Sunday 17 July 2022

"Give what you can and take what you can’t"

Poets’ Hardship Fund Family Fun Day / Benefit Reading, 56a infoshop, July 16th 2022

Since January last year, the Poets’ Hardship Fund, run by Tom Crompton, Dom Hale, and Alex Marsh, has been a lifeline for poets and for poetry. In practical terms, it’s a lifeline for poets because it provides them a little extra money that can mean the difference between paying rent and not paying rent, buying food and not buying food. And it’s a lifeline for poetry in that allowing poets to exist and subsist, at least a month at a time, lessening the physical and mental fatigue that crush out words, that dense, barely breathable space from which poetry has to constantly fight its way out: impossible geometries, a Piranesi prison labyrinth or an Escher staircase turning in on itself. More than this, though, the PHF has been an example, springing from the mutual aid initiatives that emerged in response to the government’s criminal mismanagement of the pandemic—the response is as much a symptom as the plague itself, as someone said at yesterday’s event. In focusing this specifically on poetry—with the proviso that the problem is a far wider one, and the capacity to link up to other such endeavours—it’s created a real and—to use that word again—practical ground in which that often-bandied word, ‘community’, might actually mean something.
For the last decade or so, my own experience of a particularly poetry community, scene, or whatever term you want to use, has been one of friendship, of a disparate and shared project of writing, but it’s also been one of fractures, disputes, controversies, oversights, often channelled through the academic or fringe academic frameworks—conferences, symposia, papers, special collections, email listservs—which still, to an extent, remain important sources and channels of activity, but in which internalised hierarchies and standards have too often seen an identification, conscious or not, with the institution that ill-prepared us to challenge those processes by which the institution, leaned on by the State, purges and prunes itself of any extraneous elements—us!—judged surplus to requirements. And this has, arguably, caused focus to be directed in the wrong places, perhaps, vision to become obscured. But by no means do I want to suggest that it has been the prime characteristic of these scenes. A spirit of huge generosity—which is by no means distinct from being opinionated, rebarbative, fully of passionately held positions—animates the small presses, magazines, readings and reading series that are the real centre of this marginalised work, and it’s from this spirit that the PHF emerges as a corrective or alternative, not just to the generalized spite of the kinds of life we’re told we should be living—or hardly living—blared out from a newspaper, billboard, or government message near you, but to the hierarchical blindness that can all too easily be internalised by those given a modicum of power—professorships, management and middle-management, what Lisa Jeschke and Lucy Beynon once called being a “mini-boss”.
The PHF and its attendant magazine, Ludd Gang, along with the small press Gong Farm—both sets of publications printed, photocopied, and stapled at home—don’t so much provide an idealised community, but simply a practical one, and one practical in more ways that the endless debates about poetic strategy, whether poems might be slogans, which party poets should join, etc. The bottom line is that everyone is able to survive. Perhaps these questions didn’t have to be asked, or to be asked in the same fashion, a few years ago, though one can hardly say any of these experiences are new. As someone whose experience of higher education was shaped by the 2010 lifting of the fees cap, the protests against which happened a year after I finished my BA, and whose postgraduate education was in turn marked by the sinking horizon of job prospects beyond fixed-term, temporary, precarious positions, mine is a common experience in which I’ve been luckier than many. In their founding statement, the PHF write: “The Poets’ Hardship Fund UK provides a channel for getting some money to poets who require it, without the kind of means-testing processes attached to similar kinds of efforts.” The story keeps writing itself: austerity, the pandemic, and now the expanding effects that have emerged from and on the back of these and into a future of rising energy prices, rising prices in general. Euphemism dominates, as the terms shift, in a language of metaphor, the poetry of capital—“the financial crash”, as if the economy were a speeding car, “austerity”, with its moralistic tinge, “cost of living”, with its language of pure economics, a set of numbers removed from the lives it names but ignores, “hostile environment”, as if this racist, anti-migrant hostility were a product of the space itself, rather than a specific and targeted policy driven by the actions of a set of people, the ideology of a class. As for us, we weren’t even using the term “cost of living” back in 2020: the language was at once more apocalyptic and more practical—“social murder”, “mutual aid”—certainly not euphemistic.

