Forgetting Faces

Two days of conferences. Or, as they’re alternatively known, the prosopagnosiac’s nightmare. (Person bad at remembering faces).

Bad ways to greet a prosopagnosiac:

“Do you remember me?”

An answer of no usually seems to offend.

(Offended tone & still not giving your name) “But we met at – “ (name event where there were lots of people, after which I’ve subsequently met a thousand more people. Give no clue what we talked about).

Good ways to greet a prosopagnosiac:

“Hello! My name is – and we met at -”

By turning your name tag towards me so I don’t give into the urge to do this myself.

Neutral ways:

“Hello!” (Happy face and look of recognition). I’ll probably work it out eventually.

Accidentally good ways:

Be visually distinctive and/or don’t ever change what you look like. Particularly your hair.

Drop clues into the conversation early. Like “It was a nice day when we got married. At that lighthouse” etc.

Say mournfully “You probably don’t remember me”. This allows me to say “No, I don’t remember anybody”. Though you’ll usually be happy to find I do remember you once you say who you are/where we met/what we talked about.

Accidentally bad ways:

Look like lots of other people I know.

Say “I’m bad at remembering names too”. Names and faces are a different thing. But this does make me feel a bit better.

Assume I’ll recognise you because you just spoke on stage. This is a very fair assumption, but it turns out I often don’t recognise people who’ve just spoken on a stage because then you were small and far away, and now you’re big and nearby.

Be somewhere that I’m expecting to see people I know, but in another context. For example, I recognised both a comedian and a poet in Hull today but assumed I was just imagining I knew them because I was at an event which wasn’t for comedians and poets. Also, be anywhere I wouldn’t expect you to be. Another town, an event for people who aren’t you, my bath etc.

If I’ve met you more than four or five times or seen your photo a lot then I’ll probably recognise you anyway. Also if we’re related/married. Maybe.


Cultural Transformations- Hull as a Tiger

I’m back in Thieving Harry’s on Humber Street overlooking Hull’s marina. The sky’s grey, it’s raining. Nice coffee and things with avocados in are on the menu, served at wooden trestle tables with mismatched chairs. I came here a lot while I was doing things during the year of culture. A quiet place to breathe. Some regulars didn’t come here as much during the year- it suddenly wasn’t as quiet a place for them to breathe. I wonder whether this area will have been completely, horribly gentrified in ten years, or be run down again, or be about the same but with thriving new types of business I can’t even imagine now. I’m one of thousands of people who will want to keep coming back to Hull. Who feel an emotional investment in its story, in its people. Who want the investments of the City of Culture year to keep on paying off. That’s different to its residents who both want and NEED them to pay off, to echo the original bid slogan.

The figures from the initial evaluation report are looking good. Amazing even. The mood is celebratory at the Cultural Transformations conference at Hull University, in which academics and cultural, civic and business folk, and a smattering of artists, small businesses and students have gathered to discuss it. 95% of Hull’s population attended an event, an additional 1.3 million visitors came compared to in 2013, tourism’s contributing over £300 million to the economy, and 3 out of 4 residents feel proud to live in the city, after having been battered by years of negative press coverage and low morale previously. There are notes of caution and challenge. Arts Council chair Nicholas Serota notes with concern that the 230 redundancies announced at Hull College are the sort of thing that could impact negatively on how young people are able to capitalise on new opportunities and gain new skills. He says the Arts Council should have a “development and advocacy” role to convince other places of how the arts can positively benefit people’s well being, “place making” and the economy. But says it’s also still about “making great art”. I think of my students when I was teaching on a module about the contemporary cultural industries at the University of Leeds and the essays I marked in which they parsed and analysed the many paradoxes and ambiguities of arts sector language. Hull 2017’s outgoing (in both senses of the word) chief exec Martin Green says that these figures are important to convince politicians and the media of the benefits of investment in the arts and culture. He points out that for the entire creative and cultural sector the evaluation is “a weapon, so use it”. At the same time, he says, the next important conversations to be had are about social impact and they can’t as easily be summarised in “sexy figures”. Dr Derek Atkinson points out that for many people, the last thing about the year will be the memories. What if it’s being able to look back and say “That was a great year?” that has the ultimately decisive impact on Hull’s future.

There are several highlights videos. I see two women sat in front of me wiping their eyes and sniffing in unison after one which had also brought a lump to my throat and made me think of my home city of Bradford and adoptive city of Newcastle and all that cultural investment has and hasn’t done for them. There’s a funny video Martin Green took part in, in which some young Hullensians provide an alternative evaluation in distinctive and sweary style. Mostly there are people talking through Powerpoints of tables with varying degrees of slickness and charm. I host a Pecha Kucha event out of the main conference programme in which seven people sum up their highlights in words and pictures and bring the impacts to life in another mode entirely. I think, again, that the point of “Great art” for me is often the ability to translate between different languages and ways of being in the world. The way, for example, a novel by A.S Byatt or a comedy set by Russell Kane, can illuminate and reflect the ways that people can be saying the same thing in such different ways, they can’t hear each other. We need multiple ways, never just one. We need the figures AND we need the stories and we need to be able to recognise that neither of them will ever be the full picture. They’re snapshots not long-term views and even a long-term view would never be the full picture. The figures and the stories need to speak to each other though. Here is another conference in which “The Numbers” and “The Art” are kept separate from each other as if they inhabit different worlds rather than being able to reflect back and forth so that they open each other up. Reveal the depths and the gaps in conversation with each other. I’m not seeing the creativity and innovation that the hosting university institute says it values.

