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.

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