As I say, this is both new and not new. Back in the day, there would be occasional benefit readings for individual poets. Yesterday, the PHF organised what was in essence a benefit reading for an entire community, launching their new anthology, Ill Pips—the title a pun on the
Personal Independence Payment (PIP) that replaces the old Disability Living Allowance benefit—and seeking to raise money to keep the fund going. When the PHF started a year and a half ago, donations flowed in relatively comfortably: since then, however, as the “new normal” reverted to the “old normal”, and the government support temporarily introduced during the pandemic was removed, more have started claiming and few have continued to donate. The PHF benefit took place, largely, in lieu of donations from those actually endowed with the capacity for comfortably survive—which is to say, the of salaried academics with permanent jobs has trailed off at just the point that the ‘cost of living’ bites. Instead, this was mutual aid: the community supporting itself, poets buying each other’s books from the table, giving donations—which, in a sense, is what already happens at a poetry reading with a booktable and in the self-sustaining world of the small press and the little magazine, but which here takes on a larger and more urgent form. What was billed as a “family fun day” took place at 56a infoshop, a small, volunteer-run anarchist bookshop founded as a squat in 1991, located a few street corners behind the labyrinthine ‘developments’ and destroyed market of Elephant and Castle. Inside, magazine holders and books from floor to ceiling, a collection of VHS tapes, posters and information, a small dog wandering in and out of the heat. Outside, the sun beating down in the middle of a heatwave apparently unprecedented in the UK, a self-assembled, malfunctioning barbeque—eventually replaced with disposable—a crate of beer, a table overspilling with books, in a concrete corner by the entrance to some flats. As much as a benefit or a reading, this was a social occasion, a summer party. To me, these occasions are still marked by that sense of realigning when events started to happen again late last year, persisting beyond the lifting of restrictions—the collective processing of a trauma, an interruption, a fragile holding together in which the joins still show. Perhaps this will wear off as more events continue to happen, perhaps it will always be there, something else to add to our losses. I don’t mean to make this sound like a huge gothic edifice, poet-wraiths congregating like a group of the undead Halloween costumed as so many Thomas Chattertons: it was a summer party, and it was fun.
Six of the eight advertised readers read: short sets, attentively heard. Perhaps inevitably, many of the poems were about those conditions that produced the necessity for a fund like this: the precarity of those within the university, the process of applying for work and state benefits. Nicky Melville’s poetry of the past decade or so has often charted processes like these through found texts—a project from a few years ago was based on tippex erasures of bank leaflets. The poems he read today used university brochures in which the words ‘university’, ‘student’, and so on, were altered to refers to ‘butchers’, ‘butchery’, descriptions of courses changed to descriptions of preparing meat. The poems operate on a knowing based on humour: the identification of a shared experience of alienation turned into a collective laughter that takes the deadening repetition of bureaucratese on its own terms and twists it against itself. Perhaps the most effective poem he read, though, was the short, single sentence with which he began: “Life is cheap. Living is dear”. The language of truisms by which economic valuation serves as the basis of life opens up just a fraction to enable some other term of, or beyond value, life beyond measure. Fred Carter’s poems manifested a kind of nervy, earnest argumentative lyric energy. The poems repeatedly speak from an individual experience to a collective wish, their insistent use of “we” and “us” seeking to create a community while also speaking from it. Laurel Uziell read from a new sequence about the experience of defeat, and a personal experience of police violence, first as a kind of crushing helplessness, the second, at a demo where the police where chased away. Laurel’s work, too has an argumentative quality, but one based more than Fred’s in a dialectical irony, a caustic-sincere holding up for inspection of socialized positions and perspectives that unfolds as a movement in and against the breaks and flows of poetic language. The poetry is consistently reflecting not so much on itself, as on the contradictions of activism, social life, the interpellations and mis-interpellations of identities individual and collective alike. Poetry is the vehicle to do this not because it offers direct, unmediated experience, but because it draws attention to meditation and seeks to work dialectically within it.
