(FEATURE) A conversation between Ed Luker and Azad Ashim Sharma
‘[B]ut scarcity defines the possibility of our desires for transformation so viscerally’. In this interview between Ed Luker and Azad Ashim Sharma, the material relations of poetry are brought to the fore in a candid, moving and powerful exchange. In the wake of Luker’s recent collection, Other Life (Broken Sleep Books, 2021), this conversation traces a relationship to his earlier book, Heavy Waters (the87press, 2019), through matters of collaboration, radical solidarity, scholarship, influence, oceanic feeling, music, refusal and more. With generosity, anecdote and consideration, the authors discuss everything from late modernism to the Student Riots of 2011, considering poetry’s relationship to precarity, social movements, humour, survival, and togetherness.
AAS: At your recent reading for the87press back in January, you mentioned that both your books, Heavy Waters and Other Life, were written almost simultaneously and that whilst you kept the writing separate, there were inevitable overlaps. One of these overlaps I noticed could be loosely called a ‘poetics of solidarity’. In Heavy Waters this was to migrants seeking entry to the EU and elsewhere and their deaths at sea when Fortress Europe chose to expel or repel them. In Other Life, which follows the memoir-esque prose passages of Heavy Waters, but in poetry, the overlapping of yoga classes and police sirens, the presence of resistance in the form of demos etc., pervades the collection. I wonder if you could comment a bit on your process of writing these two books and also whom you were thinking of when writing them — it seems to me that these books offer a rather beautiful and radical solidarity, and I wondered if this was something you considered prior to writing, or if the writing led you to this position?
EL: I am still not sure of the relation between these two books aside from that there is one and that I have often conceived of it negatively. I think readers can draw the relations better than I can. I understand them as borne out of two separate impulses in the way that I write — a tension between focused engagement with histories of language and literature, and the explosive appearance of occasion-poems that just sort of burst out of me — and that biographical detail, while true, perhaps does not help much in drawing the relations. Much of Heavy Waters was written during and after spending large amounts of time thinking, researching, and reflecting on border violence, including a period of time where I was working alongside Lizzie Homersham for the artist Banu Cennetoğlu, editing The List which is a record of over 34,000 migrants who have died within Europe, or trying to get to Europe, since 1991. That was a deeply affecting process. In fact, for periods of time, it made me quite depressed. I guess I was left with working through how we process these fundamental and inescapable realities of the world that we live in, which many people deal with through refusal; they just choose not to think about it. It was a really fucking hard book to write because I was constantly grappling with all these things in the world that were in excess of my understanding, and also unfolding. I guess I hoped that that work of understanding is in some ways an impetus defined by failure because really, the task of working out that shit, the work of solidarity, is something that is only collective. But perhaps the image of a task that is in excess of one person’s capacity to act and understand in relation to it is a shared feature of these two books.
Other Life contains all the lyrical, and much more ‘personal’ poems that I have written across the last five years. These poems are often drawn from my experience of the immediate world, and written in response to it (that immediate world is also always saturated with the grander scale of late-capitalist modernity, and I am fascinated by the grotesque effluvia that those scales press into our experience, that we call commodities). That was how I first started writing poems, drawn from Keats, as in, you have an overwhelming and bewildering experience, and the poem becomes a space to shape and conjure and learn about the pressures that that experience places on you, or even expand those pressures and direct them back at the world — except for me it wasn’t listening to a nightingale and thinking about enclosures and impoverishment, but being sat in a doctor’s waiting room surrounded by the severity of ill-health (actually that is quite Keatsian, apart from blood pressure monitors), or processing the violence of watching a hyper-saturated pop video in a kebab shop at 2am, or being kettled on Whitehall by police; late-late-modernity is bewildering, libidinally charged, and overwhelming. The work of the composition of Heavy Waters was a process fundamentally opposed to that kind of immanent relation to the world because I was trying to sit myself in a reality beyond my experience. As for solidarity, yes, of course, I want my poems to reach out and name things and state: I do not want this socially-produced suffering to exist. In ‘A Nasty Poem’ there’s that line ‘on the plains of Calabria the wages are marginal’, that is a reference to the West African migrant workers who are press-ganged into fruit picking by the mafia because every time I buy fruit from the supermarket I think, who’s blood is drenched into this commodity? What the fuck do I do about that? And that’s what it means to me, to be a radical and a poet: we have these analytics to redress the fact that what we call ‘private property’ is a set of violent and abstract shapes that cut across and separate and deaden and pressurise all of this matter and living stuff. But that fact of living is constantly in excess of these processes of capital accumulation, even if we are all deformed and brutalised by it. That’s what Other Life means, it is a celebration of that which refuses to die, even if it’s just the impulse.
