On the Pale Sun of Toby Martinez de las Rivas

Before approaching the subject of this essay, I want to say first that every member of the 2018 Forward Prize judging panel is a professional I respect. Their job is unenviable, given how much time deliberating on the 100+ entries must take, the visibility of the task and the inevitably large number of disappointed parties. It’s also worth noting that this is possibly the most challenging, exciting, ambitious group of books I’ve ever seen on a UK prize list, and I tweeted at the time how much good news it embodied.

What this essay critiques is our (white, influential, safe members of the community) collective willingness to overlook the exclusionary politics and destructive behaviours of poetry’s leading lights. This year has been an object lesson on how the abusive-but-powerful face few consequences, and those solely from grass roots activism. It would be fitting, then, that a poet pushing nakedly fascist ideology should gain the highest honour in our community. I hope beyond reason he does not.

I don’t say any of what follows lightly, and I should have spoken sooner. I write this late in the day because I selfishly feared for the professional and personal relationships it might jeopardise. The Forward Arts Foundation have supported my work with books, invitations to award ceremonies, and financially through my Patreon campaign. I write this in haste because Martinez de las Rivas is a tendentious and damaging thinker, his presence on the shortlist is diametrically opposed to the Foundation’s principles, and I fear what he might do with the international platform a victory would provide.

In his 1932 Doctrine of Fascism, Benito Mussolini narrated his own version of the contexts of Italian fascism, and how his fascism must operate:

‘Granted that the 19th century was the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy, this does not mean that the 20th century must also be the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy. Political doctrines pass; nations remain. We are free to believe that this is the century of authority, a century tending to the ‘right’, a Fascist century. If the 19th century was the century of the individual (liberalism implies individualism) we are free to believe that this is the ‘collective’ century, and therefore the century of the State.

The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist, much less have value. Thus understood, Fascism is totalitarian, and the Fascist State—a synthesis and a unit inclusive of all values—interprets, develops, and potentiates the whole life of a people.

…everything in the state, nothing against the State, nothing outside the state.’

First, a falsehood is established: in the nineteenth century, left-wing or liberal thinking went too far. Fascism is, by its nature, a response to an invented threat; the brutality European fascism aspired toward required a vast fiction to justify itself. These acts are explicitly embodied in the all-powerful State, the ‘spiritual values’ of the Church, and the body of a single, anti-democratic leader. Nothing outside this narrow definition of nationhood has worth; the nation’s acts of genocide, therefore, are not only justifiable but an inevitable conclusion.

Fascism places at the heart of its ideology a lie from which all else follows. No good faith discussion can be had against fascism, as it does not care for truth, only power. The possibility of good faith discussion is what is at stake. The specifically British incarnation of this ideology is founded on the myth of benevolent empire, and the god-given superiority of the white men who operated its vast mechanisms. The recorded facts, that generations of our ancestors willingly committed atrocities to fuel centuries of global dominion, and maintained our control of imperial benefits when empire was supposedly over, are aggressively denied; see the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, or the various European leaders who have told former colonial subjects to simply ‘move on’ from their centuries of suffering.

In an interview with Lucy Mercer for the LA Review of Books, Martinez de las Rivas makes his dedication to instilling his poetry with his politics explicit:

‘In part, it’s a book that attempts to come to terms with the intense fear of disintegration that drove Terror – the fear of nothingness. There are many poems about the dead or dying, so the idea of the body that suffers is important, as well as the body that might be consoled through care, through physical love — ultimately, through divine love. Other poems are concerned with the larger body of the state, and the importance to me of the coherence of that body, so readers might detect positions that are, perhaps, monarchist, Unionist, and Anglican.’ [emphasis mine]

I keenly await critiques from those conservative critics who complain of there being excessive ‘politics’ in the poetry of marginalised authors denouncing Martinez de las Rivas’ explicitly ideological agenda. Here, Martinez de las Rivas muddies the water of Christian compassion by erasing the poor and outcast for whom Christ’s consolation was primarily reserved. Bizarrely, given the anti-imperial, anti-establishment consistencies in Jesus of Nazareth’s thinking, Martinez de las Rivas draws a straight line between the physical body of the holy individual and the symbolic body of a national culture and State. He prompts the reader to ‘detect’ his own submission to crown, Church and State because his creative work is a vehicle for these positions, a means to a political end.

The fiction of a simpler, purer Britain appears repeatedly in Martinez de las Rivas’ framing of the degraded, incoherent, post-modern ‘urban’ and the regal, paradisal ‘rural’. Later in the same interview with Mercer:

‘As you suggest, there is a certain notion of England that is important, too. Hostile to the metropolis, hostile to a particular kind of urbane sophistication, loyal to a kind of Blakean vision of the English countryside as a precursor to, or allegory of, paradise.’

