Friday, 16 October 2015

The time I stripped for poetry

I'm at an interesting point in my career as a performer. When I started out, getting on stage and performing my work was enough of a challenge in itself. In those early days, the biggest obstacle I had to get over was my own insecurity, my fear that I was going to fuck up, that I'd never hold an audience's attention. For a long time, I would only perform five minute sets, usually managing to cram in three poems with very little between them before the inner voice saying  people were sick of me chased me off the stage. I remember finishing my first twenty minute set and feeling elated simply that I'd managed to resist that voice so long.

Now, I'm at a point where I can hold that voice off for entire shows. Howl of the Bantee went on for fifty minutes (sometimes an hour, depending on how it was going, to be quite honest). I'm more adept at talking to the audience in between poems: often there are things I do on stage which are more like bits in stand-up than they are like poems, and I improvise a lot more as well. I've gotten better at what the theatre-maker Daniel Bye calls 'meeting the audience'. I'm less concerned with just being able to remember my poems and stay on stage long enough to read them. I've reached a level of proficiency where that simply isn't as much of a challenge anymore. 

So to keep things fresh, to keep things from going stale, I have had to find new ways to challenge myself in performance, new ways of meeting the audience so that gigs don't just become rote by-the-numbers mouthing off. New ways of making myself vulnerable to give the work some energy. And that's how, a month ago, I wound up stripping at the end of a poetry gig. 

The purpose of my disrobing on stage wasn't (just) to titillate the audience, obviously. I'd got the idea from seeing Ernesto Sazerale do a stripping bit of his own when we performed at Queer'Say in September. My set that night finished with a poem I've never truly felt I dramatised properly in performance, 'Rejection:Letters'. It's a poem I've enjoyed doing whenever I've got it out (pun intended) during my shows, but I've always felt it needed something extra to fully work as a performance piece. Interestingly enough, when I recorded it for my YouTube channel a while ago, I opted to perform it on a bed, in my bra and pants, so I always had a sense that some degree of nudity would help: 

It was only after watching Ernesto, however, that I thought actually stripping would add something to the poem. As I mooched around Bethnal Green the next day (I had to stay in London both for Public Address production meetings on the Monday, and because I had a hotel to review on the Sunday), I blocked out the piece in my head. It seemed to me that the logical thing to do would be dress in clothes that allowed me to remove one item per stanza (maybe I ought to say per verse for the kinky resonance).

What is it that makes you so reject me?
Is it the dimensions of my belly?
Then you've never ran a hand around its rim:
it gives in ways that taut and muscled skin
can never do. Don't take this just from me:
come, feel it move beneath you like a captured sea.

For the first verse, I decided, I'd wear a button-down shirt. This would allow me to start unbuttoning it during the performance, which would signal to the audience that something unusual was afoot. I could easily slough the shirt at that point with a simple shrug of my arms, and this would allow me to display my belly to the audience during the parts of the poem where I emphasise its zaftig  dimensions. 

Am I too pale? Would you prefer me with a tan,
turned brown from UV light or bottled sun?
Well, want that if you like: but bronzed-up flesh
won't turn from pink to red with every scratch.
Pale, though, my skin becomes a palimpsest,
written, overwritten with the text
of nights when fingers grasp and grip and squeeze,
and mornings when the eyes and lips that tease
are repaid with flirting slaps and feigned offence.

For the second stanza, I decided, I'd remove my bra. A front-fastening bra would be ideal for this, but I don't have one, and I wasn't going to buy one just for this performance (though I may buy one for future use, not least because the idea of writing off lingerie as an expense for tax purposes has a certain appeal). After experimenting with what  I already have in my wardrobe, I decided to use an unwired, vest-style black bra, partly because there would be less faffing with clasps (the technology will always let you down, as it may or may not say in the Moscow Rules)...

Are you frightened by the vicious things I say?
Know that the angry girl gets put away
when I'm offstage, far from the battlefield:
in the bedroom, this girl likes to yield,
to kneel and crawl, submit and be in awe.
Oh, I'll fight back, I'll call you worse than bitch,
but only to be conquered, to make you punish
 me more forcefully, to take me to the brink of tears
and push me over, so that, with one sob, I'm yours.

