(FEATURE) A conversation with Verity Spott - part 1
In the first of a two-part interview, fred spoliar chats to Brighton-based poet Verity Spott about folk music, mourning, satire, the pastoral, politics, future-thinking, teaching, work and writing in a new form, the coronelle.
For a number of years now I’ve known Verity Spott as the most extraordinary performer in British poetry today. With the elegiac-satirical prose-verse-drama Hopelessness (2020, the87press), they have created something strange, haunting and large.
I think of a phrase from Hopelessness, ‘terrible music / played beautifully’, as emblematic of how they really reckon with the harm in the English language, its grammar and perceptive apparatus. Its protocols and Ted Talks. The ‘enemy language’ Sean Bonney was talking about. The harm in its harmonies.
So I want to say the difficulty of Verity’s poetry is the difficulty of how can I write, within and against that. How it holds its love and music within and against the austere biopolitics of the Tory-scathed 2010s (Gideon, We Will Bury You), within and against systems of institutionalised care (Click Away Close Door Say), within and against the discursive capture of 'trans identity' (‘I am who I am is a violence’, they write in Prayers, Manifestos, Bravery), is miraculous. I love the singular commitment with which they make their evasive confrontation with the forces who withhold our mourning, our ‘light that is coming in the morning’.
I caught up with Verity on Zoom in early November 2020, on the brink of that murderous pandemic winter, to talk music, reactionary pastoral, the sonnet form, hopelessness and commitment — and to finally force them to take a side in the martini vs. margarita culture war. This is part 1 of an edited transcript of our conversation.
I thought I’d start by asking about folk music and the refrain that comes up a lot in Hopelessness — ‘the light that is coming in the morning’ — and what kind of relationship there is to a folk tradition, a folk music tradition, a radical folk music tradition in the book and in your work more generally?
That refrain comes from a song by Sidney Carter who famously wrote ‘Lord of the Dance’ and — what else did he write — ‘One More Step Along the World I Go’, I think — a lot of quite childish kind of hymns and folksongs, I suppose hymns from a folk tradition. The song in the book that I use over and over again is called ‘John Ball’, and the song is about a cleric called John Ball around the time of the Peasants’ Revolt; he was a radical and he was trying to stir up I guess what we’d call now maybe liberation theology, something like that — a kind of proto-socialist Christianity, really. That song was chosen for a very personal reason in that, a few years ago, the poet Timothy Thornton and a few other people, we used to gather from time to time and sing together, and Timothy had brought that song to the group and we’d sing it together and work out an arrangement for it. And it became a sort of group anthem, in a way. It’s a very beautiful song. This thing about the light that is coming in the morning, you know it’s got a kind of Christian overtone but it’s [also] a hopeful look towards a revolutionary moment, so it’s a levelling: ‘who will be the lady and who will be the lord when we are ruled by the love of one another’… So the light is that. But there’s another personal connection: one of the people from that group, a very close friend of ours — Kesh — took his own life, and a lot of the book is speaking about situations of personal loss. Several friends all dying quite close together was a lot of the impetus for writing the book, and that refrain is kind of to Kesh in a way, to our friend. We sang the song at his funeral.
It obviously reads as this very complicated delving into the mechanics of the book and specific mourning. It’s loaded and feels like partly an enquiry into that.
