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Wednesday, 17 February 2016

FEBRUARY: 5 things I want to say

1. Before We Start...

A recent study suggests that poetry audiences are more likely to die during weekend literary events (there's an estimated 11% difference in outcomes) than during the more routine shows that take place during the week. Some of the factors contributing to the difference may include: higher alcohol consumption, overcrowding, inadequate access to metaphor, etc... 

Government proposals based on these studies, set to alter contracts for Emerging Poets (EPs) to create a "seven day" poetry service, have been blocked by the British Poetry Union and the National Emerging Writers Alliance. EPs, who maintain that poetry already occurs on a seven day basis, voted unanimously to take strike action that will stop these measures. A spokesman for the union argued that poets are already overworked, with little financial compensation, and must be entitled to family life; imposing new contracts on poets would compromise safety both for the artists and audiences. The unions also point out that it is impossible to absolutely correlate the number of audience deaths with a given day of the week; audiences admitted on a Saturday night to a theatre or bar often need more critical care than weekday audiences, for instance. They believe that this is an ideological tactic to (further) privatise the pursuit of creative endeavour. 

A few days ago, I was having a lighthearted conversation (as you do) about the junior doctors' strikes on the way back from a poetry gig. Imagine what it would be like to have a professional body of spoken word artists under the same political and contractual pressures junior doctors are facing right now...

And then I didn't have to do too much imagining. Many spoken word artists I know work in schools, theatres, bars, bookshops - all places that have faced a lot of challenges over the past few years. Add that to the fact that artists, and writers generally, have been complaining for years that cuts to local authority funding are unsustainable, that library closures are brutal - and set to affect the most vulnerable segments of society - and that venues that house literature and art are under increasing threat. The loss of Ideas Tap is one big example of creative sector fatalities. Huge ideological shifts are taking place under the auspices of "long term economic plans" or "streamlining" or "fixing the legacy left by the last government". The thing is, these shifts start in the less mainstream/ more controversial areas - a few libraries here and there, because who uses them any more? A few cuts to the arts because, seriously, a few self-serving risqué theatre pieces won't be missed - or they can be funded themselves. But then it hits the education (see British Values, for instance) and housing systems, a way of creating longterm shifts... and finally things get a bit bolder, and measures are made to stop legitimate protest. It's harder to strike than ever before, the new junior doctor contract has been imposed anyway, the House of Lords is being curtailed that tiny bit more, and even institutions like schools, universities and local authorities are set to be denied the basic right to boycott products. Regardless of where you sit on these issues, the changes are radical.*

*I deliberately linked to news sources across the political spectrum and across the country. I'm not the only one who thinks a lot of things are out of control.

2. Identity Politics

It's LGBT History Month here; it's Black History Month in the US; and it's also now become a thing to attack so-called "identity politics", i.e. the ideology that our experiences in the world are shaped by our status in society - whether that status is constructed by ourselves or society at large - and that we must engage with these labels to reform it.

From Raven "I want to transcend" Simone to Stacey "BET is evil even though I made my name through them" Dash (if you don't know the names, don't worry about it) to Nigel "let's get rid of equality laws" Farage, to the random person in the post office queue, there are people who believe that identifying with these statuses/labels - as contested as they may be - is a problem in itself, rather than the fact that power automatically favours dominant groups.

In a not-particularly scientific experiment, tired of all the issues that occupy my daily life, I decided to have a race-free/colour-blind and sexuality-neutral week. I would have extended it to gender, but I attended a university seminar the day before - on conducting research, funnily enough. The woman leading the seminar pointed out something about our gendered seating patterns (there was a hint of manspreading and crosslegged women taking up little space); I decided it would be less controversial to choose areas where I'm not automatically assumed to be in the dominant grouping.

During my colour-blind, sexuality-neutral week, I went to a supermarket and bought race-free meat and race-free fruit and vegetables.

Here is a picture of an apple.

[Picture of apple. Notice the absence of race. Notice its powerful plea: "Are we not all equally part of your 5 10 a day? Cut us and we all bleed the same colour pips (unless we have been genetically modified...)"]

During my race/sexuality-blind week, I avoided Robert Dyas. I avoided black cabs and white vans. I avoided meeting new people; I anticipated moments where I might be asked, "Where are you from?" in a knowing way. I had to turn off the Facebook when a certain singer released a video and everyone started talking about it. I eventually had to avoid the internet completely. I avoided walking into gentrified spaces, including a pizza store in Dalston where I'm usually the only person without a full-blown brown beard. I turned down two rather "queer" poetry gigs. I had to shield my eyes from all the Valentine's Day marketing and banner ads baying for my heteronormative attention. My sexuality was determinedly neutral on the 24 bus home.