Flicking through the doorstop of the report I see that some of my poems are in there. I interviewed 36 residents, schoolchildren, creatives, random people in a shopping centre, students, about the impact of the year. Got them to do some drawings, come up with some similes, chatted to them. I grouped the responses into themes. Probably the overarching one was “Openness”. Again and again people talked about how they felt they and the city had opened up. People were remarkably consistent in the responses they gave when I asked them to describe Hull as an animal before and after. Lots of people spontaneously said it was a “Sloth” before. They didn’t have to think long, it came to them. Or an earthworm, or a hedgehog. I checked with non-animal similes. Still they said things that were slow and stuck. A single gear, rusty cycle. Again and again the similes suggested they perceived it as having become something faster, more complex and bigger; a chameleon or a tiger, a galaxy of stars, a whole fleet of ships. Something that could reach beyond itself, respond quickly. A broadcasting, beaming satellite. These are also the qualities that Hull is asking for in its leadership and it’s institutions. Responsiveness, openness, being open to multiple views. Being exciting, colourful, looking to the future whilst acknowledging the past. As distinctive as Hull itself and proud of it. For me this has to mean continuing to break down boundaries that the main City of Culture year did, whilst spreading opportunities and empowering smaller organisations and individuals to do things differently. That means being able to have new conversations in new ways and translate between different ways of doing and saying things. Not numbers people over here and artists over there and academics somewhere else. Everybody being valued as a reflector, an analyser, an evaluator, a creator, and willing and able to learn new languages. As with the inclusion of my poems as part of the evaluation, this can mean just one or two people (Thanks Elinor Unwin) being willing to champion a new way and quite a few other people not quite getting it or valuing it but going along with it anyway in hopes it will either quietly go away or culturally transform into something more recognisable. I wish Hull many more conversations as it battles to work with and against a tide of austerity and the ravaging of the structures and skills it will need to carry all the wonderful benefits of the year forward. Truly, they will have to carry on being tigers. Talkative ones.

Hull Tigers

Before, we were stuck,
an apathetic sloth
boring and grey.

A curled up hedgehog,
a grumpy badger,
an earthworm,
stubborn and hiding away.
A reliable chicken
producing the occasional double-yolker,
an ugly duckling,
knowing we were beautiful on the inside
though nobody gave a second look
as we nurtured a complicated, spiky pride.

We were a rusty anchor,
a puttering trawler.

Now we’re a whole fleet of ships,
we are tigers,
not just because of the football team,
proud and fierce, roaring,

we’re like falcons,
spreading our wings and soaring.
Woodpeckers, digging for opportunities,
flamingos and proud peacocks showing off,
parrots who never stop talking.

Before we chugged,
plodded on,
a single gear, rusty cycle,
a Reliant Robin,
a Pacer train
a Volvo

Now we’re a solar powered,
future-proofed velocette,

a shinier, upgraded Intercity,
a Limo.

a beautiful Harley Davidson motorbike,
a shape-shifting chameleon,
a boat-plane,
something exciting that people admire
and copy and like.

Before, we were space-junk,
a peripheral planet like Pluto
where people would never think to go,
a black hole.

Now we’re a galaxy of stars,
pulsing light,
a broadcasting, beaming satellite,
people know where and what we are,

we’re a caterpillar that’s turned into a butterfly

the brightest point in the sky
a Northern Star.


Me- Autistic? As If…

IF I was autistic
I would still be that poet who made a leap of imagination that caused your brain to jump,
the comedian who made you laugh (sometimes),
the facilitator who ran that writing workshop with empathy and care and cried and laughed with several strangers over the things we dared express,
the girl who grew up being told not to be “too big for her boots”
and would cringe at boasting about any of the above things in order to challenge the stereotypes of autism embodied in all those geeky, awkward men from Rain Man, to Christopher in a Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime to Sheldon Cooper in Big Bang Theory.

I wouldn’t be Saga in the Bridge either, though how I would want her trousers and crime-fighting skills, and empathise with her bafflement at social rules.

If I was autistic I’d be puzzled at how people told me I wasn’t like their child. Do they expect any of their adult friends to be like their children? I imagine that’s why we’re not having this conversation with their kids over a few glasses of wine and some filthy jokes about rabbits.

I’d find quiet carriages too loud, administration arduous and if I was interested in things I’d be very interested, but if not then forget it.

If I was autistic then that Facebook friend who said he told the “stupid psychologist” that his daughter couldn’t have Aspergers because she’s doing an A-level in English Literature probably wouldn’t have thought it made sense to say that to someone who works with words for a living.

I’d be bad at multi tasking, excellent at hyper-focusing and full of sensory sensitivities meaning that I’m expert at finding clothes that are both comfy AND sparkly.

If I was autistic then I’d confront the mire of language that means that for most people the word conjures boys, kicking and scratching while being held down in padded rooms, the mire that means many people are more comfortable with words like “High-functioning” or “Aspergers” or “Mild”, or as one friend put it beautifully “Autism-lite” to describe verbal adults with medium to high IQs. However, it’s a mire that covers up the fact that “functioning” is a word with a lot of loaded agendas, that Aspergers is being phased out as a clinical term and that whatever this heterogeneous thing called autism is, is hard to describe.

(It’s a neurotype I’d say- that is, really not a thing in itself at all, just a description of a type of brain and way-of-being-in-the-world and processing it which may lead people to need help, in certain situations, to deal with a world which mostly isn’t designed for them. How much help, or when, is highly variable because a “spiky profile” of doing some stuff well in certain situations and not others is particularly characteristic of autism).