That’s definitely there, and a lot of the book is about trying to resolve or find some kind of social empathy in grief, at a time of extreme ideological division, a time where people seem more politically ideologically divided and ruptured than I’ve ever known in my entire life… Trying to find some way through, some commonality towards what might be a unified kind of grief. Benjamin Noys has been saying this slogan recently [I’ve heard him in a podcast and a lecture], “don’t organise, mourn”. Instead of “don’t mourn, organise” or “don’t moan, organise”, turning that on its head. I think that there is a moment of mourning that’s kind of been snatched away from people and that directly relates to austerity in particular. A lot of the stuff that I’ve been writing before has been writing through austerity; and this was kind of a moment to actually look at death, and how our relationship to death has really changed. And relationships to care as well, like social care. Social care and social grief. Collectivised grief is a really dangerous force, I think. It gets replaced by forms of rage and disunifying anger. So I suppose there’s some way of trying to resolve that, and relationships — intimate relationships between people. At the beginning of the book there’s a poem that was under the working title ‘Hopeless Vibrato’. It’s the really kind of crazy scrambled poem at the beginning, not the first one the second one. The one with all the references to Suggs. That was a poem that I wrote really quickly and then revised and revised — it was kind of a scream and a noise as well — there’s loads of other voices in there. I was listening to a lot of talk radio, just hearing what this expression of people being allowed to vent for a moment was really like, and how coerced it often is. So it was a kind of an attempt to bring together the chaos of all these different voices, it’s the most raucous and weird bit in the book. It’s the bit that I feel actually uncomfortable reading — it kind of makes me cringe a bit. In a way that was quite deliberate. I wanted to make a poem that was really difficult at that point. And in the rest of the book to try and speak back to that difficulty and move into a much more simplified form of direct address, with a lyrical personal pronoun running through it.
I was reading over Rob Kiely’s piece about satire in your work which was looking at this text in its earlier iteration and as it features in the book. He comments on this, the way that it changed when ‘locked into the overall architecture of Hopelessness’. I had a sense reading the book of a lot of genres being called up and then kind of like torn apart or demolished back to more immediate and kind of abject language in the poem and I guess this also happens with pastoral as well. There's this recurrent meadow — ‘somewhere you have never been’ — that keeps getting called into the poem and then immediately kind of taken away or challenged or hurt or [having its tubes exposed]…
So the meadow and also this idea of ‘the light that is coming in the morning’ is thinking through — in the current moment, how possible is it to actually envision any kind of utopia? I think people are expressing versions of it in really strange ways. In the far right especially, nationalism often hinges on an idea of something that’s never actually happened: like for example Trump using the expression Make America Great Again. It’s really helpfully vague. It doesn’t have to be anchored in a particular moment — when was it great, when was the moment of greatness — that’s too difficult. If you leave it open and abstract, then everyone can make up their own minds about what that means. And usually it’s a concoction of different things. It’s like “taking Britain back” from the Europeans or whatever. What does that actually mean? and people start to come up with all these crazy notions of an abstraction, something that never actually happened. And it happens all over the place… So I wanted to put these notions under loads of pressure. What is this beautiful pastoral place that I was thinking about as well? It was a kind of dreamscape, this meadow where basically there’s no consequences, that was the idea…
I was following a lot of voices in the far right who were pushing this kind of free speech agenda for a while. It seemed to me that there was some notion of speech without consequences. So like, the ideal form if you follow it to its logical conclusion is that you can say whatever you like, and nothing will answer back. That void will then be filled with a desperate rage for some kind of response… They don’t want complete freedom of speech, they want the argument, you know… It’s like scratching an itch: there’s a kind of sadistic bliss in it. These kind of notions of a place you’ve never been, or a place you’ve never seen, are hinged on those kinds of abstractions.
And it seems somehow as though the fascistic pastoral that they’re calling up with this free speech discourse, whatever this fantasy is, is also kind of connected with the enjoyment in silencing and violating left voices. Like the double standard when it comes to free speech is already like woven into the fantasy of it and that pastoral somehow?
Fantasy’s an important word. I remember Nat Raha saying once that free speech is like a historical myth. The people who are often demanding it are the people who have the most freedom to speak. Lots of oppressed people have remarkably little freedom to speak. [In Hopelessness] there was something about when the demand isn’t actually for something obtainable, almost… It’s much easier to demand things that aren’t there. You get to keep doing it for ever, you know, you can remain ‘an activist’ for ever, you can build an identity out of a certain form of activism knowing full well that the thing you want to get is basically unliveable or impossible. So the action is more important than the result… It’s a kind of repeat action, like edging or something, you know? Getting there would be a disappointment.