And then I went to a vigil outside Holloway prison.

An inmate, Sarah Reed, died last month. She allegedly strangled herself. There are videos on the internet of her being punched and dragged across a room by her hair by a police officer, after being accused of shoplifting (she suffered broken ribs and the officer, charged with common assault, received community service)*. She had experienced mental health problems, exacerbated by the circumstances surrounding her child's death (it's worth looking at the details for a more complete picture). She had been interned at a mental health unit when she was sent to jail after striking a fellow patient who allegedly sexually assaulted her. Her story speaks of a failure by the system to protect the most vulnerable. I don't think anyone can argue that she wasn't vulnerable.

I almost didn't go to the vigil; all the way towards Holloway on the red 253 bus, I questioned my motives. I turned up late and walked through a couple of camera crews to get to the middle of the crowd. I stood in the cold, looking out for the few familiar faces; I recognised mostly poets and they were standing so far away. They were so far away and we were all being made to chant her name (Say her name. Sarah Reed. Black Lives Matter) and I knew I was about to break my pointless resolve. This wasn't about me and my neutral transcendence but about something I felt. I felt the facelessness of all these institutions (mental health units, courts, prisons...) and the power they exert on the few, away from public scrutiny. I'm fortunate not to deal with any of those institutions on a daily basis but I've dealt enough with schools to know the mechanics of these institutions.

I waved at a woman I know from an LGBT poetry night, who turns out to have been a former inmate at Holloway. I spoke with her later. She didn't relish the idea of returning to the place that had once taken her liberty, but she felt the need to mark Sarah Reed's untimely death, and all the injustices that do indeed transcend race but, ultimately, disproportionately affect people from certain ethnic backgrounds. I won't link now, but there is well-documented, easy to retrieve evidence that black people are treated differently in the mental health services, social services, the justice system and in education. This also intersects with issues of class, wealth, gender, religion, immigration history etc., all factors that cannot be looked at in isolation. If I were to take the anti-identity politics agenda in good faith - although, sorry, I don't - I could see the argument that isolating one group risks oversimplifying complex individual realities. And while it's great that David Cameron made a statement a couple of weeks ago about Oxbridge not doing enough to take in more students from ethnic "minorities", the facelessness of a system that pathologises, criminalises, patronises and, sometimes kills, cannot be changed with a few measures targeted at a handful of black and minority ethnic students.

My race-free week was drawing to a close and here I was chanting Black Lives Matter, along with a mixed black, white and Asian crowd - mostly women - gathered at the front of a prison which is soon to be demolished. The prison will be gone within a year or two and most likely this spot will be replaced by luxury housing units because, in truth, it's a prime location at the end of Camden Road. To my knowledge, this is the only women's prison in London. The families and friends of London inmates will have to travel long distances just to visit them (dead or alive) in a new super jail, and the prison building itself - a reminder of the undesirable elements of society - will be moved out of sight and remain out of mind to most.

My fingers started to numb as I stood and listened to speakers approach the megaphone with poems and impassioned speeches. The tips of my ears began to burn in the chilly wind. Our allocated time was nearing the end and I became increasingly aware of my hunger, my tiredness, my weariness at questioning what a vigil might do in the long run. Were we here for the benefit of the family? Were we here to protest? Were we here in her death when we could have been there in her life in some small way?

A representative for Sarah Reed's family came to the megaphone and led two minutes of reflection time. In those two minutes of silence when we were asked to close our eyes, the back of my eyelids glowed red. Right then, in the car park of the prison, I thought about what it means to stand in solidarity with someone, with a group. I thought of all the people gathered standing alongside me and the journeys they had made to reach there. I thought of the injustice of a system that allows more than 500 black and minority ethnic people to die in police custody without any convictions for their deaths. I thought of the names of some I could remember. I thought of the list I have in a book at home, that only goes up to the year 2007, which I used for an abandoned poem. I abandoned the poem, mostly because I was embarrassed to talk about race, identity or, more generally, "labels", mostly because I didn't want to come across as being in a perpetual state of victimhood or antagonism. The militant black man trope is alive and well and I didn't want to be that. Nor did I want to be a spokesperson for queer issues. I have so many other things that can and do occupy my time and energy. And yet... And yet...

And yet...

*sometimes it seems we're starting to pick up the worst bits of American culture here.

3. The Ballroom 

I'm so proud for my friend Anna Hope, whose second book, The Ballroom, is now out. She had great reviews this weekend in the Guardian and the Weekend FT - and probably a few more (I haven't gone around checking). She's part of a workshop group I'm a part of, The Unwriteables, that's been running for a few years now - and they're all amazing.