If I was autistic then I would have been wounded by the gig promoter who, after I’d talked about my diagnosis at her gig, messaged me to ask whether it was okay that that bloke sexually harassed her because he told her he was autistic so maybe he didn’t understand what he was doing. I might have said “Er, hello? Would it have been okay if I sexually harassed you?”. For the record, autism isn’t an excuse for being a knob. Any more than being a man is.

But talking of which, if I was autistic, people would say “But isn’t that just a man thing?”. No, no it isn’t. But as the intensive training in How Be A Girl propagated by schools and society, is more effective than the intensive How to Be A Man training, at causing people to fit in and be socially pliant, then I’d tend to stand out a bit less, as a woman.

If I was autistic I’d find noisy pubs hurt my head, sometimes cooked fish smells too fishy and eye contact can be distracting though I can do a passable enough amount of it that people barely notice nowadays.

I’d have found non-verbal language and tacit communication a complete mystery until much of it was put into words for me by; doing drama workshops, training to be a radio journalist, doing a person-centred counselling diploma, experiencing being a stand-up performer over fifteen years and talking to like-minded people interested in the anthropology of this strange species we call human. And I would thank heaven that for all the downsides of late-diagnosis, I hadn’t had the experience of being medicalised and pathologised and having my deficits talked about so much that I didn’t believe I could do the things I do.

I would feel responsible when parents talked about how much their children needed autistic role models, doing things in the world. Though I’d also feel like that girl in the class who everyone hated because other parents said “Why can’t you be more like them?” (I was never that girl).

I would feel responsible when I heard parents of autistic people say, as one did on my Facebook (I really should do less Facebook) that “due to the nature of their difficulties”, Aspergers people just can’t do community. That would surprise the performers doing the show “Stealth Aspies”, or the hundreds who go to the autistic-led conference “Autscape” or the many groups on Twitter and Facebook or the autistic-led support groups plugging the massive NHS gaps.

If I was autistic there would be no support available to me post-diagnosis whatsoever. None. Not even a badge, a welcome pack and a subscription to a Dr Who magazine. My GP would look a bit awkward and ask if I was getting “treatment” at the place where I was diagnosed. I would resist asking him if he’d found a cure for autism. My local autism centre would say they had support groups for families of autistic people, but not for actual autistic people at the moment and anyway, they weren’t sure about working with people who weren’t “known” to them. My husband would find it easier to access a support group for people married to autistics if he wanted to (he doesn’t) than I would to find one.

(If I was autistic my husband would say that the most important thing for him is that I’m just me- and that we’ve found a pretty good balance over our ten year marriage in matching both our “spiky profiles”).

If I was autistic, I would have rapidly cycled through shock, disbelief and worry at how my talk was going to go when I was scheduled to speak after a child psychiatrist who described autistic people as stuck at toddler stage, primarily egocentric and the possessors of brains which were quite possibly a “genetic mess”.

I’d have compared the situation to being like an ethnic minority comedian having to follow Bernard Manning doing a particularly racist set, which was why I wanted to write a note to the organiser in the middle saying “I’m going to BOMB”. Also “Aaargh”.

But, luckily, I’d have just spent three years of a PhD thinking very intensely (and DOING very intensely) about how stand-up comedy and poetry can bring audiences together, can confront stigma and prejudice without alienating the people who carry some of it, and turn being silenced and negated into joyful, laughing resistance.

Thank goodness for an audience who could help make that happen I’d think. Though professionally and personally being put in that situation, as a newly diagnosed adult is potentially damaging to a level that makes having to follow spotty teenage boys doing endless rape jokes at comedy clubs look like nothing.

It would be enough to make me continue to hesitate about coming “out” . To worry that it will distract from the other things I’m passionate about, like regional, class and gender-based inequalities, or that it will stop people asking me to do interesting things or stop them listening to me and make them put me in a pigeonhole. Not coming out, when an authority figure like that can say those things at a professional conference, will seem like sensible self-preservation- goodness knows that’s something you have to learn, growing up as an autistic woman and confronting the self-care, relationship-work, sorting out a household and career-stuff that tends to be harder and more baffling for us and statistically more often goes wrong.

If I was autistic
I’d worry about my identity and my “authenticity” and my “victimhood” being appropriated and commodified. By me, on days with an empty bank account, but mostly by any of the forces that have an interest in doing that, not always because they have bad intentions.

I would love irony and puns and saying two apparently contradictory things at once, even though there’s probably a leaflet somewhere saying I wouldn’t.

So I’d take refuge in the liminal, in the in-between, in the possible that is the space of so much art and culture and entertainment. And for now, I’d say: me- autistic?

As if.

Further Reading:

Steve Silberman- Neurotribes (Allen and Unwin)
James McGrath- Naming Adult Autism (Rowman and Littlefield)
Joanne Limburg- The Autistic Alice (Bloodaxe)
Laura James- Odd Girl Out (Bluebird)
Samantha Craft- Everyday Aspergers (Booklogix)
Damian Milton -A Mismatch of Salience (Pavilion Publishing)

Speaking Out- International Women’s Day Blog

Have been involved in speaking up about several different things recently, both with others and on my own. I’ve seen changes happen as a result. I didn’t use to have any confidence that using my voice could change things. Now the more I see it can, the more I have confidence in using it. This is part of a wider process and this blog is partly about adding to a chorus of voices this International Women’s Day with ever more hope they will be heard.
Four months ago, I wrote a blog about abusive relationships in the poetry community. I used the Philomela myth to underpin my description of a relationship with a poet who promised to publish me then didn’t, and with whom I entered into relationship that blurred personal and professional boundaries in a damaging way. I called for a code of conduct for the poetry community. I’ve been involved in two ongoing conversations about this via the Poetry Promoters Group on Facebook and the Society of Authors. These are feeding into wider conversations in the publishing industry.