AAS: Much of what we do as poets is in quiet collaboration with whom and what we were reading at the time. Could you tell me who/what you were reading at the time, almost citing perhaps some unique influence on these collections, both mutual and, I expect, significantly different?
EL: The poems and prose pieces in Heavy Waters are my responses to the questions that emerged to me through that work of editing the list of tens of thousands of dead people. On one level, I had heard people read their poems about the beauty of the sea and was left startled by the difficulty or failure to acknowledge that the sea means death, and has for millennia, but in very specific ways now. I spent large amounts of time reading representations of the sea in literature and poetry, from Celan to Cesaire to M. NourbeSe Philip to Shakespeare, and many others. The sea is perilous — and yet also awesome, in the Wordsworthian sense. I was taken by this image in Shakespeare, which I found in Olson, of the sea as a metaphor for the sheer size of the grand total of all human emotions — something so vast and contradictory that it is overwhelming and pushes the limits of our capacity to know. I guess that’s what Freud called oceanic feeling; I like the Jackie Wang piece on that, and wanted to leave that sense of the sea as overwhelming rationality as a latent and inert element across the book.
Often, the saturation of the poems through what I have been reading can be something quite unknown to me, or, it can get taken up at a much later time without my concrete awareness. The mind is quite funny like that. After hearing me read the first section of Heavy Waters, those tight lyrical pieces, my friend Orlando said that the use of repetition and sound reminded him of Ariel’s Song in The Tempest. I had spent a period of time some two years prior to the writing of that book, actually while writing The Sea Together, copying out Ariel’s Song by hand, again and again in preparation for that earlier work. And yet it appeared again, much later than intended. Much of the first section in Heavy Waters is me working through the problems that I developed with The Sea Together after it was published by Materials Press. I think you mentioned that The Sea Together is your favourite part of the book. That’s the difficulty of writing poems, I think the first section is far superior because in The Sea Together I’m trying out a mode of writing that I have discovered I no longer want to do — the over-investment in the scholarly.
There are three very short poems near the end of ‘Heavy Waters’ that start ‘Cleave a page’, ‘Cleave a note’, and ‘Cleave a scrap’. They were inspired by this thing I read in Frank Wilderson’s Incognegro about how when he was working for the armed wing of the ANC, uMkhonto we Sizwe, at the end of the apartheid struggle in South Africa, he had scraps of Fanon, hand-written in his pocket. So he’d be waiting to meet someone, possibly for hours without end, and he’d read the same passage again and again, meditating on it. And in this sense, I wrote these poems because I wanted someone to rip them out of the book and carry them with them, in their pocket, or do that with other words and ideas. Because on some level, if I’m being polite, books are an insufficient object for the tasks of struggle, learning, and emancipation, and in some way I genuinely believe that books are fucking stupid objects, in the way that Mayakovsky thought books were stupid. Who wants to own hundreds of books, really? The task of poems and of thinking is both so much grander and personal than books can be. I went through a phase of hand-writing poems and just giving them to friends when I saw them. We should all do that.