Given that the English countryside is heaven, what does that make the metropolis, and the people who live in each? Martinez de las Rivas continues:

‘Some time after Terror went to press I was toying around with images and motifs. I sketched a much larger circle into a document and infilled it with black, and I was suddenly aware of it as a presence separate from me; or as the objective expression of something intimately mine. […] And I can only conclude, from the text, that it means many things. In one poem it is a symbol of vengeance rising over London’ [emphasis mine]

Black Sun is titled after a figure which stands, most prominently in the poet’s mind, as a symbol of divine retribution against the country’s biggest and most racially diverse city; in the book, a solid black circle appears several times, most forcefully in the end matter, where the word ‘Judgement’ is repeated dozens of times behind it, before turning white on the opposite page. Given the appropriation by many conservatives of Blake’s Jerusalem, along with its myth of an English nation graced by Christ himself, it is no surprise to see him invoked here. Martinez de las Rivas embraces a myth of English purity and simplicity, ignoring the historical facts illuminated by Jay Bernard, for example, that England (and Europe at large) has never been purely white. Black Britons existed long before the modern conception of the term, Blake’s paradise was made possible by outsourcing its horrors to the victims of empire, Britain exported a vision of itself as true home to some of its colonial subjects as a means of cultural control. Martinez de las Rivas’ vision of his homeland is built around a vast fiction that centres white bodies and erases all else. Finally in the interview, he explains his reasons for so intensely imagining an England returned to a state of prelapsarian purity:

‘All of which — as much as I love Spain — has only served to intensify a kind of longing in me for an England that I remember and love intensely, but to which I have no real recourse now. So if that vision is overdone, there are good reasons for it.’

Again, the fiction that such a pure nation ever existed is necessary to justify his thinking. Martinez de las Rivas frames himself has the real victim: of modernity, of urbanity, of diversity, brought low by loving his nation too much. The violence his vision would necessarily entail – cultural cleansing, mass deportation, genocide, the return of the strong body of the imperial State – is erased by his one and only recourse to emotion. Either the cultural complexity of the ‘urban’ or the coherent national body may be preserved, and Martinez de las Rivas is clear which he would prefer. What exists outside his ideal State cannot exist, much less have value.

 

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This line of thinking is nothing new for Martinez de las Rivas. Here is the first sentence of his essay ‘Conflict and Change in the Poetic Theologies of C.H. Sisson and Jack Clemo’, published in PN Review, issue 217 (May-June 2014):

‘In the last few years, ‘radical’ as an epithet in poetry has come to be shorthand for a very particular kind of writing: politically submissive to Marxist dogma, syntactically committed to what is now termed the ‘interrupted lyric’, historically associated in the UK with the Cambridge School, and metaphysically derived from a range of post-structuralist continental thinkers.’

As with Mussolini’s rendering of ‘socialism’ and ‘liberalism’, there is no substance to his definitions, no solid referent, though it presents itself very correctly and properly and would absolutely pass in polite conversation. Missing from Martinez de las Rivas’ opening thesis is the following: who uses ‘radical’ in this way, who is writing this kind of poetry, what evidence he has that they are Marxist, what being ‘politically submissive’ to Marxism means in practice, which Marxist ‘dogma’ in particular they are submissive to, what it means to be ‘syntactically committed’ to anything, who has used the term ‘interrupted lyric’ and about whom, how they are associated with the Cambridge School, who exactly the Cambridge School is, how these historical associations manifest, who the range of post-structuralist thinkers are, what the post-structuralist thinkers think regarding poetry, and how the poets’ writing is derived from those thinkers. And yet, for all the worthlessness of this sentence as a critical thought, a) you, and most certainly subscribers to PN Review, probably know exactly who he’s talking about; b) it takes far longer to break down and critique the vast number of fallacies he has committed than to commit them in the first place; c) in trying to understand what he means on a clause by clause basis, I have completely missed its substance and purpose: Martinez de las Rivas wants right wing politics in poetry, needs a strawman to justify it, and so has created one. While I sit here puzzling through his word salad, he and those sympathic to his airy generalities have already won. Here’s the next passage:

‘But postmodern theories of text and analysis have long since become commonplace in the discourse both of the academy and wider culture, and perhaps the truly radical now would be to see a deep political shift from the left to the right, or the substitution of a committed neo-­Georgian ruralism for a (de)constructivist urbanism in the halls of innovative poetics. The fact that such unbreakable taboos exist reveals the limited aspirations of the so-called radicalism of the recent avant-garde, if, by that, we mean an art which might genuinely shake itself, and, as a consequence, us.’ [emphasis mine]

