach your love poems with those concerns in mind? I think poems like “Licking stamps” and “What night is” handle things rather well, for example, in very different ways.

RD: Well, that’s kind of you to say, and I hope that readers do see that the intention behind the majority of my love poems is to celebrate one of the characters, and more often than not cast any male ‘I’ in less flattering terms. And when I say ‘celebrate’, hopefully not just in a ‘they’re beautiful / good-looking / the ‘I’ only wants to sleep with them’ sense.

Was there conscious strategy at play? Perhaps not – but I found that the more that I could give voice, agency to female characters, the more it felt that the poems moved away from any traditional love poem setting or direction, as it were. Plus, candidly, I struggle(d) to see how much newness or innovation I could bring if things just stayed as ‘strong male ‘I’ figure lusting after AN Other’. Let’s say a desire to do things differently helped to lead to a stance where I could feel that the male ‘I’ starts to become a tad more recessive.

There is also hopefully a note of joy in most of the love poems – I mean, I hope that’s where the impulse for most of them started. I know the book has come out as having a sad undertow to it, but in most cases of individual poems there was an upbeat optimistic sense that started the drive to create.

DC: Right, there’s a lot of the book where joy doesn’t seem a possibility, I’d love to pick your brain about that! Before we get there, though, could you tell us a bit about your experiences with The Complete Works? Ten: The New Wave is still one of my favourite books, full stop.

It’s not a bad little book that one, is it? 😉 I vividly remember sitting down to read the proofs when they arrived, finishing them and then just having to stay still for a moment, thinking how lucky I was to be in such a mighty thing, in amongst such mighty, mighty company.

I keep telling people that being selected for The Complete Works is the closest I’m ever going to get to a winning lottery ticket, and I really don’t think that’s an exaggeration. So many things about it just make it special. One is obviously the talent you’re around – and then from that comes the knowledge, the expectation, “well lad, you’d better raise your game here”. I didn’t realise it going in, but the unspoken demand for excellence was a really great thing – it made me focus.

Being part of the programme – becoming part of the family – didn’t just help me develop my poetic craft. It made me think harder and much more deeply about being a writer, being an artist and the responsibilities that come with that, especially the political ones. It woke me up to the fact that, coming from the British Asian (for the sake of clarity, here I am very deliberately using the term that I tick most often on the monitoring forms) background I do, my work as a poet can never just be about ‘writing’. And I love the fact that collectively we’ve had such an impact that it would be embarrassing for British poetry now to regress – we’ve comprehensively, concretely proved that the poetry of these isles can or ever should be of one colour ever again.

The memories: one – Bernadine Evaristo at my interview pretty much telling me that, no, I need to be thinking about books 3, 4 and 5 now – that’s the ambition we have to have. And two – I will go to my grave treasuring the moment I was in a room when Warsan Shire read a draft of a poem. You know how people reckon magic doesn’t exist? So so wrong. Oh, and 300 people at Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre for a reading – that were alright. [see video above! – DC]

DC: I sincerely hope you’re right about the permanent change in British poetry. Now and then I have this notion that if we can change things in this small corner of the culture it could be a model for change elsewhere. I’m a natural optimist though. But maybe I’d be right in saying your poems are too? ‘What’s the matter with…’ certainly has a strong faith in human decency, and ‘A man is on the TV, telling me about’ made me want to stand up and punch the air!

RD: Well, I agree with you on that – in whatever way we can, we should be an exemplar when it comes to these things; with my Spread The Word hat on, it is satisfying be able to point publishing people at the progress within the poetry world, and then saying, “Well, if it can be done here, why not in your corner of the literature world?” This of course said with the usual rider that more needs to be done…

And – yes! I think I’m an optimist – not necessarily natural but I tend to a more upbeat, rosier view of things generally, and I think this is – maybe? – one of the things that sets me at a bit of an angle from the wider poetry world, in the UK at least. I’m interested in the extent to which poems can be vehicles towards the sunlit uplands, convey joy as much as they do the blacker, deeper moments. If we say that we’re looking for transcendence in poems – and why not, sometimes at least? – then I think that means joy, happiness has to be part of the mix. And not just a quiet moment, but a noisy exuberance too. It seems odd to me not to have this emotion reflected in some poems. Of course, what makes me happy and giddy might not make a reader so, hence apologies in advance if no joy is procured from the book; no money back, your statutory rights are not affected etc etc.

It’s interesting you pick up on those two poems in particular, as they both definitely started as things which were not upbeat, from incidences and events which were boluses of irritation. That I have disguised the spasms that led to writing was unintentional, but perhaps useful – certainly in ‘What’s the matter…’ I didn’t want the voice to hector from a gloomy place; as it does hector it might as well be from a place that fundamentally assumes that things can be made better. But it does require some good faith – and I do worry that is getting harder to assume and procure, at least in some recesses of the isles.