Returning somewhat to the last theme, the book is set in an asylum for the mentally insane in 1911, during a period where some who subscribed to eugenics - including Winston Churchill - were seriously toying with the idea of massive social engineering (to put it euphemistically). There are strong resonances with the present and, ultimately, it's a story about love and poverty and rebellion.

4. Other fab stuff my colleagues are doing

The other Unwriteables have a few things cooking too...

First up, there's David Savill, whose book They Are Trying to Break Your Heart is coming out in April.

Also, there's Olja Knezevic, making a great name for herself in the Balkans, (and I'm hoping she starts publishing in English again soon so we can all read it here in the UK).

Then there's the group of original Spoken Word Educators, all bouncing around doing great things.

You can follow this link for Raymond Antrobus's latest YouTube offering.

And both Pete Bearder and Cat Brogan have recently delivered TEDx talks on education and their experiences teaching spoken word in schools. All pretty amazing, really.

5. Coming Up

Coming up, I have:

i) Polari on Sea next week Weds in Hastings,
ii) Jazz Verse Jukebox (the final one!) in March
ii) And I've also just agreed to do a one-off Polari salon at The Light Lounge in Chinatown on April 11.

Tickets for April's Polari are selling out fast... Come along!


Wednesday, 3 February 2016

UPDATE: and Upcoming... (5 gigs)

I'm back! And I'm so glad that January's over and there's now still a hint of daylight at 5pm. It makes it easier to feel like a person when I'm not in the middle of hibernating.

In case you missed it, I posted towards the end of last year that I'll be cutting down on gigs for at least the next few months, in order to concentrate on my doctoral research. It's been difficult turning things down but I usually say, ask me again in the summer! Having said that, I've agreed to do 5 poetry gigs between now and the end of April, for reasons that will become clear.

Here they are:

1) Birkbeck Poets Number Nine. 7th Feb (Sunday coming)

The Duke of Wellington, N1

This is the ninth edition of Birkbeck Poets - and I'm looking forward to joining the list of readers for the first time. Although it's a university-related do, the event is very much open to the public. Check the link above for the Facebook page or follow @birkbeckpoets for updates. I'm excited about the other guest readers! Will say no more for now...

It's also worth mentioning that university poetry events are, rightfully, at the heart of all that's new... Around me, I know both SOAS and LSE host interesting events. And, also, the UniSlam Grand Finals just happened: Goldsmiths came 2nd and Edinburgh kept their crown, 3rd year in a row, in case you were wondering. You heard it here first, I want to see one of the University of London colleges smash it next time, and I'm willing to help that happen! ;)  

2) Outspoken @ Queer Contact. 9th Feb (next Tues) MANCHESTER

Queer Contact 2016: Outspoken @ Contact, Oxford Road, Manchester M15 6JA
Jackie Kay, (me), Paula Varjack, AJ McKenna, Adam Lowe

As of Sunday, we're in LGBT History Month. I was chuffed to see my name circulating on a list (check @DeanAtta's daily posts this month on LGBT poetry) yesterday. I'm also glad to see there's a lot of really interesting events taking place*.

All that said, I'm mega excited about Outspoken/Queer Contact, which has been in my diary for months. I get to travel up with Paula Varjack and it's also the first time I get to see Jackie Kay in person!

Also, due to a personal admin error, I have one ticket available for the first person to email me... Get in touch to find out more.

3) Polari on Sea 24th Feb HASTINGS


Once again, I'll be flying down the Thames with Paul Burston and heading to the seaside for Polari On Sea in Hastings.

Tickets are available and everything. I've heard it's going to be mega. Rosie Garland, VG Lee and Nick Maes will be reading too. 

4) Jazz Verse Jukebox. 13th March.

This month's event... next week!

I love this gig, which takes place upstairs at Ronnie Scott's. I try to get there when I can - which isn't often enough - but, I've been told that March is likely to be the last ever instalment of Jazz Verse Jukebox. I'm hoping this is lies, lies, lies all lies but, if not, that's one more reason to get down there. It's going to be a music and poetry celebration that will wake Spring up and blow everyone's mind... or something like that.

5) April. (Camden event, date tbc... but I'll be there!)

More deets to follow....

That's it for now. Back to reading for me!

*Camden & Islington, as always, has a whole extended programme dedicated to the month (the biggest in the UK, apparently), and Camden has just inaugurated its first LGBT Poet Laureate, would you believe it?


Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Postcard from Home: Hamster/Hipster

no comment... Naturally, in E1 area