And here’s the payoff. Because contemporary poetry is in thrall to Marx, it follows that the only solution is to make it fascist. The wild conclusion is reached so quickly, and so quickly leads to another wild conclusion, that it is difficult to respond rationally (which postmodern theories? both academic and ‘wider’ culture? which specific aspects of wider culture? where are these ‘halls’ if not in the academy? if desiring right-wing politics in art is an unbreakable taboo, how did you just break it? why is ‘shaking’ desirable? Who is shaking and who is being shaken? etc). Note also how neo-Georgian ruralism (the revival of King and country) sits in opposition to the deconstructed ‘urbanism’; this counterpoint of regal solidity and urban degradation is a recurring theme. Again, Martinez de las Rivas does not define what ‘urbanism’ means, or what the ‘unbreakable taboos’ of the leftist avant garde are, because he knows his readers will make the leap. ‘Urbanism’ is a dog whistle, and it means all the unclean, deconstructed folk who live in cities. And we all know who lives in cities. ‘Unbreakable taboos’, meanwhile, is a very obvious nod toward the fictional narrative of left-wing sensitivity, usually made by people who destroy a country because their passports aren’t blue. This ‘nazis are the real punk rock / socialists are the real fascists’ narrative has been parroted by any number of soft focus profiles of ethnonationalists in national newspapers for years across the anglophone world. Again, these obvious double-standards are features, not flaws; the consistent element is that white men control of the terms of any conversation, and may change the rules as we please.

 

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But Martinez de las Rivas is a poet, and it is only fair to discuss his poetry. Here’s the poem shared on the Forward Arts website, ‘At Lullington Church/To My Daughter’:

‘In my kingdom it is winter forever.
The snow falls & there is no time nor day –
no distinction between things, no compare,
no flaw to taint our rudimentary clay.

The falcon has flown away with history,
the bullfinch sheathed in ice & snow, the bare
branch shall never know its May,
nor husband teach the vanity of despair.

Nothing disturbs its peaceful sleep, no dream
of life, no hope, no falsifying dawn
alleviate the blank space within the frame –
no words to speak, no beauty to adorn.

Until she wakes and finds herself alone,
you are her rock, Lord. Lord, you are stone.
Lully, Lulley, Lully, Lulley.

Martinez de las Rivas is correct: I detect his monarchism, Unionism and Anglicanism quite distinctly: this is a wish for paradise for the poet’s daughter, divinely provided and protected from history. I have no reason to believe he has lied about all his other beliefs about the necessary purity of the body politic. That final turn, in which the daughter wakes, alone but for the Lord’s presence, can only work if what goes previously is considered a positive, desirable space, or at least a safe one. I cannot read this poem critically without acknowledging the poet’s beliefs: it’s what the poet wants me to do, for one thing. I cannot engage with his theoretical dream of a white nation without seeing it in his practice, its ham-fisted reference to the historical falconry of Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’, another poem written by a high church Protestant with dreams of pure nationhood ruled by aristocracy, who also gravely feared the unclean, unholy masses ‘slouching toward Bethlehem’.

Here are lines from ‘To a Metropolitan Poet’, also from Black Sun:

‘Christ, I can’t stand these popinjays,
so deep in theory, so ostentatiously tolerant.
[…] This is so fucking point-
less, Tobe. You are not theirs, finally, or even
hís, that sees beauty where no other can.’

Martinez de las Rivas violently rejects the idea of sincere ‘tolerance’, the theories (which theories?) of these insubstantial dandies in opposition to his own, rock-solid, faith in a god that ‘holds the rod & sits in judgement’, who may well be a ‘portion of my / self’. The metropolitans stand outside his ideal nation, and barely exist, much less have value.

Here are lines from ‘England’, which opens the book’s middle section, a positioning Andrew Frayn identifies as ‘suggesting its centrality to [Martinez de las Rivas’] identity’:

Hermosa, let me try a final
octave turning south into a wind that stubbornly
flitters through torn pennants of sacking,
purrs in the steel tubes of the gate;
that drives each ponderous & docile cloud
slowly out across the State that is only
an image of the body inviolate,
the nation that extends through all time & space.’

The immaculate body is the nation, the nation is England, England is the eternal nation of heaven. Mussolini: ‘The Fascist conception of the State is all-embracing; outside of it no human or spiritual values can exist… everything in the state, nothing against the State, nothing outside the state’. In the poetry of Martinez de las Rivas, Christ’s body is the white nation, a totalising image of purity and political control.