I can’t really say what the background contexts and collaborations in Other Life were because there’s just too many, and also I’d have to talk about music, too, which is as important to the composition of many of those poems as the other literatures they draw in. I suppose so many of the poems of Other Life are forged from the premise that this world is something we share together and make together, and that we are lonely and being destroyed in our privation. And some of those poems are in direct address with poet friends who’s work and thinking I love, like the poet Jasmine Gibson, or the two poems borne from collaboration with my friend Alice Morey, an incredible painter. I’m too much of a magpie to remember everything I have borrowed but if anyone wants to have it back, it’s simply theirs to take!
AAS: We should, then, invoke the sonic, too. I’ve been thinking a lot about another pertinent aspect to Other Life which emanates from the togetherness in and with these poems that you’ve just mentioned in passing. I think of your poem ‘Poetry’s Non-/Sense’ where you juxtapose poetry and music, suggesting or thinking through ways in which poetry can gain another kind of life force, you call that ‘music’s generosity’. This generosity is, I think, captured in this book overall, and comes across at times in the form of short lyrics that follow in the style of the notebook (or scrapbook, to gesture back to your Incognegro reference). There is a very organic sense of the poems moving round a city and experiences within it. Yet in ‘Poetry’s Non-/Sense’, poetry is static, ‘held there and fixed’, whereas what it aspires to or what you’re trying to inspire is the way ‘music flows out / and circulates back round / the beat.’ It makes me think that poetry has to capture a different aether to music; I think of your ‘Summer on Lock’ essay, and the poems about summer in this collection, too, iterating the carnival sense of moving together. Are you writing this because you feel poetry needs to learn how to move and flow again or because poetry has this musicality in it which seems to be lost in the static ways in which we now experience poetry? Both these questions would, for me at least, point to a curious difference between what’s going on in the US with work from Nathaniel Mackey (which is highly musical and sonically explorative, in all sorts of wonderful ways) and what is being felt in the UK by poets who are thinking at the impasse between sound and language.
EL: I love that recording of the Amiri Baraka poem ‘I Love Music’, I think it’s on PennSound, where at the end of the poem he does an impression of a John Coltrane solo with his voice. Baraka says that he wrote that poem after he was arrested and kept in solitary after the Newark riots of 1967, and he just tried to remember all the bits of Coltrane that he could. But why didn’t he try and remember all the bits of poetry that he could? Why, in that moment, was it music that brought him comfort and not poetry? I think this is partly socialised, right? We think of poetry as this thing that is in excess of our capacity to understand it because it is complex, challenging, and configures all these new feelings. Even poets relegate poetry below music in the cosmic order of the arts. But really, most music, when you really sit with it and take it in, is equally complex, challenging, and configures new feelings that are in excess of our capacity to get it. We just haven’t spent our lives in a culture that tells us that music is beyond our capacity to understand it, apart from, say, the gatekeeping around the Western classical tradition, which we might feel threatened by. And that’s what I really hated about that Ben Lerner book about the ‘hatred’ of poetry; it was so defeatist, not because what it said isn’t true but because that’s only half the story, and it’s comforting for middle class people to have their defeat and low ambitions affirmed to them. Surely we can demand better for poetry? And I think music’s generosity, and the generosity that we have with ourselves as listeners of music, might be an amazing model for a more relaxed engagement with poetry where it doesn’t have to be this super-specialised hobby but can be a common space for crafting and re-crafting the world together.