...and partly because it would allow me to wrap the rolled-up piece of underwear over my neck, towel-style, letting me do a bit of peek-a-boo work with my nipples and forearms before discarding it toward the end of the third verse.

Or are you put off by what you cannot see?
The part by which you'd damn the whole of me,
consign me to your 'won't fuck' category:
define me male and say you don't do guys,
and say that what I feel is but disguise?
Then I won't argue:
                                can't, with one I only pity
for fixating on the smallest bit of me
(both figuratively and literally).

The poem's big reveal would come at the start of the penultimate stanza, though the reveal would only be partial. On the first line, I would unbutton the denim shorts I had worn for the performance and allow them to drop to my feet before stepping out of them and delivering the rest of the poem topless, with 'what you cannot see' the only piece of me which remained covered throughout the piece (this is one way in which my piece differs from Ernesto's poetry-stripping, as he goes the full Monty). 

If it were something else then I'd try to persuade
you that the meat you'll find on me's the highest grade;
that you could write a sonnet on my skin
and I'd weep sweetly with each lyric beat:
but if you define me by my lack of quim,
call me false or call me incomplete,
you imagine part but don't perceive the whole.
Forget my cock: you'll never see my soul.

What did I learn from the experience? Well, for one thing, that I could  do it; for another, that stripping requires a lot more thought and consideration than one might casually expect. Even something as simple as deciding what clothes to wear and how to remove them required both planning, and trial and error in rehearsal, and I wasn't doing anything particularly fancy - no pole-dancing or complex burlesque moves. Another thing is that once you've started taking clothes off on stage, it becomes something of a game of chicken between yourself and the audience to see how far you'll go: you have to challenge yourself, a little bit, at each stage of the reveal. But this also sets up a dynamic that you can usefully frustrate: once you've dropped the first two bits of kit the expectation in the audience is that you may actually go the whole way, and deliberately not doing that for the end of the piece, leaving the part you cannot see unseen, effectively dramatises the frustration of being reduced solely to a set of genitals. 

It's also a way of bringing the body very powerfully into a piece of performance poetry and blurring the lines between it and performance art, which I've previously blogged about. This is something I'm exploring in a different way for my Public Address piece. There's no stripping involved in that, but in many ways it involves a more radical reimagining of the relationship between the audience and my body as a performer. How so? Well, I don't want to say until at least after tomorrow's gig in Plymouth, so for the moment all I can say is that you'll need to come to one of the shows - and, if you want to sit at the front, make sure your throwing arm (and trigger finger) are in good working order...

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The truth about love?

So, this Wednesday Public Address: The Soapbox Tour  finally begins. And it's fair to say I'm excited about this to a degree to which I haven't felt excited about anything else in my life - and I'm including the poetry film I made in 2013, and the pamphlets I've published, and the album I recorded, and the magazine I helped edit, and the show I took to Edinburgh this summer, literally everything. In part, this is just because of the sheer quality of the stuff on offer. Hannah Silva has put together an amazing show, and I honestly think this tour will have a major effect on how people view spoken word in this country, and beyond. We are really  pushing at the boundaries with this.

But if I'm honest, I'm also excited about Public Address  because working on my piece for the show has been an amazing journey, one that's changed me a lot  as an artist, as a writer, and as a performer. I think on some level it's actually changed me as a human being, too. And that's because I've had to confront something which, as a writer, I've always been rather frightened of, and that's love. 

DH Lawrence famously said that happiness writes white, meaning that it's hard to write about happiness without being bland. For a long time I've felt the same way about romantic love as a poetic subject. It seemed old-hat, played-out, trite. I would read stuff like Roz Kaveney's sequence of 'muse' poems and think "why are you wasting time on this? It's already been done, and anyway 'muse' is a horrible thing to call a person" (no criticism here of Roz herself, who I rather like - or indeed of the poems themselves, which are good - I just never got why she writes so obsessively about that particular subject). I would go to poetry nights and hear people reading love poems to their partners in the audience and think how uncomfortable I would feel if someone did that to me (again, this is no reflection on the quality of the poems, many of which were very good indeed).