 

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Poetry is not truth. The world is confusing, human bodies are flawed and compromised instruments, and subject to constant, unpredictable change. The theories we construct around or through poetry are subject to constant revision as we attempt to forge better tools for understanding each other and the world we inhabit, in all its messiness and compromise. Fascism, white nationalism, ethnonationalism, totalitarianism all attempt to erase these complications, to reduce life and its value down to a singularity, a uniformity, that which is most easily controlled and exploited. They are marked by their capacity to appear normal, invisible where possible and virtuous where necessary, innocent in the face of imagined threats from within and without.

Martinez de las Rivas’ exaltation alongside three American poets, one Trinidadian poet and one Trinidadian/British poet is bitterly disappointing, and should not be allowed to pass without comment. He is not fit to stand alongside those whose writing has endured and clarified the very conditions his own writing so eagerly espouses. The Forward Prize is not only an award, though the award is substantial; it is an opportunity to become a power player in the poetry community, to headline festivals, feature in national dailies, boost one’s allies and, in however small a way, shape poetry culture in these islands. There is a one-in-five chance that this power will fall to a poet whose politics are violently retrograde and exclusionary by design, whose idea of paradise lies in the racist fantasies of the most reactionary English nationalism.

As I argued earlier, one reason white nationalism has been so successful is plausible deniability, the safety of nods and winks. There will almost certainly be people who read this essay and see nothing but conspiracy theory and speculation, rather than a series of red flags, the visible residue of a totalising ideology. That is fine. If that is where you are right now, I was never going to convince you. But at least, I tell myself as I write this, I have put it where we can both see it. Thank you for reading.

 

Postscript: it has come to my attention that Martinez de las Rivas wrote and published a poem called ‘elegy for the young hitler’. That feels relevant.

Further postscript: here is a photograph of Taylor Wilson, a neo-nazi convicted of a terrorist attack on an Amtrak train in America. Wilson is carrying the symbol of the Black Sun. The man on the right of the photo is James Fields, a neo-nazi who murdered Heather Heyer in Charlottesville.

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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.

 

*

 

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.

 

*

 

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

some books, a little news, happy new year

It’s an end-of-year post! I’ve tried to keep it brief.

First, personal news: Next month I begin a part-time Research Assistantship at the University of Liverpool (which, happily, I can do almost entirely from Edinburgh). As this position will run alongside finishing a thesis and the other bits of ir/regular work that pay the rent, I’ve decided to put the blog on hiatus, at least for the time being and certainly in terms of the regular update schedule.

This also means, of course, putting an end to my Patreon campaign. I can’t satisfactorily express my gratitude to everyone who has contributed, or how life-changing it has been to see, in the plainest terms, how much faith those folk have in the work I do. Being empowered to consider myself a professional writer for the past two years is a gift I will never forget, so from the bottom of my heart, thank you. I hope I’ve done right by you.

(Links to where you can buy each of these books are at the foot of the post. Edit: forgot to add Jacqueline Saphra’s All My Mad Mothers, which I loved. Amended!)

Books I wish I’d had time to review this year:

Layli Long Soldier – Whereas (Graywolf)

The quality and intensity of political thinking in the foundations of many poetry books over the past years has been a serious joy. Lyric writing that treats its political work and its poetic work as coterminous is gradually finding an engaged and energetic readership in these islands, and in the meantime there is no shortage of work crossing the Atlantic. If I could wish for one book to reach a domestic publisher, though, it would be Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. The book negotiates with the various formal decrees from the US government to the First Nations, including the apology for the colonisers’ atrocities from which Whereas takes its name. Long Soldier explores how this legacy is engrained in every encounter with white America, from the interpersonal to the governmental. Her capacity to activate so many perspectives simultaneously, from the traumatic to the mundane, with subtlety, sensitivity and unflinching precision, demands close and attentive reading.

 

Pascale Petit – Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe)

No one I’ve read writes like Pascale Petit. The way her densely wooded imaginative space, seemingly inescapable and full of vibrant, beautiful predators, spans multiple collections as a poetic theatre is by itself a remarkable achievement. It has not only been the punctum of multiple collections without feeling overworked, but seems to gather new dimensions in Mama Amazonica, its human and bestial subjects interweaving more fluidly and powerfully than ever. Additionally, the book is shaped and arced primarily as a book, to be read in order with discernible authorial control of the reader’s experience over time. There is a poem close to the end that just broke me. Some day I hope to come back and give the collection the attention it deserves, but I sincerely hope someone better equipped beats me to it.