If Fred’s work largely addressed conditions in the academy and Laurel’s those of activism, Tim Wolff’s poems spoke more directly of life at the receiving end of the State’s slow violence, as expressed in the benefits system. As a volunteer from the shop—whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch—remarked in an impromptu speech that followed Wolff’s reading, the dole queue as a physical entity has now been replaced by an automated system, a website, an app. You’re not standing in a line; you’re on your computer, on your phone, on someone else’s computer or phone, as the site crashes or the phone-line stays on hold for hours at a time, replaying an automated message like a kind of anti-lullaby. The capacity for collective resistance enabled by presence within physical space—when you see someone on the line being mistreated and step in; when you collectively grumble and gossip about the conditions you’re put through—is replaced by forced separation, individualised anxiety, total atomisation. Digital bureaucracy and data gathering are the fronts, at once new and old, of a process of slow social murder. In Wolff’s work, the frustrations and despair generated by such systems translate into physical positions, each line a miniature drama of movement and statis—a line about ‘spinning on the sofa’ comes to mind—as the body exists in relation to. The poems didn’t offer the narrative by which such experiences are often described: instead, they at once resisted and sought for narrative, a through-line, a way out. But this was a language, too, of defiance and anger, of barbed satire. Verbal inventiveness—metaphor, simile, modes of often grotesque comparison—throw back the blankness of bureaucratese and name the conditions for what they are. If socialist realism could be reclaimed, it might describe something like this.
Sometimes, it can seem that every good thing is the product of something bad. “Wrong life cannot be lived rightly” becomes the new Victorian parlour stitch. The sun which this BBQ party temperatures the result of climate change, as the ironically-named ‘leadership’ context, in which a parade of Tory gorgons line up to compete for callous, murderous intent in the right-wing gameshow that is the British media, sees candidates threaten to abandon the net zero pledge: even greenwashing won’t do. One of the things, it seems to me, that the poetry emerging from our current conjuncture tends to do is to twist figures, metaphors, circumstances in on themselves, at once trying to cut through and further tie itself in knots. The poems—and the figure of the poet within them—act like the contortionists that, faced with the brutality of the state apparatus and its privatized allies, we’re forced to be everyday. The space of the poem is that of a labyrinth, a maze, a black hole, entropy and energy the constant balancing points by which the poem steers around and away from their central voids. That might suggest that the poems are always on the back foot. That would be true. At the moment, what other foot could we be on?
But poetry does not, cannot just offer reactive affective mimesis. A report on reality is written in the hopes of transforming it. Dialectic might be one word for the kind of work such poetry does. Another might be transmutation. Sean Bonney’s work was always exemplary for this: when, in the second set of readings, Sophie Carapetian read out one of Sean’s poems after Katerina Gogou, rendering—at least in this reading—loneliness a means of coming together. ‘and loneliness is power is sharpened and bloodstained is swirling is swirling’. This process of conversion—loneliness as power, atomised suffering turned into a virtual collective of the excluded, including ghosts, the dead, those minimum-waged or unwaged, done daily violence to—happens in the poem first, but we have to believe that it can happen outside the poem for the poem to mean anything. Or is it the other way round? It’s again a question of scale. Sophie’s other text, a sprawling essay, began with a conceit about eyes becoming fists, turned into an analysis of mark making and the line as systems of domination—in the case of official language, official speech, the shibboleths which enables people to speak— or-in the case of much contemporary art—of participation in such processes. It ended as a demand for an intergalactic communism and a reclamation of the idea of propaganda as a necessary force. After all, why not make the most extreme demand? Why not reclaim discarded, discredited words? What is there to lose?
