On Warsan Shire, Peter Riley and Poetry Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading: Inua Ellams on Twitter

Shaelyn Smith on Citizen at TheRumpus

Holly Bass on Citizen in The New York Times

Interview with Warsan Shire at Africa in Words

Profile on Warsan Shire in The New Yorker

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever the case, thanks for reading.

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Ten: The New Wave (Bloodaxe)

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

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

Claudia Rankine – Citizen: An American Lyric

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

Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade

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

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

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

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

Karen McCarthy Woolf (ed.) – Ten: The New Wave

Full Disclosure: Have seen both Bernard and Ellams perform live, will be on a panel with Howe at the upcoming Saboteur Awards. Review copy provided by Bloodaxe.

Review: As often, Fiona Moore’s gathering of data is an invaluable resource when it comes to talking about ingrained prejudices in poetry. Talking about this very publication, Moore lays out as starkly as possible the discrepancies between the demographics of the general populace and those who become published poets; in 2005 black and minority ethnic poets made up just 1% of the big presses’ publications, a figure now standing at 8%, though far behind the 14% that would be an accurate reflection of Britain’s demographics – though even this is at best an arbitrary quota, potentially a bluff to refuse further restructuring of power (and a recent post by The Bookseller suggests the problem is by no means restricted to poetry).

What can be done to meaningfully change such structural biases? Perhaps by changing the means by which poetry is identified as ‘excellent’ or otherwise worthy of attention: in the past ten years, only four of the thirty TS Eliot judges were non-white, and only seven of fifty Forward judges; Moore’s research has not yet extended to editors of the UK and Ireland’s poetry magazines and presses, though I doubt it would make encouraging reading. For a case study on gender rather than race, VIDA’s figures on the LRB and TLS’s terrible track record of publishing women was met with derision and attempts to discredit the figures instead of practical engagement with a clear problem. Breaking these systemic barriers would require those with cultural power to give up some of that power, and resistance is perhaps not surprising. Ailish Hopper’s thoughtful essay in the Boston Review examines the collusion between prevailing aesthetic norms and whiteness, a prejudice unreconstructed since the time of Yeats’ (seldom fully quoted) exhortation to his ‘proper’ inheritors in ‘Under Ben Bulben’:

Irish poets, learn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.

One needn’t look particularly far in contemporary British poetry to see this principle alive and well, that Yeats’ criteria for ‘whatever is well made’ (and, crucially, who gets to sing it) remains unexamined.

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The Complete Works have now published two ten-poet anthologies of new work from BAME poets, with an introduction from each poet’s mentor and around ten pages’ worth of poems apiece. It’s enough space to show multiple aspects of their work, to set up something more involving that a greatest hits or a technical highlight reel. TCW director Nathalie Teitler frames the book’s ambitions:

‘There will of course be those who ask ‘Yes, but why does diversity in poetry matter?’ To them I would say that poetry has the potential to hold up a mirror to society; at its best, it has the ability to show what a society may become.’

With that in mind there is, of course, a limit to the value of yet another white opinion on these poems. In some cases I was acutely aware that my set of critical tools simply weren’t up to the job. Perhaps against better judgement I want to at least draw attention to some important work collected here, work that seems a result of a complicated working-out of the poet’s relationship to a dominant, exclusive and restrictive culture, a recognition of and statement against their marginalisation. There is much to recommend from each poet in the collection, and it’s only for the sake of brevity that I’m not writing about them all.

Warsan Shire

Warsan Shire’s first collection is near completion, according to this pretty awesome interview. Shire is introduced in The New Wave by Pascale Petit, who identifies some shared practices in the former’s ability to work an extended metaphor, particularly as a way of understanding or owning trauma. In ‘The House’, Shire employs ‘body-as-house’ to render in physical terms a series of painful past relationships, as a way of incorporating the genuinely comic aspects of romantic failure, as in the miniature masterpiece of gradual revelation: ‘Are you going to eat that? I say to my mother, pointing to my father who is lying on the dining-room table, his mouth stuffed with a red apple’, and the starkly, almost unspeakably appalling, ‘I said Stop, I said No and he did not listen’. In the linked interview, Shire speaks about being a survivor, about how her trauma became deeply psychologically rooted, and describes becoming able to form positive relationships as an extremely demanding process of learning and unlearning. ‘The House’ disrupts notions of safety in what are traditionally our two safest, most integral spaces, the body and the home; Shire does not shy away from the complications involved in reclaiming those spaces, or how such an act is ultimately compromised. That she does so with such a sharp, generous sense of humour (listen to the audience in the video above) is a wonder to behold.

Elsewhere, metaphor fades into the background of an already-meaningful act of presentation. ‘Men in Cars’ is four short pieces on sexual disappointment, estrangement and abuse, and Shire’s ability to lend the poems’ male characters humanity, the individuality of their failures, is itself an extraordinary gesture. Though they do monstrous things, they are not monsters, and again, Shire’s grim touches of humour (‘The car was filled with weed smoke, I would emerge from it like a contestant on a singing show’) makes the poem bold, clear-eyed. ‘Midnight in the Foreign Food Aisle’ depicts the cultural estrangement of the speaker’s uncle, the sense of being inside and outside the British idea of ‘home’:

‘Love is not haram but after years of fucking
women who cannot pronounce your name,
you find yourself in the foreign food aisle,
pressing your face into the ground, praying
in a language you haven’t used in years.’

Shire is a hugely talented poet, insightful, perceptive and visionary. You can find more on her blog and twitter.