I guess you slightly touched on a sense in which there’s some structural way that pastoral discourses or fantasies that we [on the Left] also hold that are also somehow implicated in this. I was thinking about the kind of fascistic residue in left pastorals and ideas of 'going back to nature' and re-enacting some kind of like primitive arcadianism that also connected with all sorts of really really nasty ideas. It has its own violence. It seems as though there’s an uncomfortable bleeding between some reactionary fantasies that it’s easy for 'us' to nominally distance ourselves from, and others which 'we' might be more implicated in.
I was reading about this stupid word cottagecore, people getting into things that are on the surface quite nice; things I like, you know, foraging and things like that. I think there’s a problem with it: it’s a nostalgic dream for something that people of a particular generation, probably my generation and generations below, really probably can’t get to, because it hinges on the idea of property ownership and freedom. There’s a kind of middle-class ideal of being out in nature in a way, but comfortable, and OK. There’s a real sadness to it actually, it’s kind of a generational moment of a great many people going, like, OK, we’re not going to get the things we were promised. And the craving for something wholesome kind of bleeds into a kind of isolationism, a kind of anti-communalism. Really traditionalist notions of relationships as well — I noticed that that emerges [through Hopelessness] a lot. These kind of ideas are shared by a group I was looking at called Generation Identity — they’re a huge European fascist movement at the moment who I was kind of spying on for a while. I was actually speaking to them! And [they have this] crazy kind of notion of a version of Europe, a white united Europe, something that has never existed… It has an environmentalist angle to it as well, which is interesting… and some of those environmental concerns could easily be shared by groups like Extinction Rebellion, or Greenpeace. And it's interesting to analyse those situations with regard to what is there rather than what isn't there: what's the impossible demand that's being made? What is the version of utopia? And then to move back and look at the process by which that utopian idea emerges. It wasn't a project to write about these kind of things, but if there is any kind of social commentary in the book it's about a kind of form of emergent grief that's based on the promises and demands of life in general not being met. The realisation of collapse but then the stubborn resistance to comprehending it.
There's a kind of tenderness to that, in the book.
I hope so. I wanted it to be tender.
I was thinking about the John Ball song and the way that the gender binary kind of configures that Edenic pastoral image [‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’] There's also a whiteness of it...
Yeah, that's really uncomfortable in some ways, like it makes me feel uncomfortable to read that part of the book. It was trying to create something that was beautiful and grotesque at the same time. These people, you know, they're not particularly sympathetic characters or anything; they're never named, but they're very much ‘a man’ and ‘a woman’ and, yeah, there's a notion of hurt running through them. Everything is basically predicated by a kind of loss, of a world just not very far behind them but that's completely collapsed and gone...
Something about it made me think a certain kind of nuclear marriage which is kind of like organised around not being able to admit certain desires or certain feelings even. Like, you have these like boomer couples who kind of just hate each other and they're in this sort of decades-long process of not admitting that...
Yeah, there is — I didn't really think about that but there is definitely some generational stuff there. I never specify the age of these people or anything about them too much but there is definitely a feeling. Like the holiday stuff that comes back [in Hopelessness] about this memory, it feels like a really stilted kind of holiday that they're on. And this was strange as well because it almost became like writing fiction which is something that I've never done — but there is a different kind of generational loss for them than there is for some of the other voices in the book. Maybe that interrogation of that kind of violence could have gone further, I don't know... It feels like it's loaded with responsibility to try and write something like that. But... I suppose there's a national kind of thing there, you know... and I suppose something about spite as well, I think the politics of spite is extremely present at the moment, like "I’m not voting for this because I actually want it, I'm voting for it because it'll hurt people like you". Like "my main desire is to see my enemy vanquished and hurt", you know... and I think that’s why — Trump is kind of the figurehead of that, this really strong kind of silverback, you know... "come and fight my wars for me"... there's a kind of patriarchal kind of love for him, which is predicated on hatred of other people rather than actually any kind of representation of something that might happen that would be good, you know? It's like “I'd hurt myself if it hurt you more”.