 

Kayo Chingonyi – Kumukanda (Chatto & Windus)

There has been a heartening number of new collections this year which engage thoughtfully and critically with contemporary expressions of masculinity; Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds most obviously, but also Inua Ellams’ #Afterhours, Wayne Holloway-Smith’s Alarum, Rishi Dastidar’s Ticker-tape, William Letford’s Dirt, Raymond Antrobus’ To Sweeten Bitter, Keith Jarrett’s Selah; I’m sure I’m missing some. But Kumukanda stands out for its capacity for – or attraction to – jarring contrasts, a book that, like Long Soldier’s, holds moments of joy and moments of injustice in their due esteem, each illuminating the other. Chingonyi is a deft and skilful narrator, has a sharp eye for the small details that make a story get up and walk. His work is keenly aware of the canon, and exactly how much space it fails to make.

 

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

Chingonyi is among the astonishingly talented cohort to graduate the Complete Works mentoring programme; British poetry would be deeply impoverished without it. The most recent anthology maintains the promise and quality of previous iterations; suffice to say that if Raymond Antrobus, Omikemi Natacha Bryan, Leonardo Boix, Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Will Harris, Ian Humphreys, Jennifer Lee Tsai, Momtaza Mehri, Yomi Sode and Degna Stone don’t have long and prosperous careers in these islands, it won’t be for of want of talent or ambition. The anthology is too rich and various to summarise and a paragraph, but if you only have room in the post-holiday budget for one book, this is the one I’d put in your hands.

 

Books I read this year that are not just good but fundamentally changed how I read poetry:

Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman (eds) – Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches).

An education and a celebration. A dozen ways of thinking about art I’d never considered before. A clinic in how to make a many-minded book into a poem all of its own.

Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular (Liverpool University Press)

Left my brain fizzing, a combination of surgically precise thinking and an utterly human earthiness. New thoughts every time I’ve come back to it. Great puns.

Tara Bergin – The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet)

Risky, self-assured, angry, charismatic – evidence that working in traditional forms is no excuse for traditional thought. Bergin manages the shifting trustworthiness of the book’s narrators unlike anyone I can think of.

Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing (Ink, Sweat and Tears, 2016)

A beautiful, hallucinogenic yarn, an intricately observed character study and artfully modernised myth. An excellent argument for critically studying pamphlets as full and completed works.

Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby (Faber)

Often acutely self-critical, an insightful challenge to generic expectations of elegiac poetry. Touches some tender nerves, but never sensationalises. Validates all aspects of grief, from the existential to the absurd, a deeply humane book.

Anne Carson – Float (Cape)

Like attending a party where everyone is smarter, funnier and more interesting than you but would be delighted to tell you some stories, if you’d like to listen.

Bhanu Kapil – Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books, 2015)

Wish I’d found this sooner. Its close and nuanced engagement with British society and politics make Kapil’s lack of a British publisher somewhat glaring. A tough but enlightening book.

Maggie Nelson – Bluets (Cape)

Very tempting to read in one sitting, materially altered my perception of colour. Originally published in 2009 in Nelson’s neck of the woods, tremendous to have it readily available this side of the ocean.

Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting (Peepal Tree)

Ramlochan’s book is devastating in its directness, its refusal to mince words. I couldn’t manage more than a handful of poems at a time, but came back to it as soon as energy permitted.

(A very incomplete list of) Books I read this year which I loved and would unequivocally recommend:

Raymond Antrobus – To Sweeten Bitter (Out-Spoken)

Khairani Barokka – Rope (Nine Arches)

Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet)

Sophie Collins – Small White Monkeys (Book Works)

Rishi Dastidar – Ticker-tape (Nine Arches)

Edward Doegar – For Now (Clinic)

Inua Ellams – #Afterhours (Nine Arches)

Will Harris – All This is Implied (HappenStance)

Harmony Holiday – Hollywood Forever (Fence)

Amaan Hyder – At Hajj (Penned in the Margins)

William Letford – Dirt (Carcanet)

Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree)

Karen McCarthy Woolf – Seasonal Disturbances (Carcanet)

Rachel McCrum – The First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate (Freight)

Miriam Nash – All the Prayers in the House (Bloodaxe)

Nat Raha – de/compositions (enjoy your homes)

Padraig Regan – Who Seemed Alive and Altogether Real (The Emma Press)

Jacqueline Saphra – All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches)

Rebecca Tamás – Savage (Clinic)

Agnes Torok – We Need To Talk (Burning Eye)

Hope you don’t mind indulging a slightly exhaustive, hopefully not exhausting list to end the year; partly I’m concerned not to leave any loose ends before I switch the lights off for a bit. A huge, huge thank you to everyone who’s been reading this year. Here’s to 2018 being a little kinder. Love and solidarity.x

————————————————————————————————————

Links to shops:

