Disclosure: Have not met the poet, did the door at one of her gigs in Edinburgh though. Review copy provided by Picador. Reviewed her first collection, Hold Your Own, positively. Thanks to Harry Giles and Sophie Collins for advice and permission to quote from their work.
Discussions of Tempest’s poetry are almost always obscured by discussions about Tempest the icon, most commonly – and deeply unfairly, I think – projected as a golden goose of arts orgs or as a preacher of the kind of morals we (if by we we mean the white middle class liberals who consider the British poetry scene our birthright) used to assume everyone holds. This impulse deserves unpacking, so if you’re just here to read what I think of Let Them Eat Chaos, please skip to the section marked ‘Review’. Until then I’m going to argue that the fact a metaconversation exists at all is largely down to a deeply rooted conservatism about the kind of artist we’re comfortable hearing.
Tempest is wildly successful. Those who’ve been paying attention to Tempest’s career from the outset (my source is Harry Giles, I’m sure you can find others) attest to years of extremely hard work combined with an arts industry eager for her particular brand of hiphop-inflected literature / literature-inflected hiphop, combined with the fact that she’s a damn good writer. In an enlightening facebook thread, Giles argued that Tempest ‘fulfils very well a specific niche which bourgeois art ideologically requires,’ and that her palatability to white audiences, ‘hiphop enough to give theatre audiences a thrill, poetic enough to make her unthreatening to a white gig audience unsure about hiphop,’ has also played an important role. It is utterly vital to note that a) these are notes about the culture in which Tempest’s work is located, not the work, and b) this isn’t what her detractors detract her for, given that arguing for a greater integration of spoken word, hip-hop or any other kind of predominantly BAME poetry tradition into traditionally white poetry communities, platforms, publishers or funding pots is not in the white liberal poet’s best interest.
Even the journalism that affects to give Tempest a fair hearing is unwilling to take her at face value. There are constant references to her age (young!), her appearance (even younger! leonine! cherubic!), and it’s hard not to read the evergreen reporting of her father’s night school law degree as some kind of capitalist-friendly lore imposed over a deeply anti-capitalist oeuvre. Reading these features en masse since 2009, it’s possible to track Tempest’s growing distaste for an arts culture that appears to have neither the will nor inclination to engage with someone who seems genuinely more interested in making art than selling it. I suspect that a small part of the anger in Let Them Eat Chaos is the absurdity that even with access to the nation’s arts media, there is no guarantee of her message being faithfully communicated. Simply put, Tempest is a poet, not a celebrity, and the perpetual coverage is a (perhaps purposeful) distraction from the work; only by aggressively co-opting her art into the culture industry mainstream can it be successfully untoothed.
These might seem first world problems in an environment in which few poets are written about at all, but it’s worth questioning why Tempest is so endlessly interviewed or featured (narratives constructed around/over her) and so rarely commissioned to write features herself (constructing her own narrative). It’s worth questioning why the year after prizewinning poets Claudia Rankine, Vahni Capildeo and Sarah Howe had their ability to self-present quashed by a malignant arts press that Jacob Polley was immediately commissioned by the Guardian to compose his own ars poetica, on his own terms. This is not a criticism of Polley either (though his piece was unsatisfying, perhaps due to the rapid editorial turnaround), but of a culture that refuses to give space or agency to marginalised people, but will trip over itself to present white male excellence completely unfiltered.
Sophie Collins recently performed a piece titled ‘Who is Mary Sue?’ at a reading in Edinburgh, exploring the gender politics surrounding fanfic. The fact Mary Sue exists as a trope at all, Collins suggests, is tied to assumptions about the seriousness and legitimacy of women’s writing, even the capacity of women to write ‘real’ fiction. Collins quotes Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing: ‘she wrote it, but look what she wrote about […] she wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art’. Again, Jackself is a pertinent case study. The book’s protagonist is almost explicitly the fictionalised poet (a Mary Sue? His first name is a variation on the poet’s first name suffixed with ‘self’), but the reviews, interviews and celebration of the book has focused on formal expertise, conceptual innovation, the artist’s work. No one has asked him to reveal the identity of Jeremy Wren, or even talk about how the experiences the book describes have affected him; the private world that occasioned the public work has remained private, in a way Tempest is often aggressively disallowed.