One of Laurel’s poems contained a sardonic line about ‘form’ and ‘content’—the question debated endlessly in poetic histories and seminars rejected and taken up in new terms. In their speech, the 56a volunteer suggested a way this could be understood as a more general model, drawing links here between what makes a poem live and what makes solidarity real. Poets are not concerned with whether or not what they write is a poem: instead, it becomes a poem in the encounter between poet and text, between text and reader, an exchange, a sharing. Poiesis: “the activity in which a person brings into being something that did not exist before”. Likewise, solidarity is an action, a cutting across barriers: those suicided in prison, those on hunger strike, across the states of Britain and Fortress Europe and beyond, are not thought experiments, but real people for whom real action must be taken. The speech expressed frustration with the idea of creating ‘space’, of creating ‘community’. Sure, we need to do those things. But what about flipping the terms, and instead seeking to create ‘density’—a thickness, a concatenation of actions, of people, of poems? Such density must of necessity reach beyond poetry, poems and poets. As the PHF founding statement has it: “The problems we’re seeking to address extending far beyond any discernible ‘poetry community’—we see this fund as, at least, ‘a start’. The premise is simple: give when you can and take when you can’t.” In a variation on ‘from each according to his ability...’ giving and taking balance each other out: equilibrium is dynamic, against the entropic process by which the means and the will to live are steadily drained out, “like the use medieval use of leeches as a cure for leukaemia”, as someone remarked. Again, this doesn’t just happen in poems themselves—as condensed concentrations and containers of social energy—but in the social life around them, into and out of which the poem releases that energy.
Over the course of the afternoon, in the concrete courtyard outside the 56a infoshop, an audience of around fifty people, coming and going, arriving and leaving, made up of poets, but not just of poets, raised £700 to keep the fund going. £700 might not sound like all that much money, but it will be a lifeline for many. The Official Poets whose names you might see in prize lists and newspapers offer a specialism in ideologically vague poeticising—poiesis redefined as “activity in which a person fails to brings into being anything that did not exist before”. These poets won’t donate, won’t care, won’t be aware. The world that flares into existence at events like the benefit outside the infoshop is not their world. This is a world created by poets for themselves and for those who tread into its orbit; not a clique, not an elite, not a coterie, but a collective in its truest, and thus in its most fragile and most provisional sense. Reading last, Luke Roberts said something along the lines of—to paraphrase: “I’ve been doing this for a while, and over this time, many people have told me what poetry is or isn’t or should be. But if there’s any definition of poetry, what it can be and what it can do, perhaps about it’s this.” This gathering, this spirit, a mutual aid organised around words, a community that’s come together around poetry, poems, and poets, but that, in doing so, seeks to extend itself beyond the fractures that keep people apart, to overlap, to survive.

Later that evening, I went to see Eddie Prévost perform the second in a series of eightieth birthday concerts he’s giving every Saturday this month. Prévost grew up in a bomb-blasted Bermondsey. In the film Eddie Prévost’s Blood, he remembers going to a school with his single parent mother who said “you won’t get in here because you don’t have a dad with a top hat”. Prévost had never heard of John Cage when he began making music with AMM in the mid-sixties: instead, he was looking for sounds he hadn’t heard before, channelling his social experience, his sense of a world within and beyond that experience. In the years since, he’s devoted his life to an art form—that of freely improvised music—that, like experimental or avant-garde poetry or whatever it is we call whatever we’re doing, receives almost no funding, no recognition, and whose social value is dismissed out of hand. But as Prévost said from the stage, the practice of free improvisation is not about knowing per se, but about knowing by doing, knowing through practice. The senses are theoreticians, we know what’s to be done, though that knowledge isn’t easy, though it’s imperfect or awkward or broken or fractured. There’s a beauty in process, in the operations of the dialectical, though there’s a danger, too, in valorising process over endpoint. If all we have is process and all they have is an endgame—including control over the means of production of death, that ultimate endgame—then we’re fucked. Well OK, we’re fucked. The process is constant. We keep having to begin again, to build it up from a diminishing set of resources. Well OK. We keep going. It’s a start.