Layli Long Solider – Whereas (Graywolf)
Pascale Petit – Mama Amazonica (Bloodaxe)
Kayo Chingonyi – Kumukanda (Chatto & Windus)
Ten: Poets of the New Generation (Bloodaxe)
Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman (eds) – Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches)
Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular (Liverpool University Press)
Tara Bergin – The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet)
Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing (Ink, Sweat and Tears)
Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby (Faber)
Anne Carson – Float (Cape)
Bhanu Kapil – Ban en Banlieue (Nightboat Books)
Maggie Nelson – Bluets (Cape)
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting (Peepal Tree)
Raymond Antrobus – To Sweeten Bitter (Out-Spoken)
Khairani Barokka – Rope (Nine Arches)
Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet)
Sophie Collins – Small White Monkeys (Book Works)
Rishi Dastidar – Ticker-tape (Nine Arches)
Edward Doegar – For Now (Clinic)
Inua Ellams – #Afterhours (Nine Arches)
Will Harris – All This is Implied (HappenStance)
Harmony Holiday – Hollywood Forever (Fence)
Amaan Hyder – At Hajj (Penned in the Margins)
William Letford – Dirt (Carcanet)
Nick Makoha – Kingdom of Gravity (Peepal Tree)
Karen McCarthy Woolf – Seasonal Disturbances (Carcanet)
Rachel McCrum – The First Blast to Awaken Women Degenerate (Freight)
Miriam Nash – All the Prayers in the House (Bloodaxe)
Nat Raha – de/compositions (enjoy your homes)
Padraig Regan – Who Seemed Alive and Altogether Real (The Emma Press)
Jacqueline Saphra – All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches)
Rebecca Tamás – Savage (Clinic)
Agnes Torok – We Need To Talk (Burning Eye)

Tara Bergin – The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx

Disclosure: Haven’t met the poet. For a lot of the book’s discussion of Madame Bovary and Eleanor Marx’s life I’m relying on the book’s own extensive endnotes. Please note that both the book and this review examine gendered inequality, the language of diminishment and gaslighting, and the language of emotional abuse. Thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for her editing insight.

‘It won’t help if I tell you this but it might.’ (‘Mask’)

Review: Tara Bergin’s second collection begins with an epigraph from Marianne Moore: ‘What is more precise than precision? Illusion.’ The texture of The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx is shot through by this Moore-like tension between arch, often stylised dramatic performance and powerful undercurrents of grief, solitude, anger. Speakers in Bergin’s poems correct, interrupt, repeat themselves, leave thoughts unspoken and incomplete, but there’s an inescapable sense that every revision, every ostensible misstep, is purposeful. Though the poems inhabit an impressive range of personae, settings, tones and lyric forms, it gradually becomes clear that not only are they working in concert, but their shared thematic roots run extraordinarily deep. The book is a unity, in the clearest possible sense. Though Marx’s biography, on a first reading, might primarily seem like a useful framing device, the circumstances of her life and death find echoes and touchstones throughout the collection.

As the book’s endnotes relate, Marx committed suicide shortly after discovering that Edward Aveling, her partner of fourteen years, had married his mistress in secret. Though the collection is bookended by episodes from Marx’s life and work, most of the book takes its setting in an indeterminate space between Marx’s contemporary moment and our own. One poem references the war in Afghanistan, another the Victorian rules regarding floral courtship. Bergin’s speakers, as the book’s epigraph indicates, take many guises (one poem is called ‘Mask’, others include ‘Drama Lessons for Young Girls’ and ‘Rehearsing Strindberg’, the book’s final word is ‘rehearsed’), only some of which seem to share qualities with the biographical poet. This indeterminacy is, I think, part of the what makes the book such a deeply discomfiting experience: the reader is not being guided thoughtfully through an imaginative space, the rules change, the guide changes, the handholds are unreliable. This gradually and often passively exhausting environment may well be part of the book’s dramatization of finding one’s means of understanding the world and the people around oneself unreliable.

The book’s first poems – ‘The True Story of Eleanor Marx’ and ‘The True Story of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts’ – perform its first instances of (potentially misleading) self-correction, the first instance of a man checking and inhibiting a woman’s capacity for self-expression:

‘I’m not going to tell you anything
That my psychoanalyst wouldn’t tell you.
He too speaks in riddles.
He too proclaims we are all victims
Of our insurrections.
I will not stand up to him.’