The poetry I was most comfortable producing was oppositional. Occasionally, I could be celebratory, on very odd occasions I could even be funny, but I seemed to do my best work, for a long time, by pointing myself at something I very much did not like, getting a good lyrical run-up, and beating seven shades of rhetorical shit out of it. Perhaps the ultimate expression of this aspect of my practice is the poem which originally formed the climax of my Edinburgh show, in which I fantasise about literally torturing  a misogynist:

I'm not repudiating any of that, by the way: I still feel that poem expresses something important about the anger many women feel at the violent double standards of our society. And there's more where that came from. But, despite the 'soapbox' theme of this year's Public Address  tour apparently being tailor-made for a ranty feminist shouter like me, there was one thing I was sure of when I began thinking what to write for it: I wanted to write something that would ask  questions, not answer them and ram said answers down the audience's throat. It wasn't that I didn't believe  in my answers, rather it was that too often those answers were exceedingly obvious. Of course  transphobia is bad. Of course  misogyny is bad. Of course  homophobia, and racism, and UKIP, and bullying, and groping people's tits in the woods, and voting for the Tory party, are all bad. But that's obvious. Where are the bad things that aren't  obvious? The monsters that hide in plain sight? What if things we take for granted every day are bad?

What if love  is bad? Or, to put it more precisely, what if the concept of romantic love which we're fed on a daily basis by our culture actually covers for an insidious and subtly gendered form of violence, which has a disproportionate impact on women and LGBTIQ people? What if love was the monster, all along?

This is the question I set out to answer in my Public Address  piece, and it would have been easy enough to climb on my rhetorical soapbox and deliver some kind of angry rant dissing the very idea of love but, again, that would be answering the question, instead of asking. So...I asked. In person and online, in Newcastle, in Edinburgh, in London, wherever I could I asked people, again and again and again, to give me evidence of love. To tell me things their partners did that proved  their love was real. And equally, to prove the opposite: to give me specific things ex-partners had done that proved the relationships that failed weren't  love.

Is it love because you Googled it yourself?

And people answered. And they shared things about themselves that made me smile, that horrified me, that moved me literally to tears. And as I read those answers, and tallied them, and wrote them out in lists, on index cards, I began to think, more deeply than I ever have before, about my own past relationships, my own sexual and romantic history. Some of this was painful. Some of it was beautiful. Some of it, too, has gone into this project. Some of the answers you will hear me read on stage in Public Address  are my own. And some of those answers are very, very recent.

Because, weirdly, while working on these bizarre enquiries into the nature of romantic love, I found myself becoming involved with people again. Having relationships with people. Even dating. The theoretical became the practical, and fed back into the theory, in a way that I hadn't expected it to.

There is an easy, happy ending to this, a romcom ending. The artist with a deep suspicion of romantic love decides to make it the topic of her research. She asks people to prove it exists. Quite by chance, this sends her off on a whirlwind of romantic encounters and, in the end, despite her protestations to the contrary, she finds True Love.

"You had me at 'define love in an operational sense'." 

That hasn't happened. Thank God. For one thing, the romcom conceit of the cynic finally being won over to belief in True Love is the major thing that makes me so distrustful of the concept. For another, it's just so bloody boring. 

That ending hasn't happened because it would be an answer, and I am no longer sure that the question which I set myself can be answered. But I suspect the reason for that isn't necessarily that love doesn't exist: I suspect it's because it's such a big concept that it's hard to pin it down. I think love is a possibility space, and it takes different forms, and some things which can look a lot like love are really violence, and some things which can seem a lot like violence actually are love, and plotting everyone's answer to which is which would take a scatter diagram the size of the sky. But I'm going to try and do it anyway.