As for ‘A man is on TV…’ – I read that a lot more pessimistically than you. It arrived after watching a talking head on Newsnight who, you could tell, really thought he was saying something sophisticated, when it really didn’t amount to much more than “I am intensely relaxed about brown people being tortured”. And the smirk that went with it – ugh. It will be intensely joyous for me when asinine voices like that, who hide behind euphemisms, get watered down in our media culture. Can it happen? I think so – I retain a fundamental belief in the decency of most people, and what they want to hear. It might be thwarted by structural economic issues in the media industry that mean opinions tend towards polarity for commercial reasons, but hey! that wormy can is a wee bit too big to dive into now.

DC: For sure, in poetry too white men with basic opinions get promoted/given benefits of doubts in ways poets of colour, particularly women, never are. The joy/exuberance and NOISE is so heartening to read, feels like there’s a real statement to be made aesthetically (in a world with too many Zach Snyders) and politically, in a world that seems designed to keep vulnerable people in a state of permanent anxiety. Is there a political aspect to the joy in your work? Maybe thinking in those terms takes the joy out of it!

RD: Lots of nodding here at the first part of that… And at the second too; having finished the above-mentioned Bakewell book on the French existentialists, one of the things I was underlining many times in it is the connection between freedom, the potential to live the best life you can and the anxiety that the choices that doing this induces. I think, to some extent, that having collectively valorised ‘freedom’ (or having it valorised for us?) to the heights that we have, we are also now collectively beginning to realise that this good – and it is a good thing – is not without costs, especially if you do not have the *wonkish policy word* capacities to use it to the fullness that you might. And that one of these costs, as you say, is for some people permanent anxiety.

In that context, can joy be political? I think so. It really is interesting, how… radical it appears, just putting those two words together like that, ‘joy’ and ‘politics’. Like we’ve been trained to view it as unlikely or oxymoronic, that the arena for the peaceful discussion and disputation of how power in a society is to be used and dispersed could ever be joyful.

So here then is a thing that I think poetry could do (and hopefully mine is starting to do, at least): not just lament, but actually suggest the new imaginative possibilities, from which we start to reclaim a, let’s say inclusive civic culture, one that looks at least neutrally upon things, doesn’t reach for the negative as a default. There has to be a middle way between being a cheerleader or a Cassandra…

A poem is never going to become a policy, sure; I don’t want poets to be unacknowledged legislators, but rather, let’s say, practical utopians. Light casters, attention grabbers… Someone has to start building the new shining city on the hill. If it won’t be our politicians or our novelists, it might as well be us.

Look at me, the old romantic. My hard-headed political friends will guffaw at this.

DC: I’m with you. For all WM’s talk of restrictions on their expression (restricted by who? under what authority?) the boundaries that expression conforms to is remarkable. We are not an imaginative people, maybe because we’ve already achieved supremacy. LEADING QUESTION HERE but are you concerned about how Ticker-tape will be received?

RD: Obviously I should say “no”, but I am a writer – hence vain, vulnerable, full of ego and doubt – so the answer is “yes”, to the extent that my vanity will struggle with the book being ignored completely. Though of course, knowing how we are drowning in stuff that is clamouring for attention, the book barely causing a ripple is a perfectly plausible possibility.

Beyond that, I have a latent fear that, if noticed, people won’t know what to do with it, as it doesn’t necessarily cleave to the, shall we say, ‘received’ notions of what a book of poetry by a writer of colour might or should be… I am aware that I don’t have many (if any?) poems that overtly speak to my identity as a British Asian. But I can point you to where my background and some of the experiences I have had are in the poems, just maybe not as obviously as an audience might be used to or expect.

So welcome then an attempt at nuance and doing things differently, and you’ll peel me off the road when I get run over by the discourse that demands I make things more obvious, right? 😉

DC: Every time! I reckon you’ve earned a joyful question to finish on. What’s with all the musical references?

RD: Two things in particular: 1) my starting point is that poetry is sung speech… or a song that one happens to speak, rather than sing. That being the case, it seems to make sense to me to bring obvious musical references in; 2) the fact that, for most of my teens, music – and specifically British independent guitar and house / ambient music between 1991-2000 – was my portal to wider culture and politics.

Basically I came to poetry and literature very late (my degrees were in history, and media regulation), so for me, when going back to the stuff that you need to mine to dredge up the poems, it’s perhaps not surprising in retrospect that I went to the stuff that is my truer emotional hinterland, rather than faking an involvement with a poetic canon that I don’t necessarily feel.

All of which leads to 3) the sense of, well, why ever not? If we’re all comfortable with the idea that poets can write, for example, in response to visual art, draw critical and theoretical frameworks from modern conceptual art, surely we can do so from pop music as well? I do a workshop where I blast songs at participants as their prompts to write… knowing that the emotional associations that people have with music are so strong, why not try to access those feelings through poetry too?

You’ll note that I’m not going anywhere near the hip-hop / rap / spoken word / lyrics stuff, by the way. It’s for me, more elemental than that. If I can transmute into a poem the way a rave song made me feel, for example, so that someone else feels that too, then job done.

DC: Thanks so much for your time Rishi, and good luck with Ticker-tape!

Ticker-tape is available from 24 March from Nine Arches Press.