I don’t know if I can speak to the differences between the US and the UK in the music of poetry because they are such different histories (albeit shared on important levels). Certainly, Baraka would reject that delineation. I admire the aural culture of performance in the US as that saturates into poetry and lifts it up. But we have that here, too, in a complicated post-colonial way, where I find it troubling to use national frameworks to contrast the work. There’s this Sheila Rowbotham essay I really like about class and the women’s movement, where she says, ‘We have not even words for ourselves. Thinking is difficult when the words are not your own’. And in what way do we want to ‘own’ English? We can focus on the Anglo-phonic as a space of contestation and playfulness that is celebrated in strange ways by many people — you see it even when you get some ginger teenager from Surrey performing that AJ Tracey song at Glastonbury, and he knows all the words. Linton Kwesi Johnson has been a very important poet for me over the last few years. He wrote poems and then he made them into reggae songs, and they’re still poems, and the songs and the poems are of equal weight and brilliance. Maybe we could call him a UK poet but that would be to reduce the international and quash the local in his work; the David Austin book on LKJ explores all these things brilliantly. I love the simultaneous rendering and breaking of idiolect in the work of Abondance Matanda, a young poet from North London; she self-published a couple of zines and the poems are great, absorbed in sound, and the pressure they place on the sound of an individual word, and how those words are tied so closely to a city and its histories, it really reminds me of Blake. And her work to me seems to be in some sort of contestation of what is expected from it. It won’t be reduced to how it is anticipated to be read, like — I refuse to let you read me like that. So I suppose ‘we’ could ask what is ‘our’ musical idiom in the UK. But who is the ‘we’: is it those who sing happily in the Anglophonic of flag and empire, or those who want to pressurise it, chipping away at it? Poets like Verity Spott, Danny Hayward and Nat Raha, they’re very attentive to how their work sounds performed. That was what Sean Bonney taught us, to take performing our work seriously. All I will say is that more poets based here should practice reading their own work and be serious about the work of performance. It’s ok to take time to read your work out loud and think about how it sounds and works. It’ll make you a better poet!
AAS: There is a deep-seated and profound melancholia to some of these poems, which I find explored and re-explored. For example, I’m thinking of the poem ‘How Did You Survive January’ in Other Life and ‘The Centre’ in Heavy Waters (which, I recall, we did once perform collaboratively for a Decolonising Our Minds reading a while back, did we not?). This melancholia strikes me as a kind of different expression of what Laurent Berlant has called ‘Cruel Optimism’ — the realisation that the assent to the ideology of the end-of-history style of liberal capitalism is the precise means by which the life offered as the apex of liberal capitalism is denied to the majority of the world’s population. I wonder if you could speak to the melancholic but at times acerbic critique offered in these collections.
EL: I haven’t read the Berlant so I can’t really speak to that but I can try and speak to the melancholia. It’s about catastrophe really, isn’t it? We are all living in the wake of various catastrophes in a world that is designed to perpetuate the after-effects of those catastrophes. I suppose as Nell says in Endgame, ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness’, and I don’t think we can really think through suffering without thinking through the humour of suffering and survival, especially if we want to live, and not only to live but to break the grip of private property. I think humour is something we have to be very serious about (I think this is true of other things, such as play, we have to be very serious about playfulness too, and poetry can do that — I talk with my friend Michael Harding a lot about how the world is designed to suppress playfulness. I love Holly Pester’s poetry or Fred Moten’s poetry for the investment in play, taking play seriously).
In Britain, there’s often the performance of a very middle-class idea that we have to be serious about suffering, and what that means is a kind of wrought emotional passivity where you furrow your brow and sit in silence and acknowledge that you are being serious about the suffering that is articulated to you — a minute’s silence please, now fuck off back to work! I suppose an older response to this acknowledgement of mass suffering was the demand for religious salvation but that seems a bit passé (and has often been supplanted with the demand for a reconciliation with nature). But is that really what we do when we suffer continuously? No, we either lose our fucking minds or we find modes of surviving it, getting through it, and come out the other side a bit more damaged than we were before. And humour is such a big part of how people reflect on their experiences without reducing themselves, it’s how they dare to live, make themselves bigger than the suffering the world tries to reduce them to. I suppose I like poets who carry this seriousness about humour in their work, where the humour is weighted with a wince. You find it in Stephen Rodefer, Connie Scozzaro, E. A. Markham, Keston Sutherland, Tom Leonard, or Bernadette Mayer. So yes, I suppose parts of my work are melancholic, but I hope it’s not only that, because that’s not all it’s supposed to be.
AAS: Your PhD was on the early poetry of J H Prynne. I wonder if you see these collections as engaged in late modernism or as you working with a set of interruptions and divergences from that overarching history of UK countercultural poetry? This is particularly gestured to by the fact both these collections are on small presses in the UK. Also, there is a candour in your work, a consistency in address (‘Oh vs O’ in Heavy Waters and Other Life respectively), that seems to offer the person behind the poem as integral to the poem in a way that perhaps a lot of late modernist writing does not perform.