One of the best things about researching this piece has been the conversations which have came out of it, and the things people have shared with me about themselves, about their past relationships, and the things it's encouraged me to share about mine. And in a sense, one of the oddest things about this project is something I only saw tonight, as I was finishing up the cards I'm going to use in my performance, on which I've written the answers people have given me so far.

Ain't they pretty?
And that is that there is a sense in which this project has a memorial aspect. Some of the answers people have given me are about relationships they're in now. Some of them are about past relationships. Hopefully, the relationships people are in now will last, but who can be certain? At one point, the relationships which went wrong, that provided evidence against love, were thought solid. At the end of the day, these answers are snapshots of moments in peoples' relationships, some of which were reasons to give up, and some of which were reasons to keep going. And what does it take to keep going? And is it worth it? Is it heroic, or deluded? Is loving another the supreme act of faith, or a pathetic surrender to delusion?

I don't know. I do know that I've been privileged to have this conversation with everyone who's been open enough to provide me their answers (and there is still  time to give them, if you haven't yet!), and I'm looking forward to continuing that conversation, in a different way, at the Public Address  performances. This is a piece for all your lovers, and for all of mine, and all their lovers too. I hope it does them justice.

Monday, 12 October 2015

I'm not a millennial, but I'm sick of people from my generation lazily attacking those who are

(Note: this piece was originally written for  Clarissa Explains Fuck All, but it turned out to be a bit heavier and less pop culture-focused than the stuff we usually cover there. As such, after checking with the  Clarissa editorial team, I've opted to put it up here instead - AJ)

Good news everybody: I’m not a ‘millennial’! I know I’m not because Chris Erskine, a man who has opinions about young people for money in the LA Times, tells me so. As a 38-year-old woman I fall comfortably outside the 18-34 age range Erskine uses to bracket the media’s most reviled generation, but reading his article, I find myself wishing that I was one. Partly because I’d rather be a ‘millennial’ than the kind of bitter old douchebag who pens passive-aggressive nonsense like Erskine’s ‘Millennial Pledge’ (sample entry: ‘I will not consider the cilantro (coriander, UK readers) on my taco to be a vegetable’ – these kids with their whacky ethnic food!), but also because, apparently, one of the key freedoms available to millennials is the freedom to be smut. I’m not kidding: ‘I will not be smut’ is one of the commandments Erskine wants the young folks to sign up to. Interestingly, the consumption of a little smut is apparently acceptable – the preceding commandment is ‘I will (mostly) swear off smut’. Which would suggest that somebody, somewhere, is going to have to ‘be smut’ in order to provide the modicum of smut which Erskine considers acceptable – but I guess we can forget about those people. Those people don’t read the LA Times.

I probably used the word ‘smut’ a little too often in that paragraph, but y’know what? I like smut. I like the word, I like the concept, I like the thing itself. Longtime fans will recall I opened my review of Magic Mike XXL for Clarissa Explains Fuck All by talking about how one of my exes got off on watching me wank, I’ve stripped on stage in spoken word shows, and I have a poem in my repertoire in which I talk openly about sucking a trans dude’s strap-on while he simultaneously blew his husband. I am all about the freedom to be smut, and I don’t give a damn if some old dude wants to take time out from his cloud-shouting schedule to whine about how young people today are too smutty damn it, not like the respectable people who rolled naked in the Woodstock mud back when he was a nipper. And if Erskine doesn’t like that, I can only refer him to an earlier entry in his overlong, unfunny pledge: ‘I will not shun comedians or college commencement speakers just because I don’t agree with them.’ I’m interested to know at what point the unrighteous shunning of comedians and their priceless freeze peach becomes the decidedly righteous act of (mostly) swearing off smut, but I’d be willing to guess a lot depends on whether the comedian is white, old, straight and was born with a penis they’re happy with. In which case, count my fat trans ass proudly among the smut-peddlers.

It isn’t just Erskine, of course. Governor of Ohio and Republican Presidential hopeful John Kasich decided to jump on the millennial-bashing bandwagon for cheap pops this week, dismissing audience member Kayla Solsbak by saying he didn’t ‘have any Taylor Swift concert tickets’.  Solsbak did well to get herself into a position where she could speak at all – Kasich seems to have wanted all the students to sit behind him for a photo op while he fielded softball questions of the Matlock Expressway variety from older members of the audience.

