After Olivia Laing

I read Olivia Laing’s Crudo and Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living and I am not them or Kathy Acker or Virginia Woolf or Gordon Burn (whose prize they’re both nominated for, not the former presenter of The Krypton Factor), but I can feel a sudden urge for stream of consciousness. I haven’t swum for days. I had started going under the surface. No more head up breast stroke, eyes swivelling like a meerkat. I was my own pivot. Front crawl, the first new physical skill since learning to drive. Mostly underwater where gold bubbles fell through cloudy river like prizes. The world on mute and only the breath in front of me.

But I used Anti-Fog Mist on my Goggles, just once so as to be like a proper wild swimmer who bought things off Wiggle.com, and my eye became irritated and now is irritated by everything else and is red and puckered and streaming, and if my pancreas or other internal tissues react anything like my eyelid has done to emollients that Doctors and the internet assure me are benign, like E45 or Diprobase or Simple Eye Balm (Whose ingredients list suggests it’s anything but simple) then it’s time for me to imbibe fewer chemicals. So I’m like Wittgenstein only noticing he didn’t like well-done toast in his sixties, except that what I’ve finally noticed is that as well as being hyper-sensitive to people acting in accents that are not their own, I’m sensitive to lanolin, vaseline and chemicals ending in “eth”. I’m as satisfied on discovering this as about anything else that distinguishes me. Though now my skin needs a barrier against it’s new rawness to the world and it turns out Vaseline won’t do and the coconut oil success might only have been temporary. I’ve never found it too easy to let things get inside me before.

The other eye though still looks out smug and white and clear and says we can gaze on this without any trouble; whether it’s sun sparkling through giant hogweed on the banks of the Tees which, because of the Tees Barrage, has no tides and is thus like a long, thin lake, or on news headlines about the world burning or on the reddening cheeks and firm gaze of a Swedish woman who stood on a plane until others stood with her and said somebody being sent to die was more important than getting somewhere safe on time.  The voice of the English man trying to take her phone, telling her not to make a fuss was recognised by those watching the video, as the voice of every English man who has used a Corby trouser press, telling his daughter not to make a show of herself whilst Europe looks on at very English men and women trooping in and out of lobbies like Trumpton characters, appalled at the show they are making.

But I am not one-eyed Tiresias either or whichever acceptable Greek myth gives a street poet cultural legitimacy. And the poets are removing their sunglasses and other eyewear to ask whether it matters that a publisher is erratic or is a better word eccentric. Is it part of their charming character, the obsessiveness required to run a small press when poets photograph their square-shaped poems for free to millions, to provoke and write hostile contract clauses or repeatedly threaten to withdraw themselves or their website, whichever is currently in most trouble. Why, some poets ask, would we require anything other than a man who will change his profile picture for ours for we are flexible and fluid. We are Giddens’ ideal mobile labourers. We will not be reading the characterisations of us as exploited cultural labourers from a man who is Hayley on Coronation Street’s brother. And with one eye half-closed I read the biographies of writers who don’t live in a place where job descriptions like “Ethical fashion model” would be laughed out of them and where the word “colloidal” silvers pages. Though I weary of the obligation to be just eccentric enough and just down to earth enough.

On Twitter, autistics cry out to #Takethemaskoff and be their autistictrueselves. That might perhaps in my case be a self which can talk in an incessant stream softened by a Yorkshire accent, which is tamed by sounding like either a parody of itself or of somebody else, as this blog. But it would not be recognised as something underneath an autistic’s mask. For a mask to be recognised as a mask then whatever is underneath it must be recognised as real. I gave twenty minute careers talks on how to be a poet once when Tony Blair’s government was betting on culture to plug the holes left in society by the eighties. In one school, children thought I was drunk. Once I shared a draft poem with songwriters and realised in an autistic world all of my poems would do the equivalent of going into this much ecstatic details over vacuums. Nowadays I can see people visibly recoil or smirk sometimes when I forget to turn myself down. I become off-putting as a small poetry publisher detonating on Twitter unless I do it on stage where it is permitted and can be refracted by an audience. Then I am not a tidal river, only a long thin lake you can travel on.

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