Friday, 22 May 2015

More half-formed thoughts

This poem is intentionally still stuck in 2013
wearing YOLO and GEEK t-shirts
licking rusty hammers and swinging on dirty machinery.
It is twerking on the head of a Blurred Line.
It is being lawfully shot at by police, in Tottenham
at the same time
history is being revised.
The camera doesn’t lie
and neither does this poem
but the truth hurts like a badly-timed
cliché
and your ears are closed.
Check your f*ing privilege, says this poem...

from Poem Poem, III

I’m sitting in the Museum Gardens in York, waiting for my train back to London, after discovering that the cheap ticket I bought can’t be exchanged for an earlier one, unless I cough up £89. I decide to use this as Twitter catching up time, for processing the night before at Say Owt Slam - which was extremely welcoming and pretty lively - and for re-memorising my Poem Poems, which I’ll need for my show in Bilbao next week. The sun in shining, mercifully, and I have a pleasant time of it, before walking around the city wall and taking photos. I don't know what I'll do with all the photos, apart from post them here...





I feel as if I've been out of the country for a while. So much seems to be going on and, of the things I've garnered from the Twittersphere, these stand out:

1 – The Daily Mail has been so kind as to publish an Ultimate Guide to Life, which suggests that, at my age, I should have bought my first car, and my first flat and had my first child by now. I’m so behind, it’s sickening. What’s worse, I realise that I live in a bubble of similarly stunted individuals.

Anyone who can buy a flat in London at 27 needs to have very rich parents or be earning well above the average wage (which 30 year-olds need to be earning, apparently. At £26k, that can be a fortune for a poet; maybe that’s why performers tend to be so young*)


Of course, this chart has been extensively ridiculed by some of the people I follow on Twitter, and by plenty more that I don't, but I still can’t help feeling annoyed with its focus. If life is simply a collection of property, marriage/kids and business prospects - with the odd first kiss type experience thrown in, for cutesy effect - then count me out of it (no apologies to the Labour politicians with their tails between their legs, who want to appeal to the "aspirational" voter again).

This is, surely, part of a relentless presentation of “normal”, which tends to ignore all the normal people who fit outside of these markers; discussions on “white privilege” or “straight/cis-gendered/male privilege” stem from a reaction against the status quo that idealises one template. Leaving aside the fact that passing a driving test is noteworthy but having an education isn't, the images alone show further, subtle clues as to what is "normal". If the pictures on this chart had been all of black/brown people, for instance, (and why are there still no black emojis? Oops, just Googled this...), it would have caused a big stir; similarly, if it had suggested a more “equal” concept of marriage, with drawings of two men or two women in the relevant places, I can only imagine all the "PC gone mad" comments that would appear below the line.) I’m not suggesting the Mail do this - I in no way expect that paper to represent me, nor the survey from which it stems - I’m just concerned that this waste of editorial space is part of a greater pattern that keeps certain voices in the shadows. The idea of “universal” is always presented with a certain bias, which gets irritating after a while, especially when people refuse to see that they have this bias.

2 – Goldsmiths

So, seeing the hoo-hah about the chart coloured my thoughts on this...  (excuse the pun). 

This is, I think, the second or third time Goldsmiths has made the news over some political dispute in just a couple of months. Unfortunately, I missed out on getting involved in any controversy last year while I was studying there; the newly-founded Spoken Word Educator project demanded too much time to get into student politics.

I hate to be drawn in on particular things that have been decontextualised in order to make a pretty headline; however, hearing Bahar Mustafa describe her stance, I have to agree with her position on racism/sexism. And the fact that she has been hounded by national press for what is pretty much a university issue entrenches my view on this even further. Forgetting any hashtags she may have written for a second - something that came after the initial story - I fail to see why people should feel threatened by women/non-binary people of colour deciding to meet, and deciding that their needs are best met in a "safe"*, restricted space. It's not the same as calling a meeting for white men only. It isn't racism or sexism.



Furthermore, on any further issues that have come up since, if racism were about calling people names or being unkind/hurrtful to certain people, then yes, anyone can be racist. But there are huge structures in place here - and in the wider Western world, and even beyond - that have been in place for generations, and that will continue to be in place for the foreseeable future that make it absolutely impossible for black people to be anything more than name callers or simply unkind to white people. I know for certain there will be people who disagree with me on this. To thoroughly and effectively communicate this stance when we are in an increasingly divided/divisive society, is a very difficult challenge.

I know I’m in an academic bubble when I address such things. I've spent most of my adult life studying at universities, with breaks of no more than three years. So I’m used to hearing people mention concepts such as male privilege, white supremacy, oppressive structures etc. Without labouring the point, I will simply say that when people vote UKIP because they think immigrants are taking away their jobs, or their children believe Muslims are taking over this country (another thing I just discovered on my phone) they are simply responding to the already inherent racism in society. The same cannot be true in the reverse.