See, Governor? Generational disrespect can go both ways.

The thing about comments like those of both Erskine and Kasich is that they form part of a larger trend in which older, usually white, usually male, pretty much always cisgender people rubbish the concerns of the young, especially those young people who happen to be concerned with building a fairer society. We see it in articles which criticise trigger warnings as a threat to the literary canon, which confuse no-platforming with censorship, or  pleas for safe space with ‘banning white men’, as in the shameful distortions and official harassment which have plagued former Goldsmiths Diversity Officer Bahar Mustafa. In this culture war, the phrase ‘millennial’ has become lazy shorthand for the older misogynist set in the same way that ‘SJW’ is a shibboleth for their younger counterparts. To be a ‘millennial’, in the eyes of old white dudes like Erskine and Kasich is to be ‘entitled’. To what? Massive student debt? Precarious employment? To be a millennial, in Erskine’s words, is to regard entirely too much as ‘beneath me’. What is it that millennials consider beneath them, exactly? Working more than one job? Getting paid minimum wage? Unpaid internships? Social exclusion? Being constantly patronised by elected officials? Barely concealed misogyny?

The most disturbing aspect of millennial-bashing is how many of the behaviours it singles out are coded as feminine or queer. It’s tickets for popsters like Taylor Swift, rather than a serious rock act like, say, Ryan Adams, which Governor Kasich reckons Those Damn Young People covet. And in Erskine’s listicle, particular behaviours millennials are criticised for include hugging friends as well as the aforementioned injunction not to ‘be smut’. Let’s take a moment to think about which groups in society have usually been the focus of that kind of policing. It’s a pretty sure bet Erskine doesn’t have college fraternities in his sights when he cautions against smuttiness. And let’s also take a moment to think about how ironic it is for a man who considers millennials lazy to churn out a list-piece like this – and to not even proof-read his work sufficiently to realise that there is a difference between ‘the bereaved’ and ‘the deceased’ at a funeral:

In my experience, the bereaved tend to sit or stand at funerals...

And ultimately that’s the biggest criticism of millennial-bashing: it’s lazy. Journalists whine about the snarky entitlement of the younger generation, but themselves feel entitled to write reams of ill-thought-out, badly edited snark themselves. Politicians consider engaging with younger audiences ‘beneath them’, opting instead to pander to older voters with put-downs about liking female-fronted pop music. And this isn’t just an American thing – faced with the astonishing groundswell of support, especially among young people, for new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, how did the Prime Minister, David Cameron, decide to respond? With an easily fact-checked smear and the smug assertion that ‘Britain isn’t Twitter’ (these young kids, with their social networking!). Well, you’re sort of right there, Dave: everybody on Twitter knows about you and that pig by now, whereas it’s theoretically possible that there might be one person in Britain – possibly sat on a unicycle balanced on a ladder on top of the Old Man of Hoy – who hasn’t heard that news yet (in which case I hope someone waits ‘til they’ve got down to tell them).  

The last place in Britain where no-one's heard of #BaeOfPigs

The thing about being lazy is that it works out great in the short term – pieces like Erskine’s bring in the views, being a douche to young women plays well with Kasich’s base – but in the long term it’s not such a smart strategy, because the danger of playing to an aging demographic is that, to be brutally honest, that demographic dies out. Grandpa Simpson only lives forever because he’s a cartoon. And even before mortality comes into it, there are risks involved in cynically pandering to pensioners because of the received wisdom that old folks vote and young folks don’t. It remains to be seen what effect Corbynmania is going to have on British politics, but the energising of thousands of previously disenfranchised young voters could well be a game-changer. It’s something the British political establishment simply hasn’t been geared up to deal with for three decades now.