It’s interesting the appeal to nature in this kind of argument that you get with Jordan Peterson type people who appeal to like, the lobster or whatever, as evidence for the need for domination to continue in human societies. The silverback gorilla as this image of dominant masculinity that actually still doesn't really correspond to how gorillas organise their lives in nature.
I used that in the book at one point — I think it's like, ‘a silverback who heaven sent’ — there's a bit in rhyming couplets which is directly addressing this question — but yeah, they use that a lot. And also the alpha wolf thing, which is based on an experiment with really flawed conditions: it's not based on wolves in nature, it's based on wolves in captivity. So this notion of the pack mentality, you know, I think behind it there's a craving for a kind of parent figure all the time which is something really interesting at the moment. I think people — when mainstream politics has always been, I guess neoliberal mainstream politics, the politics we've been used to — starts to fall to pieces, people do become more authoritarian, I think. Because the structure is falling apart, we need something to hold us together. Some strength, just give us some strength, I don't care what it is, just something strong... I think certain elements of the mainstream contemporary left have gone down this route as well, I think, in a certain way, you know — I think with the Corbyn project, one of the real tragedies of it was seeing how dependent people are on leadership: just the idea that there has to be A person at the top. And this idea of supporting — ”I SUPPORT THIS POLITICIAN” — this is quite new to me I think, this wording. It's emerged — I feel like it's a recent emergence this idea that you have to SUPPORT someone and the left kind of falling apart as soon as that central figure is gone. That worries me. I think that we need to be a lot smarter than that really, at the moment.
Yeah it seems to me like some of what is happening there has to do with the kind of like increasing overlap between politics and the forms of media, social media and celebrity culture — like this paradox with Corbyn being someone who could never try to be perceived as a strong leader because he was so much against the concept of that; and at the same time there was this memeish investment in Corbyn the ‘absolute boy’ with the chanting and stuff — which totally has to do with support as a kind of fandom, almost like politicians as content creators…
Yeah, content creators — something that really happened with Corbyn was that Prime Minister's Questions became very much about sound bites. Content creating that's really interesting: it’s kind of like the politics on its own isn't enough, any promise of an altered politics isn't enough, it has to be a kind of media campaign, and that's definitely changed over the last ten years.
And [in this pandemic] we’re getting this form of government which is so much organised around these ritualised moments of delivering content…
Yeah... It's a really strange almost obsessive compulsive time in that sense.
Maybe then this is a good moment to ask about the poems that you've been writing recently, this 'coronelle' form and how that came about?
It's been a really strange time in the sense that Hopelessness was — the first poem in Hopelessness I wrote on the day that Donald Trump was elected — the very first poem in the book. I didn't touch it for a long time after that but then — it kind of emerged quite slowly, and there was a lot of stitching it together. Like a Frankenstein's monster kind of thing. I've not often written short poems before... Coronelles is a kind of playful title, but I think [really] they are sonnets, they're little songs. But I don't quite know how it happened. I was keeping a notebook at the beginning of lockdown and I was trying to write some kind of shorter lyric poems. And one day I wrote a poem that kind of looked like the coronelle form. And I guess — well, I wrote down a set of rules for them — it was quite rigid at first, you know, it was this 13-line poem with these several indented lines. And the volta at the end of the poem would be interrupted by the arbitrary addition of like some song lyrics and 2 song titles before a last lyric line to resolve it. It was really playful at first, these poems — it was kind of like playing music or something — it was an enjoyable process, I didn't really think they were going anywhere, I didn’t think anything would happen with them... I've written hundreds of them now, and I'm keeping not that many of them, but the first set [of] I think 41 poems is coming out with Veer Books. And then the second set just keeps expanding. And the form has changed, so those really rigid rules have fallen away a little bit. And it seems to be pushing at a question. I think for me this is really important in poetry in general: that it feels like in order to know something, to discover something, I have to write this. But I don't know what that thing is, I don’t know what the question is, I don't know quite where it's going. It's become really confessional which is strange as well; whereas Hopelessness was very narrative based and it was using disjointed voices and narratives and voices that weren't my own. At first these poems were a bit like that, all these song lyrics and stuff, but they've become full of first person personal pronouns this time, not fictional kind of character pronouns but personal ones – and they've become extremely confessional – and some of them have become really stretched out on the page as well. So some of them are now 26 lines long. I don't quite know where it's going. I'm enjoying it in a sense – I didn't enjoy writing most of Hopelessness but I do think enjoyment in writing is kind of important, and it's a new kind of pleasure.