EL: So, late modernism was my way of thinking about Prynne’s poetry, through his relation to Olson and Pound, and how those three poets occupy a very specific relation to one another. If the question is do I see myself as part of a late modernist project? Then absolutely not, no. And that’s about the status of knowledge in poetry for those poets. Each of them in some way believes that the work of learning about things, scholarly endeavour and that kind of thing, is the work of self-improvement which then gets sublimated into the space of the Grand Poem or Grand Project. I’m with Frank O’Hara on this: improves you for what? That kind of idea of the grand poetic project also seems dependent on a narcissism blindsided to the status of poetry and the very perils of existence; what does modernist mastery even fucking mean as we approach the age of climate catastrophe? Immortality doesn’t exist. We’re going on our nerves, and we are at the end of our tether. You are entirely right that I think poetry has a life in its spoken utterance. I write my work by reading it out loud and thinking about how it sounds to say it out loud (so did Pound and Olson). My work can be read on the page, too, but as I said, I think we can over-value the page. Poetry is sound and song as well as study. I increasingly don’t want my poetry to be burdened by study, or a certain kind of scholastic idea of study anyway (the study of modernist studies). I feel much more affinity with the way poets like Lisa Robertson, Verity Spott or Sean Bonney absorb the materials of the world into their work, thinking as a kind of communistic collaboration against modernist ideas of mastery.
I feel like terms such as modernism or the avant-garde, as radicals, when we use them, we are often talking about them as placeholders for writers who want to turn the world upside down, and inside out, as what you term an interruption. And if we are invested in the modernist impetus, to make it new, to make challenging work, then we are very selective with the writers we are referring to; we mean Breton, we don’t mean Marinetti. But the histories of modernism and the avant-garde are full of complicated political polarisations of all kinds that don’t readily map onto the present. I don’t think there is an existing term I find useful for marking a kind of kinship between writers that terms such as modernism or the avant-garde used to (imperfectly) conjure.
A lot of us so-called ‘experimental poets’, we live and work in and around these institutions that are always pre-emptively historicising and de-fanging us, and we willingly let them. Universities. And I think we can think of our work as interruptions to the bourgeois world, or demands to set that world on fire, but especially in the UK so many of us have this financial dependency on academic spaces that are so tied up, and increasingly tied up, in the reproduction of class society. We really need to be imaginative in how we address that. And that’s not just a question for poets, but for the left more generally, too. And I mean, I remember last May and June, when the US was on fire, when the lawn of the Whitehouse was on fire, and hundreds of cities were on fire. And perhaps in the past you’d get poets responding to that, like Baraka and the Newark riots, but I haven’t seen that riot-wave, that near insurrection, place much of a pressure on poets’ work, yet.
I publish with small presses because they’ll publish my work as I want it to appear. I do think that we have a moral responsibility to make our work visible, to make it accessible, and those are questions we often shy away from. I think the87press think about this a lot and I’m really pleased that they do. I have thought recently, where else would my work appear? I think Sean said if Faber or whoever else approached me, I’d say yes, because I think it’s about getting the work out there. And I agree with that. The newly emergent British left-wing digital media mostly doesn’t seem to care for experimentation in culture, mostly because its own model of success depends on reproducing the technics of bourgeois media. Like, if Novara Media platforms some element of left-wing literary culture, it’s something shiny that’s been picked up by the publishing industry. It’s not some element of radical culture that’s emerged organically from cultures of struggle, from the grassroots (I critically support Novara, I think this is partly a problem produced by funding an ambitious media project, based on an economy of views and clicks). I deeply admire Tongo Eisen-Martin’s continuous stress on his own work as emerging from collective struggle, as something he forms and shares in his communities. And sure, we aren’t all going to write like that, it’s important there are other roles for poets to take in the struggle. At the heart these are all questions of radical pedagogy. How do we create spaces for emancipatory work to be made?