I did not have hope that my blog would lead to any redress for me against the poet I was in a relationship with. I didn’t imagine him apologising, and I didn’t want to be in touch with him.The relationship took place over a decade ago now. I used his first name once in the article, so that people from the scene wouldn’t think it was another poet. What was unexpected, and devastating, was that two female poets got in touch to say they had also had bad experiences with him. (One described “stalking behaviour” and the other, abuses of power, when she was a young poet starting out in the scene and had a relationship with him). Then somebody else got in touch, having been ostracised by the poetry community when she raised concerns because her friend had been in a relationship with him and experienced domestic violence. He had actually been convicted of this. (I confirmed this with her).This was all in the few years after my experiences with him ended. Some people in the poetry community in Scotland where he had moved to were aware, but he always blamed and negated the women and nobody quite joined the dots. I wished I had spoken out earlier.

In my blog I gave a fuller picture of what happened than when I had previously written about being raped by him, but at the time not realising that non-consensual sex was rape. That incident was part of a wider context. I haven’t wanted to explicitly say that that was not the most traumatic thing that happened as part of the relationship, because I haven’t wanted to risk minimising the accounts of people who have experienced rape. It wasn’t though. What I experienced over the time, rather than one big trauma, was a cumulative set of upsets and traumatic events, some of which I felt and some of which I dissociated from. People rarely witnessed the events. Once though I went to a poetry reading where I was going to be meeting him and texted to ask if he was on his way. He replied; “At home. Killing myself”. He didn’t answer the phone and I raced through the venue hyperventilating, found one of his best friends and showed her the text. She got hold of him and he told her it was just a joke. She disapproved of our relationship, and me, but I later found out she had stopped speaking to him for several months because of this incident. It was certainly more consciously upsetting at the time it happened than having my “No” ignored before sex- but I buried both incidents equally deeply and both of them were symptomatic of the wider abuse of power and boundaries which was all the more acute because it crossed into my working life as a poet.

As for the poet, Kevin Cadwallender, he contacted me last week. Four months after the blog. Our first contact in eleven years apart from passing in the street a couple of times during the fringe. By Facebook messenger at half past midnight. His message read:

“Kate, How could you say that about me? We both know it isn’t true. I feel sick to my stomach that you should accuse me of that. It is despicable. I cannot understand why you would do it.”

It seemed an odd response to a wide ranging blog about the various ways our relationship exemplified the blurred boundaries in the poetry world. It becoming something I had “done” rather than said, and just one thing rather than a detailed narrative, I presumed the accusation of rape. I didn’t dissociate, but felt a full on activation of old reactions. Shivering, full body shakes. I thought maybe I could get back to sleep and reply in the morning. It became clear I couldn’t. I reminded myself in my head about Philomela not being silenced. I had words now. The only way to stop the waves was to write back. I tapped the words rapidly in the dark. What had happened since I wrote it, the other women I’d heard from (I didn’t name them). I said I’d be happy to meet him with a witness of his choice to discuss what I’d said, or to publish his point by point rebuttal of my blog. I asked if he had any further comment on what I’d said about him as a poet and a publisher. He said he hadn’t read the blog but had “had a report of it” and would read and reply if I sent him a link. It’s on my website so not hard to find, and I’d certainly have wanted to read something earlier if I thought someone was making up false accusations which were causing other poets to question me. However, I sent him the link. I almost stopped shaking. I went back to sleep. The next day I remembered that inviting a response without a time-limit could mean me hanging on indefinitely waiting for one, so I said there was going to be a sector-wide meeting about how to proceed with harassment and abuse in literature, that I would be naming him in a blog that week and again invited him to write a rebuttal. I asked “Is there really nothing in your relationships with women you feel you should examine and address?”. I haven’t had a reply.

So what could be done, what should be done?
Many things that affected me have been addressed by wider social changes, even in the past decade;
More awareness of issues around sexual consent including “date-rape”.
More awareness of emotional abuse and ongoing trauma within relationships.
Though there is further to go on both these fronts.

I’d want writers to have somewhere they could report issues and know they could be heard and understood. That if they had been treated as somehow not a person by an abuser, they would be treated very much as one by somebody hearing a complaint. This could be someone they talk to with proper training in dealing with abuse/harassment issues and reach via a professional literature organisation.

There still needs to be more awareness around men in publishing abusing their power and how that’s not okay. A scoping out of the extent of the problem- surveys as other industries such as theatre are doing.

Gigs, readings and festivals should sign up to codes of conduct and empower promoters to have “quiet words” if they suspect someone is breaking it. (I’m aware, however, that this could go horribly wrong and be a landmine of personal feuds, grievances and relationship grey areas). Kevin’s relationships were consensual and how could people have known whether they merited more than a raised eyebrow, a “He’s a wrong ‘un” or a sisterly (or brotherly) warning? Again some of this could change with broader changes in social attitudes, including the romantic notion of tragic poets and doomed, destructive love which can just be a different way of saying emotional abuse.