There’s a hell of a lot going on here. The familiar idiom ‘I’m not going to tell you…’ takes on a secondary meaning, ‘I refuse to tell you’ or ‘I am not permitted to tell you’ what has not been officially sanctioned by a male authority figure. Coming back to these lines after reading the whole collection, the psychoanalyst’s proclamation of shared victimhood with Eleanor seems cruelly disingenuous, not least in light of her incapacity to resist his final say. The way this small, claustrophobic poem opens out into a story in ten parts, however, feels paradigmatic in a book that consistently pushes towards greater complication than accepted norms permit, grates against boundaries of perceived respectability. ‘The True Story of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts’ also picks up a grim, deft comic tone that will continue throughout the book. The violence instigated by Edward Aveling’s cowardice and deference to social niceties, his desire for the markers of decency and rectitude afforded by marriage, is punctured by the wry humour of the narrative voice:

‘Eleanor of the eight-hour day
Gets betrayed by Edward of the two faces.

[…]

‘The Coroner is exasperated with feeble Edward. […]
Coroner: What was her age?
Edward: Forty.

(She was forty-three.)’

The question of how such a brilliant and courageous person could maintain a relationship with such a patently ‘feeble’ and thoughtless one seems to haunt the book. The word ‘cruel’ appears three times, in ‘Joseph’s Palms’, ‘Tamer and Lion’, and the final poem, ‘Bride and Moth’. On each occasion, it refers to a named male figure of romantic or sexual desire, all with predatory or violent connotations:

‘And for a moment
Joseph looked quite cruel,
I smelt the resin and the dust,
and felt a sudden, terrifying
lust.’ (‘Joseph’s Palms’)

‘Thomas, I won’t give up on you,
even though they are all saying that you are cruel and corrupt.’ (‘Tamer and Lion’)

‘What queer songs Green Peter sings –
but of course he is both attractor and deceiver:
I mean, he thinks they are the same thing. […]

What cruel songs Green Peter sings.’ (‘Bride and Moth’)

On the other hand, women are persistently referred to as ‘small’, ‘little’, ‘tiny’, ‘young’, often by themselves; the book again seems to recreate an environment in which the very language of one’s engagement with gender is rigged by design and subsequently internalised by those it harms most. On a technical level, the closing line break and rhyme in ‘Joseph’s Palms’ is stunning. The speaker’s response is not contextualised, excused or explained, and the reader’s response is directed only by our understanding of how this scene interacts with the book’s concerns at large. The rhyme of ‘dust’ and ‘lust’, its clear connection of violence, death and desire, is heartbreaking. The poem’s one-word closing line feels inescapable, despite the speaker’s identification of the threat Joseph poses. The way the poem binds its message with its form is characteristic of a book with an uncommonly keen sensitivity to rhyme. Though rhyme appears throughout the book, it almost never does so within a fixed scheme, more often one-off flourishes, sound-traps that take the reader off-guard. Take section nine of ‘The True Story of Eleanor Marx in Ten Parts’:

‘And in the offices in Maiden Lane,
There is a cupboard with two glass panes.
And there they place her to remain
For years and years.’

The heavy full rhymes make the first couplet seem almost fairytale in their simplicity; the third full rhyme feels jarring, like one harsh note too many, before the scheme and rhythm disintegrate into the fourth, shrugging, sighing line. It’s a minor point, and drawing this much attention is more than it was intended for, but one could analyse a dozen such moments and barely scratch the surface of what Bergin invests in the correspondences between sounds. Here’s ‘Tamer and Hawk’, maybe a companion piece to ‘Tamer and Lion’:

‘The bird is wired with little bells.
It won’t take fright:
it doesn’t want to hear the jingle-jangle,
does it?

No.
The tamer keeps the hood on.
That’s right.’

The skin crawls at the tamer’s odious faux-concern, his intricate means of control, his assumption of the hawk’s wishes, the real violence hidden by the infantilising ‘little bells’ and ‘jingle-jangle’. Like dust/lust in ‘Joseph’s Palms’, the full-rhyme ‘fright’/‘right’ draws an explicit line between fear and control, as well as formally enacting the poem’s drama. The poem’s title directs us back to ‘Tamer and Lion’, in which:

‘You have the ability to do great hurt, Thomas,
but you also carry within you a great hurt.
Don’t you?
I hope you do, Thomas.
I do.’

The asymmetry between ‘Tamer and Hawk’ and ‘Tamer and Lion’ is pointed. Where the hawk is entirely under the tamer’s control, the only thing we know for sure about the lion (or Thomas) is his ability and willingness to commit violence. It’s unclear whether the speaker in ‘Tamer and Lion’ is reiterating her hope that Thomas carries great hurt (and with it some hope that Thomas may be salvageable), or implying that the only hurt is carried within the speaker herself; ‘tamer’ begins to sound closer to ‘one who is more tame’ than ‘one who tames’. Bergin’s staging of these allegorical relationships is finely nuanced (the mind returns to Moore’s ‘precision’), and the proximity of their surface and subtextual meanings creates a highly charged atmosphere. That the poet manages these and several other comparable scenes with a lightness of touch, thematic consistency and imaginative generosity is part of what makes The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx such an affecting experience.