There are a lot of demands for the revitalisation of long-existing institutions on the basis of emancipation at the moment, and those demands reflect urgent needs, but there’s a scarcity of resources for the kind of radical transformation needed in institutions, or creating new ones; the largest scarcity of resource being that of time. How many of us are trapped in our 40–50-hour working weeks (or more), working for more hours and less wages (because of inflation and so on) than we did 10 or 20 years ago (with our rent at like 60% of our income)? These things creep up on us and we don’t notice them, but scarcity defines the possibility of our desires for transformation so viscerally. We talk about who gets to be in the space, and that question has a certain emancipatory function, but it’s useless when we don’t address the predetermined scarcity that capitalism is happy to reproduce to keep us fighting over the scraps. The resources are already there for everyone to live as fully as possible. I can’t wait for the post-capitalist commune where we practice poetry all afternoon after our designated morning labour hours of growing crops on common land.
And if I think about my own poetry, I have always been interested in writing poetry as a practice defined by expedience; especially when I was younger, I was writing around shitty jobs, getting the intensity of compressed feeling into the world, as urgently as possible, rather than the continual monastic practice of endless revision where a certain need finds itself attenuated. I’d rather my work was imperfect but found to meet the world quickly and make demands of the world in the truth of its time, than it was discovered in a perfected form but long belated from its moment. And I suppose aesthetic forms or ideas about modernism and the avant-garde exist in a different understanding of economic form. The vanguard, for me, just does not fit with the world of continuous precarity. I don’t think it’s a perfect text, but I do think something like Moten and Harney’s The Undercommons tries to address these questions. I suppose we need the fullness of our imaginations to challenge the dominant bourgeois order, to think of liberatory models, but we also need money and resources and time and our rent paid and food in our bellies. I don’t think those needs are necessarily contradictory, and don’t trust people who tell you they are.
AAS: I am really taken by this idea that is perhaps implied or deferred in your answer about poetry as a kind of radical pedagogy. I wonder if, riffing off some of the writers you’ve mentioned here, particularly Bonney and Moten, the era of fetishised language poetry is perhaps over and we are, collectively, moving into a new age of poetry that veers away from and undermines that old binary between the empiricism of the Movement Orthodoxy (to borrow from Robert Sheppard’s The Poetry of Saying) and the other kinds of late-/modernist ‘mastery’ and grand projects of the British Poetry Revival. Is it now incumbent upon us, in order to face up to the stark realities of precarity alongside the desire for the post-capitalist commune, to write poetry that participates in the imagination and becoming of an emancipated world? How do we encourage that kind of poetry to be written in the current literary climate which is focussed on the celebrity status of ‘prize-winning poets’ and branded poetry? Is there a way to make poetry move with the collective, to abolish its private status, participate in the socialisation of knowledge, without giving into the pressures of making poetry ‘sell’? Could it be that a new type of vanguardism is existent and emerging in small poetry circuits, internationally, that are turning a new page for poetry studies and poetry productions which disseminate critical knowledge in the midst of the lyric which has a sense of urgency but also an overwhelming sense of play, love, compassion? Your poems in Other Life capture for me an insistence on poetry as a form of art/thought/culture that is able to resist the onslaught of debt-driven life whilst also accounting for a kind of ‘fugitive’ life (to borrow from Moten). I remember once speaking with Rob Kiely about the weird seriousness around poetry in some parts of the world, a seriousness that is often stuffy, and Rob said this great thing: “they’re just poems”. But what I like about that is it makes a demand on poetry, surreptitiously I guess, that poetry not be ‘relatable’ in the kind of social media content post way, but maybe relational (and I’m thinking of Glissant when I say that).