The Chamorro poet Craig Santos Perez has some 13 line sonnets that he calls unlucky sonnets.
I did find out recently — a friend sent me a load of sonnets written in England in the sixteenth century before the form had really taken hold in the way. And some of these sonnets are 10 lines long and some of them are 30 lines long. The very rigid structure of the fourteen-line sonnet in English at least happened a little bit later than that. One of my favourite sessions I teach at my work at New Writing South is called Form and Freedom, where we look at 6 sonnets that are really divergent and I think there's been a lot of influence from contemporary — there are a lot of people writing contemporary things that are almost like sonnets — so Sean Bonney's The Commons which is also full of like, folk songs and things like that. And also I'm constantly in conversation with Nat Raha's poetry. Nat's doing these niners, this form of 9 line poems, and Ian Heames' sonnets as well. There's a really rich culture of sonnet writing at the moment and in the last 20 years in British poetry. I want to have that conversation with those other poets and with their work, about what a contemporary sonnet might be.
Someone should organise a kind of round table about this!
Yeah. I'd really like that. I might do it you know.
So what are you doing for work at the moment?
I teach at New Writing South in Brighton, a poetry course. Which is adult learning really. It's not a qualification or anything, it's just called Writing Poetry. I taught there last year and this is my second year: it's very different this year; last year my strategy — it's my first proper teaching job — was just to go into the class with a couple of poems that we'd close read together and then we'd have a kind of workshop on the attendees' work at the end. This year it's had to be quite different because it's all online. It’s an entry level thing you know, it's for people who aren't that experienced in writing poetry so it goes over lots of loose subjects and things but it's nice, I have complete freedom of curriculum so I can teach whatever I want really. I don't really get monitored or anything. And it's a nice thing to do, it's interesting, it's an interesting group of people to be speaking with. Yeah.
Recently I’ve had a lot of cause to think about what I value in teaching spaces: a possibility for errancy and messiness and especially with poetry, which is always to do with its own uselessness in some way, the kind of waste of time that is and the leisurely possibilities of it… [So] it’s good whenever I hear about a context outside of a university where people are getting to be taught poetry in quite a loose and messy sort of way, or having a space that maybe isn't so much determined with class in the way that university spaces tend to be?
I think it's really important that there are spaces that are outside of the university context. Just based on access really, you know? I mean, gotta be careful because the university is just completely under ideological attack at the moment. But I do think it's important to generate these spaces away from [the university]. At a time like this, as well — access has really changed. So there are people doing my course who might not have been able to do it had it been in a classroom. And I notice that there's a lot of stuff that would usually take a lot of institutional organisation happening online, with open access. And I think it is important that we push for that in some ways, you know, that accessible education is not eroded by this ideological attack on lots of structures of institutional education.
Would you consider teaching on like an MFA program ever?
I think I would, if I could get the gig!
Something more general about poetry and the university I think is that historically there's been a really strong part of the loose scene that I guess we hang out in which has been strongly academic and in many ways that's a really good thing, but also I do feel like the landscape's changing a bit, and that's also a good thing. I think maybe the practiced route's altering a little bit, and some people, some really brilliant students on my course last year, one of them's James Burton: I think he’s one of the best poets around, you know — he's just been published by the Earthbound series, I really recommend getting that one actually. His route in is completely different (he actually teaches computing at Brighton university), but it's interesting seeing someone getting to grips with a lot of the poetry that I really love through a non-academic route. There's a real kind of joy in it actually, and I feel like those kinds of voices that haven't come through the academy who are reading more innovative poetry are bringing new readings to the poetry as well. So I think that's an interesting place to be in, really.
You can read part 2 here.
Text: fred spoliar and Verity Spott