A great way to guarantee the dominance of conservative art, artists and artistic forms is to make the centre so narrow that an essay’s worth of criticism is necessary just to reach a starting point for anything else.
Review: Let Them Eat Chaos is a long poem (perhaps a poetic sequence) touching on the lives of seven people in one street in London who find themselves awake at 4.18am. An audience-addressing narrator guides the reader though each character’s psychological and/or socio-economic situation, from a careworker coming home after a double shift to an insomniac advertising officer. In the live performance recorded by the BBC each monologue is a separate track, and the characters’ personalities are as much brought to life by the music as by Tempest’s skill with exploring complex inner realities, often at breakneck speed. The following is from Jemma, the book’s first speaker:
‘It might be fun
just for a while,
to go back where
my hurt is from
And rinse myself
my body close
To any body
that can recognise
of my ghosts’
The rhythm is part of the meaning. It’s a series of harsh, mechanical pulses (it might be fun just for a while), running headlong towards the climactic ‘ghosts’. If the speaker believes there is joy to be had in her old life, these lines formally suggest otherwise. Jemma’s section might come first because it grounds the book in recognisable emotional reality after an introduction that begins with the dance of the celestial spheres and ends in London in 2016. The book’s stakes might be our society’s soul, but they begin at ground level, a moment of self-reflection in the middle of the night.
Tempest’s critics will almost certainly pick out the second monologue – released as a single, ‘Europe is Lost’ – as evidence supporting the prevailing narratives about her work. If, like many critics I’ve seen, one objects to ‘didactic’ or ‘hectoring’ art there’s plenty of ammunition here. The poem is direct to a fault, a sweeping look at the state of the nation, like MacNeice’s Autumn Journal squeezed into a three-minute track. What deflates such a reading, however, is the local context in which the poem occurs. It is, like every other piece in the book, a dramatic monologue, in persona; the fact it fits snugly over commonly held prejudices about Tempest’s political ‘moralism’ makes it no less a work of fiction. As in Collins’ essay on fanfic, such a literalist reading wilfully bypasses the poet’s very explicit signals that Let Them Eat Chaos is art and not autobiography. She is no more Pete the stoned sound tech than she is Esther the careworker, the speaker in ‘Europe is Lost’. In her brief, Canterbury Tales-esque intro, Esther is described as exhausted, sleep deprived, ‘worried all the time’, in a flat with ‘a black and white picture / of swallows in flight’. All of these details inform the reader about the kind of mind at work in ‘Europe is Lost’, the context in which the poem wants to be read, and any reading that ignores this is incomplete at best.
‘Europe is Lost’ is the second monologue, having this panoramic critique so early on in the book functions as emotional set dressing for the other more intimate stories. One might argue that this doesn’t excuse the broad-brush analysis of selfies (‘here’s me outside the palace of ME’), and facebook activism (‘some of them noticed / you can tell by the emoji they posted’), and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. As I argued in my review of Hold Your Own, Tempest is at her devastating best when bringing to life a single character or inner situation. My last thought on ‘Europe is Lost’, however, is that it is fucking incredible to see an artist flip a table and say this is fucked up, this violates even basic conceptions of the inherent value of human life. As political analysis, it’s not a nuanced document, but that’s not what the poem is for. In a time when ‘political’ is a dirty word in artistic discussion, it’s kind of thrilling to see the gauntlet thrown down with such righteous fury.
The other monologues in Let Them Eat Chaos retain a tight, precise focus; Zoe’s rent has been tripled and she thinks of the history held in her boxed-up possessions and the gentrification of the place she’s lived her whole life; Bradley has a dream job but feels purposeless. The book threads the experiences of its characters together in subtle and not-so subtle ways, the most obvious being the several times various characters ask ‘what am I gonna do to wake up?’, indicating both literal and political awakenings, which could be a subtitle to the whole book. But on deeper thematic levels the book ties these seven people together. Alicia, Pete and Bradley make art that no-one sees: Alicia ‘spits bars to the grass’, Pete writes poems he can’t get his friends to read, Bradley ‘shoot[s] films on [his] phone’. They’re unobtrusive and natural details, but they seem purposeful, moments of talking back to a world that won’t listen. Jemma, Pete and Pious keep returning to self-destructive habits, in full awareness of their emotional wheel-spinning; part of the tension in their monologues is between their capacity for personal change and the systemic oppression that makes such change unattainable, ‘even if he never splashed out / he still couldn’t make the rent on his own place’. Let Them Eat Chaos is up front about its political stances, and the message that loving our neighbours (read also: organising with them politically) is the best means of effecting substantial change underpins it all. What’s left a little below the surface are the potential points of commonality that pre-exist the book’s climactic storm that draws them physically into the street. The book’s dramatic arc is hard-fought and well earned, and I kinda wish it spent a bit more time with all these characters finally interacting (however logistically confusing that might be).