To adopt this kind of reasoning, though,  is to buy into the same cynicism that fuels millennial-bashing in the first place. Ultimately, this is about a failure on Erskine, Kasich and Cameron’s part to live up to what’s expected of them: to engage with their readers and constituents, rather than throwing out douchey remarks about cilantro or Taylor Swift tickets. To treat millennials as people with hopes, dreams and ambitions, whose concerns are every bit as legitimate as those who don’t fit the 18-34 age bracket, and who deserve to be treated with the same respect their elders demand they display.

But then, why would they do that? It’s clearly beneath them.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Reversible Party Town

Crumpled boxes of tobacco, the kind
that come with papers. Cans of Coke and lager,
ringpulls popped. Ripped shreds of Rizla
and Gold Leaf. Filters. The unexpected light still on at home.

The walk through town on Friday night,
taxi rank queues swelled by rugby crowds.
The Metro station closed for renovation,
realisation coming far too late.

The walk to the Pink Triangle
to catch cabs at a less-attended rank.
The tent in the square by the Centre for Life:
the Ladyboys again.

The hunt through your bag for a hair tie.
Coming up short. The thought
of cis eyes gazing, cis mouths gawping
at the spectacle of colonised trans bodies.
‘You can hardly tell, can you?’
‘What does it mean if I fancy one?’

The man who tried to walk beside you,
strike up conversation. Fear. The way
your steps got quicker, how you slipped
deliberately between the groups of smokers,

the two men pissing in the alleyway you switched down.
How you remembered you’d told him
which bar you were going to.
Your relief when you found it too crowded,

too renovated, not the dive it was,
a hotel bar without the benefit of bedrooms,
full of gaping wallets
and curated beards.

The way the ultraviolet light
lit up the cotton shielding your breasts
on the dancefloor. The adjustments
you made in the toilet.

‘I hate it when the credits end, and there is only silence.’ 

Friday, 9 October 2015

The Balanced Act of Introduction

His preferred pronoun
is anything but they.
He says that he’s happy with he  right now
because he’s in boy mode today.
He thinks his feet are far too small
(he’s wearing purple Converse).
He says without his thick-rimmed specs
he’s basically blind.

I try them on, worried the dimensions of my head
will stretch the legs too far.
I tell him looking through them
is like being boxed with one of Bacon’s Popes.
I talk to him about the time
I was the Other Woman (how I found
that I could not connive in gaslighting by proxy),
and worry that I’m treating this as interview, am wittering.

He tells me he weighs six and a half stone.
I try to work out how many of him
would fit into a single me,  and give up.
Maths has never been my strong suit. 

Friday, 2 October 2015

Weekly round-up

It's been quite a busy week for me in terms of online stuff, so I thought it might be a good idea to post all the links here in one easy to follow digest.

First, last Friday, we had the Public Address: The Soapbox Tour trailer:

Then my review of the frankly absurdly luxurious Doubletree by Hilton London Docklands Riverside went up at Vada Magazine.

I was also featured as the guest interviewee on this week's Getting Better Acquainted podcast.

And yesterday I had another piece up at Clarissa Explains Fuck All, this time looking at what Katy Perry's being groped by a female fan, and the way this incident was reported, says about our double standards on sexual assault.

I also put up a new poem from the show I'm working on, but then if you're reading this blog you probably already know that...

Thursday, 1 October 2015


You're an incredibly feminine guy
and that's how you self-identify
but you're chromosomally not XY
and that means that sometimes I wonder why
I call myself a lesbian
when I'm having sex with
a transsexual man

like a white boy who likes Eminem
but can't tell where nu-rock ends
and hip-hop began
I know what I want but don't understand
what it means
who it dreams
and where I should stand

on the side of a divide
that I'm not used to,
with a style I decide
I'm entitled to
without asking
if my masculine
partner's okay
with a woman shaggin' him
and still maintaining she's gay

Is it simply the fact that what I should say
defines my sexuality,
or do other people matter?
Do the objects of my patter
have a chance, can they choose,
do they have a choice
or will my speaking over them

drown out their voice?

If I like to claim dyke
does that mean that I am
if the guy that I like
sees himself as a man?

And if the bits that I kiss
will dictate what I be,
what exactly does this
indicate about me?