3 - Haiti 

On a slight tangent, I am tickled/appalled by Francois Hollande’s talk of a “moral debt” France owes to Haiti during his visit last week. Since the country became independent and abolished slavery, through (very bloody) rebellions, and right up until 1947, it had to pay France reparations. And so, many decades later, France can turn around and insist on “investment” in Haiti based on its “morals.”

To me, this is the kind of way that racism festers; in an unequal playing field, the (white) establishment can declare itself as benevolent, trustworthy, and upright. It can choose whether or not to obey its own morals - and then criticise those of others, when it disappoints from their side. In a similar vein, when people die in the Mediterranean trying to cross into Europe, we can shake our heads and sigh, we can talk about migrant quotas, or – if we’re simply following government action – we can talk about sending back boats and deterring “economic migrants”. Using racially-charged language (e.g. “cockroaches”) only signposts the racism underneath it. Katie Hopkins is not the problem and she didn't come out of a vacuum. (Others have more eloquently explained our hypocrisy in the Mediterranean)

4 – What about the men?

On another more positive note, I've used this time to read some of the replies to a 1000+ men survey I took part in, on patriarchy and how it has affected us. Some of the thoughts (all anonymous) published are funny, others surprising and I'm interested to see how the author, Dave Pickering, has developed his show on the subject... something else I'll be adding to my Edinburgh diary.

A related post led me to this, which pretty much sums up the whole 'privilege' argument in a simple way. And I guess, if I were to link everything I've just read and ranted about, that would lead me back to Poem Poem III (so named because it's the third in a series of poems about a poem on display.) I still need to memorise it, and another couple of poems. Eek!     

*Aside #1: AAPs

I was at the World Cup Slam in Bobigny, Paris, 2010, with a group of poets representing their countries. I’d just been demoted from Farrago’s UK Slam Champion to the “Angleterre” rep in the World Cup Slam, erasing Scotland, Wales and Northen Ireland in the process (Scotland now has its own slam championship, separate from rUK). There was a buzz in the canteen of the town hall, where we were meant to be doing some flashmob performances. Many of the performers had never been to France – and a couple had never been to Europe. We started discussing AAPs in our home countries. My memory of the conversation is hazy but I think we calculated Poland has an AAP of 21, and others as high as 28; never above 30. I believe Mr. Sweden coined the term “AAP”, which should really be “AASP”: “average age of (slam) poets”.

Poetry, like left-wing beliefs, are sometimes seen as the young person’s domain, and an especially male one at that (there weren't that many women in the slam). The older you get, the more eyebrows are raised if you self-describe as a “spoken word poet” or slammer. I couldn’t imagine myself taking part in slams for the rest of my life; nor would I want to. And in many ways, I already see myself as semi-retired; I don't go out of my way to seek out slams to participate in.

If I were to do an Ultimate Guide of a slam poet, it would look like this:

if you can read my writing, well done!

*Aside #2: Safe Spaces


I've been burnt once already with the idea of a "safe space." No such thing exists (especially online). People come with all sorts of baggage and you can try and group them together based on a shared experience (in this case a group of women from minority ethnic backgrounds), but there will always be a communication gap. 

Generally speaking, I find it easier to trust people I can identify with, in one form or another. When I perform poetry in London, to audiences that reflect the diversity of experience I grew up with/ am used to now, I may feel a deeper connection... but I know this is down to my own projection of their understanding. One of the poems I currently enjoy performing most describes my conflict at rapping gospel lyrics at church on Sundays as a teenager, while simultaneously trying to project a "rudeboy" image elsewhere. My pre-amble consists of something like: "This is about wanting to be a gospel rapper. I'm sure you can all relate to this." Usually the audience laughs - and the laughs come harder in whiter, and more middle class audiences. I've acknowledged the fact they don't know what it's like, but I'm going to take them through my journey anyway and, hopefully, they will relate to some of the feelings/insecurities that I've magicked into a poem. 

I often feel very unsafe when I start this poem and it requires a deep breath before I do. When I take in that breath, I inhale all the responsibility I feel at taking them into my experience through language, knowing it will be mediated by their own experiences, cultural baggage and prejudgements. The breath is different when I see a knowing smile or a nod from a member of the audience. In that nod, I recognise they too formed gospel groups and changed Destiny's Child lyrics as teenagers; they too know what it is like to knock on doors and hand out flyers for Easter outreaches; they too adapted to the worldliness of their school peers - or not -, have made excuses for not going to parties, have out-cursed them in order to keep up their kudos. When I take in a breath in a room where I see a few knowing smiles, I feel safer. I do not hold all the responsibility for the audience to understand. I can relax a little. I can focus on just being a poet and not a tour guide.              

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