Let Them Eat Chaos feels like a live show that’s been converted to book format after the fact. A full performance with backing band and stagecraft was recorded by the BBC (see the video at the top), and is very much required viewing for a full experience of the book; I watched it with the text in front of me, and it seems clear in which medium the piece is most effective. The book clearly wants to capture the intricacy and agility of the work, but too often the page is formatted apparently at random, landing heavily on phrases or ideas that in performance are given no special emphasis, to the point where more traditional left-aligned blocks of text might have been a more faithful and legible rendering. In performance there is a far more explicit tonal difference between the narrative sections and the parts spoken by the seven protagonists, while in the book there is often little more than an extra line of white space or a shift to the left margin.
I don’t pretend to have any good solution. Simplified musical notation (something like Alice Oswald’s ‘Tithonus’) might be a more articulate way to render Tempest’s speech rhythms, but almost certainly at the cost of being more visually busy or distracting. Where this impacts the reading experience is in how the book fails to capture Tempest’s willingness to prioritise sound over sense; a long run of deft, meaningful, exhilarating speech in performance may read as clunky or clichéd on the page, given that poetry readers will naturally read much slower than the poet recites, placing a heavier burden on individual words or phrases than they are designed for. Part of the pleasure of her work is in the skill and charisma with which it’s performed, the alchemy of turning stock phrases or images into a bigger soundscape that’s as much part of the poem’s fundamental meaning as its component parts. Tempest builds some of her most important arguments by creating repeated tiny moments of tension, building and rejecting the listener’s expectations, and these are desperately difficult to represent visually. Maybe until there’s some standardised notation for spoken word, the conversion to print will lose something (perhaps that’s inevitable, but I’m an optimist).
Let Them Eat Chaos is an atypical poetry book, as much a playscript as a lyric sheet as a collection, and not an easy one to talk about. It has its flaws, but in a poetry culture in which ‘apolitical’ lyric niceties tend to reap the greatest rewards I’m content to substitute mannerly, break-the-rules-but-not-like-that books for work that forcefully states a philosophical case for love and solidarity, even if nuance is sacrificed in the process. My hope for the book is that it opens up some new space to bring activism into art (if not into our daily experience), for poetry – which remains stubbornly white, male and conservative – to be as apt a space for political advocacy as any other genre of the arts. It’s easy to get frustrated with ideas like ‘the personal is political’ and that ‘writing a poem at all is a political gesture’ when the unarticulated subtext is ‘it’s fine to be me, and so anyone who raises their voice in dissent is tedious, deluded or attention-seeking’. Perhaps I’m being naïve, and I’m aware that there are significant gaps in my reading of Let Them Eat Chaos, particularly regards the hiphop tradition, that might undercut some of what I argue here. I hope the conversation continues. But I genuinely think this is a great piece of art delivered by a talented and powerful performer, one of the finest in these islands, and I sorely wish there was more like it, maybe by BAME artists or artists on other intersections of oppression. As the book argues, we’re currently facing the greatest existential threats to our democracy in our lifetime. If silence or compliance will not save us, it certainly will not save those more vulnerable than ourselves, and those people are our responsibility. I guess it’s weirdly heartening to read a book that not only recognises that fact, but takes it to the heart of its artistic enterprise.
Further Reading: Let Them Eat Chaos Live Performance on BBC
Harry Giles suggests Kate Tempest is a modern-day Chaucer, with hilarious consequences
Alex Clark – Review of Let Them Eat Chaos, The Observer
Alexis Petridis – Review of Let Them Eat Chaos, The Guardian
Feature on Tempest in the Financial Times
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