Tuesday, 15 October 2013

inhabit this space: 53:44:44N; 0:20:51W

your face outside the spyhole
my fingers fumbling with the chain
the hurried introductions - small
talk really - and the mat

I made from cushions
the two pairs of tights you wore
the show you said you'd seen
where Nikki Monroe had done the same

your hands, so much bigger than mine,
giving way as I twisted your fingers
my settled weight on your chest and your stomach

bending your knees, my forearm flush against the tendon
in your ankle, my thighs right-angled 'round your head
the strangled sound you made

when you were finished
your retreat to the shower
the water we shared

                                            *     *     *
I was at ONE-Time Pad, the Thomas Scheibitz exhibition at the Baltic, today, and something about the work in it made me want to go back to an earlier project, though it might be better to call it an intermittent project as it's one without a definite end-point. inhabit this space is the name I use for a series of poems to which I keep adding, incrementally, and which have to follow certain rules: they are depictions, as minimally written as possible, of images that have made an impression on me in my life. Protagonists are never named. There are no titles: what amounts to a title for each poem is the latitude and longitude co-ordinates of the location associated with the event described. Emotion is kept to a minimum, as are punctuation and capitalisation. Only the image is given: think of each poem in the sequence as a punctum, in the Roland Barthes sense.

I last wrote a whole load of inhabit this space poems about three or four years ago. Most are still filed away under their co-ordinates. Some assume other titles and sneak into my work. Some I've read at gigs; some have been published. I'd like to bring them together sometime. I'd like to get other people to write their own too. A compendium of scenes from peoples' lives. A bearing of witness: these things happened here.

I often have other stuff to work on. I have other stuff to work on now. I have a workshop to finish preparing for, the poetry film I made with Laura Degnan is being shown at The Star and Shadow Cinema in Newcastle this Sunday, I have gigs in Plymouth and London in November and there's already stuff lined up for early next year too. And this is on top of transitioning, which is a whole other bag o'work in itself. So, yeah, I'm busy. A lot. But inhabit this space is the project that's always there, to go back to when I'm a little tired of being shouty and dramatic, when I want to not feel like a performing monkey for a while and reconnect with a purer, simpler kind of poetry.

I'll do something with it one day, promise.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Living in this world, with its consistent disrespect for me,
I find I need a partner who can kick my ass sexually, 
you can tell me it's a fetish, you can call it a pathology, 
say it's forbidden in Leviticus and bits of Deuteronomy, 
say that it's a legacy of the tutor on whom I
used to have a girl-crush when they said I was a boy
but it's in being subject to another woman's strength I find my joy.

I wrote the above on the bus into work this morning. I'd been thinking a little about a couple of things at the same time: one, the fact that I often find BDSM quite therapeutic - if I'm feeling frustrated and tense, feeling like I've had my ass kicked, essentially, one of the things that seems to help best is...well, getting my ass kicked. Two, the fact that lately I've been slipping into a groove I occassionally get into which often causes me to rapidly become, well, a bit crap as a writer, and that's when I start writing stuff using a verse-chorus-verse-chorus song-style structure. It's not that everything I write using that structure is rubbish, more that once I get into it I find it very hard to pull myself out of that groove. Conversely my best stuff tends to not follow a song-style structure, to be free verse or to follow an unstable rhyme-scheme, which might stay the same for a certain amount of time and then breaks down and becomes something else. And so I began toying with writing something along those lines, a long piece, and it seemed that I could include a poem stating this rather theapeutic aspect of BDSM and then it occurred that if I wrote the first couplet like this instead of that and then the whole thing tumbled out and I wrote it out, quickly, as a Facebook status, with a note explaining that it was only a little bit of what would probably be a much larger thing. And then an odd thing happened.

Quite a few people began to argue that this on its own is a complete poem. Dominic Berry particularly, whose judgement I respect a lot, expressed that opinion. A lot of people said they loved it. 

I'm still not sure. I'm drawn towards the idea of doing it as part of a longer piece, giving it more context. But on the other hand...two of my most noted recent poems, 'Letter to a Minnesota Prison' and 'The Ballad of Private Manning' are each over six minutes long and very heavy. I seem to have revolted against that a little lately by doing more comic stuff, though, again, as with the verse-chorus trap I find that trying too hard to be funny is also a bad groove for me to get into (I'd argue the above verse isn't necessarily comic but exuberant, itself not such a bad thing when you consider how often people write about BDSM in such a self-consciously ooh-look-how'-d'arque-I-am way). Maybe I do need a few shorter poems?

Saturday, 12 October 2013

First, they ate her hair

and that, more than what followed, makes him shiver:
how the salad forks would scissor as they doled
the ash blonde vermicelli out between them.