Kayo Chingonyi

Chingonyi’s selection starts with two excellent short lyrics, ‘How to Cry’ and the wonderful ‘The Room’, a short metaphysical exploration of the ethics of sampling other people’s music, with the epigraph ‘‘when you sample you’re not just picking up that sound, you’re picking up the room it was recorded in’ – Oddisee’. The poem moves from the mundane circumstances of the original recording (‘the few moments’ grace // before the store-clerk, thin voiced, announces closing time’) to the point of transformation (‘the room / fetching itself from itself in hiccups and spools’), to the poem’s sonnet-like turn, its recognition of the need for skill and study, but also respect for the origins of the work, the poem concluding at its point of departure:

‘mere completists never learn a good song’s secret;
air displaced in that room – the breath of acetate.’

The poem’s syntactic grace and balance are integral to its weighing of two scenarios, two artists working with one artefact. The poem’s two sentences give more time and space to the creator than the sampler; the poem’s formal message matches the semantic. Christ I love a bit of formal shenanigans. But maybe that’s too much nerdiness and the poem stands wholeheartedly as an achieved piece of imaginative and musical play: in either case the closing rhymes of ‘remix/secret’ and ‘day/acetate’ are worth savouring.

The remainder of Chingonyi’s selection is a series entitled ‘calling a spade a spade’, again with a epigraph, this time from Thomas Sayers Ellis:

I no longer write
white writing
yet white writing
won’t stop writing me

The poem consists of nine eleven-line stanzas, exploring the attempts of white society to make the speaker conform to race-based preconceptions, whether in the worlds of literature, pop culture, even cricket and a nativity play. The poem’s first lines illuminate this problem beautifully, in a section titled ‘The N Word’:

‘You sly devil. Lounging in a Pinter script
or pitched from a Transit van’s rolled-down window;
my shadow on this un-lit road, though you’ve been
smuggled from polite conversation.’

Chingonyi here quite rightly implicates the sophisticated artistic culture that still sees fit to appropriate words to which it has no claim, in the name of, perhaps, ‘realism’ or, as in a later section on ‘An all-white production of for coloured girls. / I expect my lecturer to get the joke / but he smiles, the thought of theatrical risk’, a kind of aspirational ‘edginess’. In the poem, of course, the play becomes a reality, praised for its ‘authenticity’. Later Chingonyi examines his own acting career, the tension between ‘never say no to good money […] rent’s due’ and ‘My agent says I have to use my street voice. / Though my talent is for rakes and fops’. These are challenging and beautifully crafted poems, asking the reader to see the incongruity of a (polite) society that claims ‘our post-race moment’ and the poet consistently trapped in a limited number of ill-fitting roles. Chingonyi is currently working on his own manuscript, ‘Kumukanda’ (a Zambian word for initiation rites which he discusses in this interview), more info on his blog and twitter.

Jay Bernard

Once again, I found it enlightening to read Bernard’s interview with Poetry School; here she gives some valuable insight into the mythic elements of her work and Weldon Kees’ turning the tables ‘on those who think that the power of ‘personal’ poems lies in autobiographical truth’. It also gives some impression of the poet’s creative restlessness and curiosity, the desire to challenge her own assumptions and treat her work as more than appeasement of that looming spectre, ‘The Rent’. Bernard’s selection here shows an astounding range of registers, from the weird medieval-gothic ‘Song of the Strike’ to the frank, direct, almost scientific observations about family violence and sexuality in ‘Fake Beach’; that she writes with such assurance in each is wonderfully disorienting, the awareness that at any moment the game might irrevocably change. I can’t think of another poet with such faith in the reader’s capacity to keep up with the poet’s vision.

That vision is to the fore in ‘Song of the Strike’, part of a series of poems in which dismembered heads talk to each other. In this one, the head is itself an audience to a Bosch-like parade of ‘elephants, without tusks’, ‘hawks circling on one-wing flight’:

‘Below I saw a breath of bats swarm towards me,
swarming up towards me; below I saw their tiny bitter faces,
I heard through the still-tender pipes of my throat wing-hum,
clammy joints a-hum – coming up and through me –

And like starlings they veered right like thieves’ eyes’

The poem’s quasi-scriptural repetitions prepare the way for a struggle between god the employer and his team of demons protesting their ill-treatment:

‘Do you know – (God: ‘I do.’)
How difficult it is to saw a boy in half? […]
Why us? If demons punish the wicked
we know better than angels do what is good –
and angels, clad in silk, would be devils
if they set foot on earth, so blinkered in their knowledge.’

The poem manages to hold its premise steady, staying just on the mythic side of allegory, allowing its broader implications room to breathe. ‘Song of the Strike’ is just as aware of abusive power structures as any of Bernard’s other poems, is a memorable rendering of god-as-neoliberal, zero-hours labour as demonic punishment.

The last poem in this selection is ‘The Basics’, another remarkable set piece that follows its conceit to a surprising and enlightening end. Its three-line stanzas are tiny tableaux of school- and home-life, jumping from one to the next in an ostensibly simultaneous moment:

‘In at least one staff toilet
someone is looking into the cistern
where the small pool of water –

and in at least one student toilet
someone is bunking a lesson,
trying to rub –

and upstairs in an empty classroom
a teacher begins to wonder
why it matters that – ’

It’s a brilliant effect, each exploring the interior lives of the children and adults of the unnamed school, giving (however briefly) space and importance to the (however incompletely understood) moments of loneliness and failure of the poem’s cast, before making an incredible final gesture of hope (maybe), of putting ‘the day’s lesson / to the test’. The poem’s close is too good to spoil. More of Bernard’s work is on her blog and Twitter.

Tl;dr: Ten: The New Wave is an exciting book, and I defy any reader to come away without hope for the future of poetry in these islands. It’s currently on offer (£7.63!) on Hive.co.uk.