The book just as often depicts narrators who have internalised social cues to self-correction and control; one of the poems’ repeated moves is in lines that almost repeat, but for a small alteration that changes everything:

‘For a young girl to dream –

For a young woman to dream
that she sees a horse in human flesh’ (‘To Dream of Horses’)

‘Violence is such a lovely word.
I think you’ll find I used it first –
I think you’ll find I heard it first.’ (‘Ode to the Microphone’)

These gestures leave the reader with a hazy impression of who these speakers might be, and what they truly want, or mean. Bergin seems to suggest that to obey codes of respectability is to suffer violence, that one’s expression is foreshortened by conventions so pervasive they are almost impossible to name, with only the cold comfort of maintaining an ostensible peace. The speaker in ‘Notes from the Sanatorium’ comes close to the bone when they mention, in passing, ‘I have always had far too much of myself in me.’ The line is close enough to the criticism ‘being full of oneself’ that the altered syntax almost passes unnoticed. This speaker is not full of themselves, but has too much self to be controlled. The sanatorium steps in as an institution for those who are ‘too much’.

Where Bergin’s female speakers self-correct, diminish and disguise their pain, the speaker in ‘The Method’ gives some of the book’s clearest and most direct expressions of personal intent, and the willingness to inflict harm:

‘Everything I do, I do in order to get something.
For example: Jane.
I want Jane, but she doesn’t want me.
Now, everything I do,
I do in order to get past the obstacles to Jane.’

The speaker clearly does not expect to be rebuked or corrected into a state of respectability. In fact, in the market of exchange established in ‘The Giving Away of Emma Bovary by Several Hands’, the speaker already exists within that state. There, Charles Bovary has made his intention to marry Emma Rouault clear to her father; the poem is six versions of the same line, from six translations of Madame Bovary:

‘If he asks me for her I’ll give her to him.
If he asks for her, he shall have her. […]
If he asks me I shall say yes.’

In both poems, it is perfectly acceptable to say in blunt terms that the humanity of the person being transacted is negotiable. In a book that fine-tunes the terms of its social interactions to such a keen degree, the simplicity of the spoken grammar in the poem becomes something almost childish, almost ludicrous in its shamelessness; and yet, as the poems about Marx make plain, extremely real.

If this makes The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx sound heavy, an emotional battle, it absolutely is, and it would be a mistake to overlook or diminish exactly what Bergin is exploring with the book. But I also don’t want to misrepresent a book that is informed by an intensely energetic, creative, lucid sense of humour, a real joy to watch in action. In ‘Talking to Anne-Marie after the American Election’, a mundane office chat becomes a farce of almost parabolic significance, as the eponymous Anne-Marie reveals, ‘My name’s not actually Anne-Marie’:

‘And I said: But we’ve all been calling you Anne-Marie for years.
Everyone calls you Anne-Marie.
I know, she said. But it’s actually Anne. […]
Jesus, Anne-Marie, I said, I can’t see you as an Anne at all.’

The speaker can’t abide as minor an alteration to their sense of order as ‘not Anne-Marie but Anne’; how can they comprehend ‘the catastrophe’ of America’s reinvigorated white supremacy? That the speaker persists in calling their colleague ‘Anne-Marie’ is not only plain ignorance, but a kind of inability to acknowledge Anne’s agency; like so many characters in the book, the determining factor in the exchange is the whim of the interrogator. If the speaker ‘can’t see’ Anne, then Anne will simply not exist. Even in tonally comic pieces, The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx doesn’t break its concentration for a second, doesn’t lose sight of the stakes underwriting every interaction.

This has already gone longer than I intended, and in honesty there’s so much left to pore over; the devastating dramatic gestures and rhetorical power of ‘Rehearsing Strindberg’ and ‘Drama Lessons for Young Girls’, the many brief, slight poems that hum with energy. The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx asks extraordinarily difficult questions at an intensity of pitch and concentration that has to be read to be believed.

Further Reading: Interview with Tara Bergin for the Forward Arts Foundation

Paul Batchelor’s review of The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx for The New Statesman

Chloe S. Vaughan’s review of The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx for The Manchester Review

Nuar Alsadir on Clowning and the uncontrolled self for Granta

Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading: Interview in the Evening Standard

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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.

The State of Poetry Criticism – July 2017 Update

[NB: These stats will be updated, along with new data for poetry as well as poetry criticism, on May 17, 2018.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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