Her watching, shorn, the pattern of her skull
now plain beneath the jigsaw stubble
where the kitchen blades have clipped: here, mere shadow

as a man may show one day without a shave;
here, patchwork squares like carpet
or the fields just after harvest,

their caesuraed stalks a witness
to the violence that fills bellies.
Did she decline, aware of what came next,

the calculus of what-you'll-not-be-needing
that made her limbless first, then, after
the concussive mercy of the rock clenched in his fist,

made her the suckling parody
at centre of the table,
the carving knife slow-sawing, sure,

through rump and breast and shoulder?
Or did she go autophagic, take her share
of gathered shavings in a bowl, try making small talk

as the two of them sucked dryly at each forkful?
He cannot know. The bodies tell the story:
the novice severing of bone, the botched attempts

to staunch the bleeding, and the stomach contents,
still enough to go on. One week more, one less,
there would have been no need for this:

the girl devoured; their bodies laid
beside the family Bible; one last grace,
one halting plea for His forgiveness

before, defying Canon Law,
they slit each other's wrists.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Doing this tomorrow, if anyone's interested.

And Now, Sports News!

All teams won their games this weekend, 
except the ones that lost. Points were awarded accordingly. 
In the athletics events a great deal of running was observed
to be generally faster than previously. The tennis, squash and badminton 
were largely back and forth affairs. Despite high initial hopes, the boxers 
were unable to settle their differences through constructive debate 
and came to blows. Homoeroticism once again conquered
the subtext. As yet, despite repeated appeals, no-one has put an end 
to the horror of golf. Discus.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Confidence (draft)

You say my problem is that I don't have much
confidence, you tell me that I really need more
confidence, but we both know that you won't allow me
confidence, we both know it's the kind of thing that you
beat out of us, in the confines of the classroom,
on the concrete of the yard, when you punish us for standing out
or trying too hard, in the natter that you chatter over
cups of char, in the door you say is open but you never leave ajar,
in the millions of little ways you manage to exclude,
in your minuscule aggressions and the ways that you collude
to bring us down and leave us out because we don't exude
this confidence you say we have to have or else we're screwed.

But guess what? All this self-esteem you're selling? I don't need it,
because I've regularly walked in rooms not really believing
that I've got what it takes, and yet I've still succeeded,
and I didn't even fake the stuff you say it takes to make it:
you sat there in your armour while I'm shivering and naked
but I shimmer while you're dull, I'm free while you're in thrall
to the notion that you have to come on like a troll
showing no emotion but a token LOL
because the only way you think you know to stay in control
is to keep it need to know that you can sometimes be weak,
so to keep from being thought of as some kind of freak
you devote all your resources to behaving like a dick
and call it 'confidence', but we see through it: it's a trick.

Michael Gove and his Amazing Friends

In April 2012, for Napowrimo, I wrote a series of poems about Tory Education Secretary Michael Gove. Or, more specifically, about a cardboard cut-out of him. See, Gove did something that year which no Education Secretary had done in a long time, if ever: he refused to address the annual conference of Britain's biggest teachers' union, the NASUWT.

This presented NASUWT General Secretary Chris Keates with a problem: one of the major set-pieces of Conference is the General Secretary's reply to the Ed Sec's speech. With Gove having chickened out of attending, there would be no speech to reply to, and no-one to whom she could address these remarks.

Keats got around this by making a speech to a cardboard cut-out of the Secretary, which she stood next to on the platform and harangued. It seemed a fair swap. The cardboard Gove was two-dimensional, flimsy, lacking in substance and had no real ideas about educational policy: in this respect it was hard to tell the difference between the cardboard Gove and the supposedly real one - a conceit I decided to run with in the first poem of the sequence.

Maybe Gove feels that he lacks substance as well, because at this week's Tory Party Conference, not for the first time, Gove decided to pitch up at Manchester rolling with a crew. Maybe he did this to disguise the flimsiness of his material, like a rapper getting loads of people to do guest spots on his album to cover up the fact that he's only written enough stuff for about three full songs, or a stand-up hosting a chat show in a break between tours: he trotted out one of his old numbers, the 'enemies of promise' bit, but mainly allowed others to have the stage, padding out his time while also making him look super-magnanimous: we had George Parker, an ineffectual American ex-union leader turned corporate shill; we had a lady who got somewhat over-excited over the opening of a free school in her area, and who brought her wee one along with her to elicit a little more emotion from the audience; and most interestingly we had a guy called Lindsay Johns, who Gove brought along to provide some ideological cover for an attack on 'trendy teaching' and 'political correctness'. Here's  the Mail's report of the speech, which is interesting both for the Fail's sheer joy at having found a black guy who can say stuff that sounds even more right-wing than one of their leader articles, and for a priceless photo of Gove and George Gideon Oliver Osborne making 'interested faces' while Johns speaks.

What's this guy selling? Johns is, according to the Mail, 'a writer and broadcaster who runs a youth programme in Peckham'. I can't find any record online of him running a youth programme, but he does do mentoring work for an organisation called 'Leaders of Tomorrow'. A Guardian profile indicates Mr Johns used to write pieces for that organ until 2009. His last piece for the Grauniad was a defence of Derek Walcott's right to be Oxford Professor of Poetry despite allegations he had sexually harrassed a student. After this he began writing a blog for - well, well! - the Daily Mail: a fact that paper seems curiously unwilling to mention in their fawning article about his speech.