EL: I suppose what Rob is getting at is that there’s a kind of fixation on poetry that only speaks to its marginal status in the UK. It’s seen as a kind of specialist activity over which many people feel a kind of fussy desire to stress their claims, again and again, whereas poetry is always in excess of those claims to define and take ownership of it. If we want poetry to have a kind of social currency that is more expansive and grounded in possibility and emancipation than it currently does, then we have to expect resistance to that, not just from the guardians of publishing elites but also from the orthodox figures of the old guard of experimentation, too, because it will mean that poetic production is wrestled away from the dominance of both. That’s the thing about revolutions; they can even be deeply upsetting and disturbing to those who pre-emptively considered themselves to be revolutionaries. That’s something I’ve got from talking about this stuff with Momtaza Mehri; many people who think they want a revolution really aren’t prepared for what those changes will be like, they want to hold on to their little piece. And that’s what makes these difficult questions for me to answer, because I’d like to think that the answers to these questions are really beyond my capacity to imagine, at least on my own. And contradictorily, I think as radicals, what we have to do between revolutions, is prepare the ground for when they come (and yet that sounds so fucking self-important doesn’t it?), prepare the ground but don’t hold on too tight to the tools, they’re for everyone. Also, as I’ve got older, I’ve realised that sometimes I write poems about my urgently felt desire to turn the world inside out, and sometimes I just write a poem about the strange beauty of the moon, and both are fine and good.
To be honest — and this is how I have often felt about the stuff I have done with RIVET — I have never been super interested in only reproducing coteries of those who already love poetry or want to love their particular part of the poetry ‘community’. Sure, I want to speak about poems with my friends who love them already and get smashed in the pub talking about our favourite bits of Anna Mendelssohn and stuff like that, but when I am in a room and nearly everyone is a poet who has published a chapbook on this or that press, I can feel a bit sick. That might just speak to my own misgivings about subculture. But if I do believe in vanguardism, then that is at some sort of pedagogical level, where I want to help facilitate a love for poetry, a time for poetry, and a capacity to write poetry in the hearts of people who never thought they had it in them, or never thought that that was something that they cared about because they read Carol Anne Duffy at school and fucking hated it. Language really is one of the primary modes through which society disciplines us, defines us, puts us in boxes, and reduces us — whether that’s just people having to fill in their fucking JSA diary each week or whatever. Poetry is one of the best manifestations through which language can be pressurised and experimented with, so that it can break and create ruptures with all those kinds of disciplining functions of language; the ways that it can do that are multifarious.
I’d like to think that the poetry of struggle will be one that doesn’t care for the binary between the mainstream and the underground that the British Poetry Wars reproduced. It will obliterate that binary with a flourishing of cultural production grounded in the everyday experience of people’s lives. We are so far from any recent experience of building a mass movement, in politics or aesthetics, in the UK. The last time was probably the early nineties with rave culture, the anti-roads movement, and the anti-poll tax movements, but those movements came off the back of the existing organisations of the 1980s, and many of those mass institutions have been eviscerated and the people within them can barely recognise what’s been lost. The Student Movement of the early 2010s was not a broad social movement, even if it was deeply formative for many, including myself. The 2011 London Riots were a violent and flagrant uprising that spoke to the deep entrenchment of class society in the UK, making it fiercely visible, and demonstrating quite how outside of institutions the inner-city working class in this country is. Corbynism was a social movement without a mass base that really blundered its chance to massify by channelling its limited resources into parliamentary avenues, where so much of the work of building a working-class movement in the UK is by connecting with people who are just not in your networks at all, who have never even been in your seminar rooms, who don’t want to vote, don’t believe in participating. It might seem optimistic or utopian for me to speak about the histories of social movements in the same breath as poetry and its potential, but mass movements have often had cultural production and the making of new language at their heart. And yet, I suppose on some level, thinking about what we need to do makes me feel deeply pessimistic because it would take decades for us to build the kind of radical social base in the UK that could lead to emancipation, and I’m not sure how many have the time or the energy to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, myself included. We’re all burned out and we turn to the poems that we love to help us keep going. I want to scratch a Sean Bonney poem in the perspex at the bus stop and then I will do a little cry and pour a sip of brandy on to the pavement to honour all the dead.
Text: Azad Ashim Sharma & Ed Luker