Kevin’s currently a member of the Poets Advisory Group for the Scottish Poetry Library, and I wouldn’t be rushing to have his insights, myself, on issues to do with women and harassment in the poetry industry but I don’t know how far a recent conviction for domestic violence raises flags for anyone employing him to do workshops etc, or is something (presumably mentioned) on a Police disclosure.

As ever, this stuff’s complicated.

As ever, speaking out in this much detail makes me cringe, and fear repercussions. But not speaking out for so long was clearly so damaging, and not just to me. I still hope that these changes in how we think about relationships and emotions can feed into wider structural changes and vice versa. True change needs both.

Response to Don Paterson and Rebecca Watts on Front Row

Am still thinking about issues raised by the PN Review debate this week. Partly because  doing my job (poet-ing) reminds me of it constantly, partly because I’m prepping for my PhD viva and wondering how relevant (some aspects of) my work actually is to other practitioners, partly because my last blog on it was written in about twelve different registers and horribly long and clunky and partly because I’m quite an obsessive person once something’s in my head and feels unsaid. So here’s a shorter blog responding to last night’s Front Row piece on the issue on BBC Radio 4.

The arguments between Rebecca Watts & Don Paterson are better presented here without the distortions & personal elements of Watts’ essay. To the extent I, as a now-past-young female spoken word artist & poet can see myself impacted by both sides of the issue. Here on iPlayer

1. Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good. No. I think artists themselves are aware of that. By the same token, just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it isn’t good. I think Kate Tempest & Hollie McNish at both excellent at what they do. However I do sometimes see poets who are not very good being over-promoted by organisations clearly going “Er, they’re young & on Insta-umblr” I must get them on all the things & then the Youth will flock & I’ll get more funding. All the examples of these poets I can think of are male, as it happens. Many of the people in the organisations are middle-class arts managers having a moment of panic around their difficulty reaching wider audiences in the face of a new emphasis on this post-Brexit & amid the continuing instrumentalisation of arts funding. Throwing a young spoken word artist at something is not a substitute for ongoing, open engagement & conversation with potential audiences & participants you’ve never previously had anything to do with.

2. More critical engagement with spoken word in written form would be good. But usually academia, magazines & other homes of Lit-crit just ignore it. Spoken word lacks all elements of the infra-structures available to solely page poetry & artists still too often have to compromise what they really want to do in order to engage with some of that infra structure. As scholar Julia Novak says, live poetry is “Bi medial” & although the boundaries between page & stage are ever blurring, there is still a great deal of denial about the implications of this bi-mediality. (& does digital mean “tri-medial”?).

3. Most poets I know would also sigh at the ever-recurring “Some exciting new poets have been blowing the dust off poetry books”. It’s been going round since at least the sixties & it would be good if organisations didn’t perpetuate it because media will go with it as if it’s a new thing. Every. Time.

4. Spoken word is not only about a “cult of personality”. Poet-persona is a key, necessary element of the genre in the same way as it is in stand-up comedy. Sophisticated critical engagement with it, of the sort Watts is apparently not currently equipped to undertake, can recognise and account for this.

5. However, audience identification with spoken word poets IS often an important mechanism via which a continuing relationship can be built up. As a way to reach new audiences that is powerful & good. Not intrinsically wrong. However, it also means that commercial organisations recognise that they can now exploit & monetise that. This means it would be good for there to be i) More advice available to newer poets too quickly pushed forward into all sorts of opportunities & traps. ii) Recognition that not all poets will be appropriated/used in this way & that therefore powerful voices may be being overlooked at crucial points in their careers.

6. Classism, racism, sexism & ableism DO still operate at macro & micro levels in the relatively un-diverse arts world & sometimes a deployment of invective against “identity politics” will be a thinly veiled pushback at a time when the arts-world is waking up to this. Wider structural issues affecting the entry of marginalised people to these worlds are still ever-worsening. Where there is power there is resistance, we know this.

More Than One Poetry: Omnivorousness and Snobbery in Poetry-World.

There is probably a PhD-worth’s response that could be made to a recent article about some successful poets who were dubbed “artless”, “amateurs” and “uncivilised” by another poet. (Hollie McNish/PN Review) I’m just going to focus on a couple of elements for now which strongly chimed with my own research into class, gender and performance. Although I’m a poet myself, I knew that literary studies was not going to give me the range of approaches and perspectives I needed to look at work like my own which ranges from published poems to stand-up comedy.  I’ve used sociological and anthropological methods and approaches including interviews and cultural analysis, as well as looking at performances and texts. The debate broadly between the poles of “Art” and “Commerce” has raged before in the fields of music, art and literature and will continue raging but I was struck by how some of the tropes were applied to poets at a time when it is beginning to reflect related divisions in other fields more strongly. Stand up comedy provides good examples and there has been actual empirical research done into how this works. Research which recognises that in order to get a proper picture of a field you have to look at producers AND consumers.

I’m particularly interested in why and how some art forms and practitioners are presented as more valuable and “legitimate” than others. Is Stewart Lee “just” better than Joe Pasquale or does displaying a liking for Stewart Lee also send other signals? Are complex, extended jokes “better” than short puns? At the same time, I’ve not wanted to get mired in the relativism of “Everything is as good as everything else. There is no way to determine what is good or true”. There are lots of ways but I would say they are localised, contextual and culturally specific, rather than universal across all places and all times.

