On Warsan Shire, Peter Riley and Poetry Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading: Inua Ellams on Twitter

Shaelyn Smith on Citizen at TheRumpus

Holly Bass on Citizen in The New York Times

Interview with Warsan Shire at Africa in Words

Profile on Warsan Shire in The New Yorker

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

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

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Mona Arshi – Small Hands

Full Disclosure: Had not previously read any of Arshi’s work. Review copy provided by the Forward Arts folks.

Review: Arshi’s first collection won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in an extremely strong field. As with many poets before her, Arshi’s non-academic background has been pawed over like a curiosity from another world, but her previous career has only a cursory impact on her work (one poem concerns Diane Pretty, who fought for the right to assisted suicide, another Shafilyah Ahmed, a victim of honour killing). Arshi is a poet, which is more difficult to make copy out of, but much less distracting from the poems.

Small Hands is a beautiful, minimally-designed and tiny edition – even the font is noticeably smaller than the industry norm – and Liverpool University Press have done an excellent job making the physical object match the work inside it. The collection is full of curious, shifty poems that seem intent on approaching their subjects sidelong, or from multiple angles at once. If this approach sometimes makes it difficult to get an accurate read on the poem’s message, it does make for work that seems to offer up something different with every reading.

For a taster, here’s ‘Taster’:

‘I taste it because it might taste of honey. I taste it because my brain is a hive. I taste it because I’m properly assimilated. I taste it because I was an only child and refused to share the oranges in the playground. I taste it because I never travelled. I taste it because I’ve travelled to the frozen tundra of the Northern Arctic.’

Several of the book’s poems operate in this kind of mode; there is a central theme, image or refrain around which the poem eccentrically orbits, creating some kind of understanding through irrational connections as much as logical progression. Here, the poem’s excessive ‘because’s push towards its sublimated question, and what it is exactly that’s being tasted (the world? truth? a pebble of quartz?) is left in all its multiplicity, mystery (‘I taste it because nothing is as holy as intimacy because I want it to purr and stink inside me’) and mundanity (‘I taste it because Auntie Naveen’s best friend tasted it and she never looked back’). The poem manages to have its cake and taste it, performing the very act of sensual inquiry it figures as an answer to its own question, as much an abstract sensation as an everyday habit.

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In fact, ‘small hands’ might also be a useful way of thinking about the book’s individual poems, how sensory information is often the prime source of meaning, their preoccupations with tenderness and intimacy. Small Hands seems particularly interested in the boundaries between people, the complex play between love and a less empowering kind of desire, the will to give everything to someone and the need to retain one’s agency. The strange, excellent lyric ‘The Found Thing’ encapsulates this complex dynamic:

‘It infiltrated, left a trace in my mouth
and I wanted it. Emboldened, it began
to colonise all those tight spaces.’

The unnamed ‘thing’ becomes the speaker’s ‘constant mute companion’, then:

‘One morning it was just not there.
I searched and searched, panic rising up
in my throat, and I couldn’t manage
to say what it was I had lost, and how.’

The loss of being controlled is rendered as painful as being controlled in the first instance. In ‘Hummingbird’, the speaker offers up their body, part by part, the generous, loving impulse compromised by some gruesome details that hint toward the violence necessary to enact such a totalising submission of both body and personality:

‘Slide open the bone-zip of my spine,
anoint each rigid peak. Take my limbs

And fold me over. Here’s my mouth, hummingbird,
linger there, and hold my breath.’

Acknowledged in the poem is an apparent fear of the loss of bodily autonomy, alongside the clear delight in the act’s sensuousness. As with ‘The Found Thing’, there is a complicated power dynamic in play, the fear of being ‘colonised’, of the desired body’s capacity to ‘Be God’ over the desirer. These poems are alert to the beauty of the world, but keenly mistrustful of it.

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They also, I think, throw some light back on the book’s opener, ‘The Lion’, a strange, symbolic-ish story about another creature described as being ‘like God’, whose relationship to the speaker is framed in both sexual and paternalistic terms. Again, the speaker stands somewhere between physical desire and an awareness of its incapacitating or dehumanising effects:

‘Although
you can never master the deep language

Of Lion, I am made dumb by the rough
stroke of his tongue upon mine. […] Sometimes

I think all I am is a comfort blanket for his

arthritic mouth.’