Johns is again referred to as leading 'a youth mentoring scheme' on the website for The Sage, Gateshead, advertising a talk he gave as part of last year's Free Thinking Festival, the theme of which is that we 'should stop listening to young people'. I've never really worked as a mentor to anyone, but I would imagine that working as a mentor to young people and at the same time believing we 'shouldn't listen' to young people might create some rather interesting cognitive dissonance. But I digress.

What interested me in the hoo-ha about Johns was a phrase that kept popping up in the tweets I read about his speech: 'bling culture'. This kind of phrase-making irks me because it's so much a feature of the discourse that makes idols out of people like Johns. Basically it works like this: if a problem primarily affects young, working-class and/or BME people, the media and the politicians decry it as a 'culture' issue. Gun culture. Knife culture. Drug culture. Bling culture.

The next stage is that the media and political classes start giving out about the need for 'role models' to appear and lead the poor benighted denizens of these cultures out of their stupefied bondage to the knives, the guns, the drugs and the bling (which almost always seems to consist of stopping them listening to those damn hippety-hop records, incidentally).

There are all kinds of problematic assumptions which underlie all this. There's the assumption that people in the groups which have these cultures can't think for themselves, and need messiah figures they can mimic in order to stop being lesser breeds without the law and start behaving like decent, civilised people. You know. In a lot of ways, they're like children. Am I the only one who finds this assumption kind of racist?

There's the assumption that only certain groups get to be called 'cultures' and need 'role models'. The Houses of Parliament enjoy a lot of cheap, subsidised alcohol, and there have been skirmishes in the bars there as a result - but no-one suggests Parliament has a 'booze culture' and needs the shining example of a role model to lead them to a brave new sober future. Two girls got raped at Latitude, but no-one is decrying the excesses of Poncy Festival Culture and calling on indie kids to put some role models forward and get their house in order. Some cultures, clearly, are more equal than others in this view. Hmmm. I wonder what they might have in common?

And there's the fact that it's far, far easier to bemoan a knife/gun/drugs/bling/fishcakes culture than it is to address the deeper economic or social factors that might lead kids to carry knives, take drugs or fetishize bling - not that that's the reason politicians are so keen to trot it out as an idea, of course. Oh no.

 On the same day that Johns decried 'bling culture', Boris Johnson made a speech. Johnson, as Mayor of London, presides over a city where locals are being priced out of the housing market to clear space for luxury flats to be erected for wealthy oligarchs. Are the Tories really going to claim they can't see why that might lead some people to think that their only chance in life is to get rich or die trying? Come to think of it, is Johns really going to go on about 'bling culture' under the auspices of a gang of people who are paying security guards to keep an eye on their £45-a-bottle champagne? Maybe that's okay, though: it'd only be Bad Bling Culture if it were Henny or Courvoisier G4S were guarding. Important to keep up with what's U and non-U, after all.

It's pretty clear that Johns has spotted a gap in the market and decided to insert himself into it aggressively. He's playing an old and profitable game, flogging a position that makes privileged people feel better about their own views about education, and peddling the usual straw man nonsense as a way of promoting it. I've worked in education and I've never seen these 'down wiv da kids', 'hip-hop Shakespeare' lessons he talks about - I suspect they exist in the same universe where 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' has been banned for being racist.  Most of the teachers I know are less concerned about 'making things achingly cool and hip' than just controlling their classes, getting kids through their exams and surviving the ridiculous workload they have to deal with without burning out. And I believe in the need for a more inclusive curriculum and I haven't had a 'Rolls Royce, Oxbridge humanities education'. I went to a comprehensive and got my BA from a former polytechnic.

Johns talks dismissively about young people using 'street slang that makes you sound like you've had a full-frontal lobotomy'. Well. When I did the Architects of Our Republic workshops back in August I met a lot of people at the youth group workshops who did use quite slangy speech when they talked to each other, though when they talked to me they code-switched to some extent, as you'd expect - but none of them sounded lobotomised (such a wonderfully ableist phrase, that, by the way). And I was impressed by the work all of them did. In fact, at the final performance at the South Bank Centre I thought some of the people from the youth workshops did some of the best poems on the night. Those young people didn't sound lobotomised. They were passionate, articulate, dedicated, inspired, and inspiring. They were reading out work that mattered to them, into the writing and performance of which they'd poured craft and graft, effort and enthusiasm, inspiration and perspiration. They were seizing the moment, that summer night, to say something about things that mattered to them. To tell their truths, from the heart, in the language that felt most real to them, which in no way sounded lobotomised, whatever register they happened to be using.

What they were not doing was spotting a niche in the market and insinuating themselves into it. What they were not doing was crafting their image and presentation in such a way that they could flatter the prejudices of an audience from which they would always be separate, accepted at most in a conditional sense. Their words weren't cynical and calculated, but urgent and real.

And that, pace Johns, made them worth listening to.