Sometimes I forget this myself, then remember when I read about how the Chamula people of Mexico divide types of speech into the categories of “Ordinary”,  ” Speech for People Whose Hearts are Heated” and “Pure”. According to anthropologist Richard Bauman “Increased fixity of form, repetition and parallelism” (many features of Western lyric poetry) “also signal for the Chamula increasing ‘Heat’. Heat is a basic metaphor for the Chamula, symbolising the orderly, the good and the beautiful by derivation from the power of the sun deity”. Genres of speech and writing are part of interlocking systems and the constitution of one part is formed from feedback loops with another. To paraphrase the poet Don Paterson, you could say these systems become little machines for remembering themselves.

Another metaphor is that they are games. This is the one used by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose empirical work is crucial to researchers in culture, class and education but seems to be less used in literary studies. He has written a lot about the literary and art fields and says that they operate according to particular rules which must be followed by practitioners in order to enter the field. He calls a belief in the rules of this game the “illusio”. Some people’s educations and upbringings are geared to equipping them to play these games (Which will include knowing the history of the field and the debates within it). Some people are awakened to the arbitrariness of the “illusio” but play the game anyway. Some play it by displaying their knowledge of the rules and not following them. What is valued in the game is the same as in the wider field of power- money and legitimacy from big institutions.  At the same time, there is what he calls a “Restricted sub field of production” operating separately but in response to these rules, in which “art” is valued above money. An artist or art form is then conferred a value by fellow producers in relation to how autonomous they are perceived as being from the values governing the mass, the commercial and the “legitimate”.

“FLIPPING ECK PEOPLE, SOMEBODY UPHOLDING THE ART/TRADITION RULES OF THE GAME AGAINST WHAT THEY CALL NAIVE AMATEURS WITH BIG IGNORANT AUDIENCES. FROM FLAUBERT TO MONET TO DISTEL AND FOUCAULT, ALL MY BOOKS AND RESEARCH HAS BEEN ABOUT THIS AND LOADS OF PEOPLE HAVE APPLIED IT TO MODERN STUFF, GET OVER IT ALREADY”; that’s what Bourdieu might say if he wasn’t dead and French and probably rather polite in conversation, having worked his way up from peasant family to big cheese in the most elite French universities in a way that his own research and theories are quite pessimistic about. He internalised the rules and tastes of one game and ended up playing another- whilst being particularly alert to the arbitrariness of both of them. As you are often are when you’ve moved some distance from the social circumstances of your upbringing. It can leave you particularly anxious about knowing the rules- they’re not just second nature. In traditional poetry world you might call them out (Bourdieu. In this moment, me), uphold them (Watts), play with them and rewrite them (Paterson), not learn them but be brought into the field by someone who has (McNish). Anyway, that bit’s for another blog. What I just wanted to do here was to share part of a paper I gave at a panel on poetry and class at “The Place for Poetry” conference at Goldsmiths in 2015*.

I applied some of the newer research on how social distinction works for comedians and comedy audiences to poets and poetry audiences because I could see big parallels. Comedy-world also has its “Sub field” in which distance from commerce is particularly valued (Stewart Lee, Josie Long et al) and the principles associated with avant-garde art including innovation, playing with form and a cerebral appreciation of such are upheld. It opposes a commercial end of the spectrum represented by the likes of Michael McIntyre. There’s more going on around this of course, and complicated stuff in the middle, but the “How” our cultural tastes can be used to upholding existing social structures and distinctions is the bit that there seems to be less awareness of among poets and practitioners. Especially when people sincerely believe that these divisions no longer exist in a way which drives cultural snobbery. In fact, I’d like to say its the bit that there is more denial around. (Summarised in the point of view that the Poetry News article is not explicitly upholding a middle-class or establishment vision of poetry and that we have to have some common standards of decency don’t we?).

Poets nodded sagely and discussed interestingly some of the issues around this at the conference. But y’know. That doesn’t count as a sustained engagement with the arguments herein which I hope might one day happen in actual English departments, who knows.

This is one of the key slides I shared with some annotations. It translates a summary of some of the LSE sociologist Sam Friedman’s empirical research on stand-up performance (which draws on Bourdieu’s work) to the world of contemporary poetry. Another ridiculously quick summary of  a relevant aspect of  Bourdieu’s work; he argues that someone’s class is made up of their economic capital but also their cultural capital (knowledge and tastes for particular cultural forms which are passed on via upbringing and education) and their social capital (the types of people they have access to within their, or their parents social networks). The bullet points starts off being about cultural omnivores because they’re a key object of study when looking at cultural consumption. A prevalent narrative says that we’re now, as a society, more tolerant and less snobbish. We like loads of things from low and high culture- look at our breadth of enjoyment! I would say, not across all art forms, perhaps particularly not across ones where our sense of personhood is felt to be most at stake…

  • Contrary to earlier claims that “cultural omnivorousness” is now the most influential type of cultural capital in Britain, there are only partial signs of this in the consumption of poetry.

That is- in music you’ll have MORE cultural capital if you prove the breadth of your knowledge and tastes from things with “Legitimate” -consecrated by tradition, big institutions and awards- Cultural Capital like Philip Glass, Bach and Coldplay. “Emerging” or “Cool” Cultural Capital like the latest band only three people have heard of yet and “Illegitimate” Cultural Capital (often liked in an ironic way) like Chas and Dave or the song Barbie Girl. Whereas you’re not as likely to garner admiration if you confess to a love of poets Carol Ann Duffy, Keston Sutherland, Ross Sutherland and Pam Ayres in one breath.