In this instance, however, the Lion does not have complete or final control. He is described in terms of decrepitude – ‘I hear the crackle of his bones’, ‘How unstable and old he is now’ – and the poem ends:

‘He starts undressing me under the sweetening stars.

Please girl, he mews; this might be the last time
I will see how the thin light enters you.’

The precise positioning of the italics is vital. ‘Please girl’ is the only direct speech in the poem; the final lines are the speaker’s, and their finality, their intonation of departure and, implicitly, the freedom that comes with it, are a subtly powerful statement.

There are a number of poems in which a domestic space is itself rendered as a kind of cruel and unusual container, a space of social surveillance and moral disapproval. ‘What Every Girl Should Know Before Marriage’ and ‘Bad Day in the Office’ are absurdist riffs on the arbitrary impositions of home life, the state of constant threat that it seems to promise:

‘Things you should have a good working knowledge
of: mitochondria, Roman roads, field glasses, making
rice (using the evaporation method only)

When your mother in law calls you smart,
it’s not meant as a compliment.’ (‘What Every Girl…’)

‘That estate agent arrived for the purposes of the valuation.
He dandled the babies on his lap and placed his index finger
on my bottom lip. There’s some paperwork somewhere.’ (‘Bad Day…’)

There’s a comic atmosphere to these poems, and their sudden tonal shifts are pretty funny. But it’s also underpinned by an awareness that the humour is working in friction with a less amusing truth, a threat of having one’s selfhood undermined by family and respectable society alike. In both poems, the speaker is in a position of powerlessness, and the poem’s wry expression of these criticisms, controls and abuses seems a kind of defence mechanism, a not-waving-but-drowning that indicates suffering through its absurdity. The last line in ‘Bad Day…’ is not the speaker’s words but an advertising blurb which has been ‘eye-balling me’: ‘We promise, you’ll never look back’.

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Between the glowing specificity of the poems’ vision and its often bleak humour are several short, painful elegies for Arshi’s younger brother. The matter is approached with a kind of euphemistic obliqueness, a heightening of poetic strategies employed elsewhere in the collection; the plainly-titled ‘Phone Call on a Train Journey’ begins with the flinching lines ‘The smallest human bone in the ear / weighs no more than a grain of rice’, the kind of trivia one might fixate on in the face of unfaceable grief. The book’s title poem is an act of mindful quietness, ‘passing our palms over creases’, ‘Someone will place his hand on my head’, ‘She’ll be tapping the glass: / only her knuckles illuminated’; the poem is composed of a series of attempts at providing comfort, its use of future tense hinting towards their insufficiency. The poem ends on the mother’s knuckles at the window of a room ‘swollen with light’, an ambiguous figure that trails off toward an inexpressible future.

Small Hands is an assured collection, full of neat phrases and imaginative generosity. As with many first collections, there are a few pieces that seem to reiterate ideas formed elsewhere about sensuality or intimacy more than provide a new angle (I’m thinking of ‘Ode to a Pomegranate’ or ‘The Bird’), or when the poem seems occasioned by a conceit that doesn’t quite seem to satisfyingly develop (‘Wireman’ or ‘Mrs M Unravels’). But when these explorations pay off, they do so with real style, such as in ‘Barbule’, probably my favourite single poem in the collection, a series of hypothetical definitions for a word that google tells me means ‘one of the processes that fringe the barbs of a feather’:

‘An opening or an opening of an opening. […] The first blind rooting tips of a shoot. The effect of moonlight on an oblong pond and an early word for virgin wool. […] The foul breath of an exotic bird, most commonly the peacock.’

It’s a relatively simple effect, but beautifully executed, and it’s moments like these where Arshi’s capacity to translate sensory information into language that Small Hands seems at its most powerful.

Tl;dr: Small Hands is a cracking wee book (physically speaking), and there are poems in here to really savour. Well worth picking up.