  • For socially mobile individuals, omnivorous poetry taste is a social hindrance rather than social capital

In comedy this omnivorousness would mean liking a comedian with low cultural capital (low brow) associations such as Bernard Manning or Joe Pasquale – as well as one with high cultural capital associations (high brow) such as Josie Long or Stewart Lee. People feel ashamed of their low brow comedy tastes, having found they’re mocked or reproved for them. The equivalent in poetry is usually not liking poetry at all or liking greetings card or fridge magnet verse. However in Watts article, Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish and Rupi Kaur are constructed as being outside the art form and as actively damaging to its traditions and values. It’s audience are also constructed as untalented. It might be for poets and cultural audiences to answer how far they feel that revealing a taste for certain sorts of poetry (or none) is a hindrance to their social capital. 

The (omnivorous) middle brow has long been a space that Literature is suspicious of. It does, however epitomise the values of such institutions as the BBC (“Poetry Please” for example is very middle brow) and many literature festivals. Bourdieu calls it a space of both “avidity and anxiety” for those eager to prove their cultural credentials but unsure whether they’re liking the right things for the right reasons. However JB Priestley called it the “Broad Brow” and was optimistic about its potential as a transformative space where different classes and values can meet.

  • Poetry is now an emerging field for younger generations of the culturally privileged to activate their cultural capital resources.

I would argue that this hold as much for poetry as comedy. Spaces like Latitude’s Poetry Tent, as well as You Tube/Instagram are ones in which these resources can be mobilised and displayed.

  • This happens more through rarefied and disinterested “styles” of poetic appreciation.

One of Friedman’s crucial insights is that cultural capital can be displayed not just by your tastes but by the ways in which you express them. For example, his respondents with higher cultural capital would talk about how they appreciated Stewart Lee’s withholding of a punchline “I can see what he was doing there, very clever-ha”. Versus a lower cultural capital; “I laughed a lot. He was hilarious”. The hierarchical divisions here are broadly constructed along the lines of cerebral versus bodily appreciation, mental versus emotional response, educational/informative or spiritual versus entertaining content. 

  • These styles are embodied

See the binaries above. Also I would suggest that in poetry there is a sliding scale of cultural capital gained by producer/audience based on how much manifest bodily response their work generates- ranging from the under the breath poetry “Mmm” of appreciation, via chuckles up to enthusiastic clapping, full-bellied laughter and finally, lowest cultural capital of all- the clicking and whooping associated with poetry slams.
Interestingly in Watts review she said that McNish’s not particular sweary work was “abundant in expletives”, a criticism also levelled at low brow comedians “lowering” language to the level of the bodily.

  • Poetry taste still plays a crucial role in the expression of middle-class identities

This could perhaps be phrased as “Any taste for poetry plays a crucial role in the expression of middle-class identities”. (Again, it would be significant that Watts’ article was reluctant to call the work of Hollie McNish poetry at all, eventually referring to “an assemblage of words”).

  • Poetry taste acts as a tool for the culturally privileged to identify and pathologise those with low cultural capital.

Historically this has been done by pathologising those with no expressed taste for poetry, or for those liking Patience Strong/greetings card verse. Now, with the resurgence of a mass market for some poetry, it could be predicted that aspects of it would be used to pathologise audiences who express a taste for popular poetry. Watts actually said McNish had a “Pathological” attitude.

  • This cultural snobbery therefore shows poetry’s role in contemporary processes of symbolic violence.

Well, it does y’knaa. Who’d have thunk?
Symbolic violence is similar to the Marxist concept of false consciousness. Basically, people absorb the power relations of the power structures they live in, into their everyday ways of doing, knowing and valuing things (what Bourdieu calls their “habitus”). They experience and posit this power as universal and ahistorical- rather than as specific to the particular context they inhabit. In Watts article Poetry with a big P becomes a Tradition carrying Universalising values.

I know Watts’ article raised many other issues not touched on here and next I will be writing a blog about “Authenticity” as a way of both upholding and resisting gendered neo liberal injunctions to “Tell your true self”. Perhaps also one about populism. Also, though I expect nobody at all will be reading then, a sort of Bourdieu-style case study of Don Paterson.


Pierre Bourdieu. Distinction.
Pierre Bourdieu. The Rules of Art.
Sam Friedman. Comedy and Distinction
Ed Sally R Munt. Cultural Studies and the Working Class.
Julia Novak. Live Poetry (I nearly missed this book- Hannah Silva who is currently finishing a PhD on black British poetry pointed it out. I’d disappeared down a comedy rabbit hole of Comedy Studies by then and in a different PhD would have used it much more. Some people have been calling for a “Poetics” of live poetry. Well, this constitutes one. Though I would be using a lot more Bourdieu myself in order to trouble some of its assumptions around value).

*A bit about my experience at the conference in case anyone’s interested:
It feels like a thousand years ago now, but it was the day of the last general election in May 2015. Before Brexit, before Trump as President, before the year when everybody died. Writing was still privileged above speech, as it had been for a few hundred years and continues to be. But that and all other things pass.

Anyway, I was a few months into the PhD I have now submitted and was presenting my first paper at a conference,“The Place for Poetry” conference at Goldsmiths University. Nearly every other conference I went to would be on comedy, or in the broader field of sociology and cultural studies. This one was a warm-up for me. I tried not to be too perturbed by not really knowing what a paper was yet. Or if it was okay to start one off by performing my poem “Northern Voices”, about being a a still-too rare Northern voice on Radio 4. Some of what I said then, in a discussion on class and poetry with contributions I remember by poets (and other things) Cahal Dallat, Blake Morrison and Martin Malone, is relevant to discussions of a recent, controversial, Poetry News article about amateurism in poetry. Reading back on notes of the panel I am appalled to note that I wore a pink-checked trilby and at how apologetically I skipped over some of my theory slides I thought the audience would be bored by; but heartened at how lively the discussion was afterwards and at how valued I felt my perspective was.

There was a weird diversion I caused by quoting a bit from Roger McGough’s poem “Scorpio” in which he feels his poems are his children and are cruelly disparaged by critics dismissing him on class grounds;

Fellow poets some of them, and literary critics
who have made public fools of my children’ …
‘Some may even regret their youthful bile,
their mistrust of popular culture, and the working class.
This is to let them know, that though forgiven
they are not forgotten’

I said it was an elephant in the room not to note that one of the critics he meant was Blake Morrison who was editor of Poetry Review at the time. Morrison was convenor of the conference and sitting right in front of me in the tiny lecture room. He said he didn’t realise McGough was referring to him and looked perfectly unperturbed. The joys of a small poetry world. Rushing to the station so I could get the train back up to Thirsk to vote before close of polls I bumped into him bringing the evening’s star guest Paul Muldoon onto campus. He introduced me and started telling a rumpled Paul about the panel and I had to say “Do tell him about it, must dash, I have to vote!” and ran off in my ridiculous hat.

Flash, bang, Me Too trauma, what a picture.

In the first car accident, a car turned wrongly and too fast into a box junction I was crossing and hit my Fiesta, crumpling the front passenger side. I heard a big bang, instinctively braked, then saw the other driver, a tall man, on the road ahead of me hitting his car bonnet over and over with his fist like Basil Fawlty in that scene where he hits his car with a branch. I was outwardly calm, but I couldn’t tell  people who came over what had happened, though two witnesses told me, and luckily were able to tell the Police. My then-boyfriend was upset that I didn’t ring him, just a garage who came and got the car, then dropped me off at home.  Trauma had frozen my memory and my reactions. I am convinced it wasn’t just the accident, but the way the other driver had lost his reason (Even if that was because of his own trauma). I was brought up by a man who might possibly have reacted to a similar incident by hitting his car. In the face of such scary anger I had never won and didn’t imagine I would now.  Bits of my brain stopped in an old pattern. It took me ages to fill in the insurance claim form because I kept imagining that man punching his car and me having to confront him in court- but in the end I wrote it, and the written-off car was reimbursed in full.

In the second car accident, my Stepmum was blinded by the sunlight and went into another car just after we had exited a roundabout. Another flash and bang. I herded her and me and my husband (all of us uninjured) out of the car and onto the pavement, checked the other car passengers were okay, rang the Police and the breakdown services and comforted my StepMum. The coping bits of my brain sparked into action. Emotions on hold, as in the first accident, but I wasn’t helpless, I was helpful. Powerful, even.

Two similar situations, two very different reactions from me. As psychiatrist and trauma-specialist Bessel Van Der Kolk (Interview) says- trauma is something produced in a social context; “If you’re not allowed to feel what you feel, know what you know, your mind cannot integrate what goes on and you get stuck on the situation…”. Trauma interferes with the brain’s ability to tell a story about something, with the ability to re-member it. It is re-lived (by your body) rather than consciously remembered, because it has never been integrated into your story of your self in the first place. I couldn’t ever tell a useful (or any) story about what happened in the first car accident, I think because in the temporary shock of the shunt, seeing an irrational, aggressive man reminded me of growing up with one and the many traumas that led to. My brain elastic-banded back to the past and the parts that organised memories and planned things shut down.

This is not a post about car accidents. It is primarily meant to be a post about #Metoo and its aftermath. Many, many women, and men, will have had visceral, bodily stuff stirred up because of what they have read, written, thought about and talked about since the deluge of stories about sexual abuse and harassment. The media is mostly carrying coherent narratives. Things like “Women have told their stories, now powerful men are falling”. But in reality, there are so many fragments flying around like cars hitting each other. Some of these are being assembled into other narratives. News moves fast, faster than memories though they can feel as present, as urgent as news.

The blog post I wrote about my experience with an abusive poet has resulted in some other stories being revealed. I had written about Philomela speaking and being stopped from speaking. I want to characterise some of the exchanges since then as stuttering. Other women have got in touch, handing me more pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Perhaps making a picture is a better analogy. Or at least, it is quicker, than attempting to tell a story, though that is happening too. Sometimes emails have flown back and forth quickly.  Sometimes there have been gaps, delays. This work can be overwhelming. Revelations, news bulletins; it turns out, to my shock, that the poet had similarly abused power in other relationships in the poetry community. He had been convicted of domestic violence against his partner. Lots of people hold and held bits of a full picture, a full story, but so many things have prevented us putting it together. In this instance, the trauma of others  is helpful to an abuser. This contagion (also, often of their own trauma) stops social memories and stories forming. There has been a crash, a bang, but the fragments are still flying apart from each other. It is helpful when witnesses who are not likely to be freezing, flighting or fighting trauma share what they know, tell and re-tell narratives.

We can only ask what is next, or what is to be done about it, when we know what has happened. Another reason there are so relatively few rape convictions. My reaction to traumatic events has had a lifetime of being established as “Freeze and forget” or “Freeze, act, immediately move on”. It is much easier to write about cars than about how those patterns were set down. What should happen now? I don’t know what can or should be done about a past that sometimes feels so present and sometimes feels so buried. I know only that it must not happen to other women in future. I hear fragments from other people (speaking about him, or to him) which suggest that building up the narratives is going to help that.