(INTERVIEW) Daniya Baiguzhayeva interviews Helen Charman
Helen Charman is one of our favourite poets at SPAM. In 2019, we were lucky enough to publish Daddy Poem as part of our season 2 pamphlet series, ‘A spirited response to institutional sexual harassment and gendered power imbalances, [...] a long poem in dialogue with the great long poems of the modernist era, sharing their interest in mixing high and low registers and in allowing multiple readings and interpretations’, which came runner up in the Ivan Juritz Prize.
In the wake of announcing her forthcoming pamphlet, In the Pleasure Dairy with Sad Press, Daniya Baiguzhayeva interviewed Charman about everything from domestic labour, power and property, collaboration, writerly communities, femininity, maternity, desire, psychoanalysis, ethical reading and recent and future projects.
1) One of the things that interested me most about Support, support was the function that refusal played in the establishment and maintenance of property, the delineation of private from public. The pamphlet is prefaced with epigraphs from Marianne Morris and Jeremy Bentham, and both look at saying ‘no’ as a means of forming certain interpersonal or structural boundaries. How do these ideas about property and refusal play out in the collection, and in the thinking and writing behind it?
Well, the title Support, support, is from the Denise Riley poem ‘Affections Must Not’, in which Riley writes of the ‘fine steely wires that run between love and economics’, and finishes the broken phrase of the title in the final lines: ‘affections must not support the rent / I. neglect. the. house.’ One of the things I think is so startlingly brilliant about Riley’s work is the way she articulates in poetry the dailiness of the harm done by social reproduction: the poems root their moments of extreme violence in the intermeshing of feeling and circumstance. I think of that pamphlet now as an artefact from a very specific time in my life, concerned with the protracted end of a bad domestic situation: how do you reclaim those interpersonal boundaries if you didn’t realise they were being crossed until it was too late to defend them? The Marianne Morris line from ‘Different Types of No’ I borrowed—‘Hers was a no that came out of a very long time of saying yes’—speaks to that too, I think. It’s one thing to know intellectually that the absence of refusal is not the same as consent and another to assert that knowledge in the face of the vast and scary social machinery that requires your continual acquiescence.
2) I suppose that makes me think about property more literally - the house as both an ordeal and an ideal. Domesticity, tenancy, houses & their interiors surface repeatedly throughout Support, support but in a way that seems consciously rooted in the material reality of having and needing a home. I’m thinking specifically here of the line: ‘I’d like to moon around a garden barefoot / and rosy, instead I wake with night sweats I dedicate to my / landlord.’ I’m interested in how you think the material conditions of one’s life can and should intersect with one’s writing, and whether this attention could be conceived of in terms of an anti-capitalist poetics?
Ten years ago I would have answered this question very differently. I’ve just turned 27: I left home when I was 18 to go to university, and since then I’ve lived in 9 different rented flats, each with its own uniquely exploitative contract. At a personal level, the constant anxiety about paying the rent each month permeates everything, so it’s there in everything I write; but even if you’re not immediately affected by the current housing crisis or the many mutilating legacies of austerity, it concerns everyone, it’s there—or it should be—in everything. I’m not interested in work that affects a disengagement from the material conditions of contemporary existence. In that line that you quote, I was thinking about a particular ‘literary’ aesthetic of the current moment: what I think of as TOAST catalogue writing, this fetishization of a lifestyle that appears artisanal or ‘rustic’ or whatever, but is totally divorced from the actual wealth it requires to live in that way with ease. As for an anti-capitalist poetics, as a reader that’s where my interests lie. I feel uneasy making claims for my own work, and the current state of the publishing industry and the other institutions poetry currently depends upon (even if only in the sense that many poets can only earn enough money to live by teaching) means it’s not easy to disentangle poetry from social and cultural capital. I hope that if my poems succeed they communicate my politics, because that’s where my feelings are, too.
3) Some of the poems in Support, support are written after, take their titles, or borrow lines from works by other writers. What function do you think this intertextuality serves in the formation of your poems – a source of departure, an un/expected destination? Is this approach towards poetry - perhaps as more of a shared or communal undertaking - linked in some way to the broader ideas about property and collaboration in the pamphlet?
Your interpretation is very generous– I like to think of it as a communal undertaking, definitely: borrowing lines, quoting people, dedicating poems to friends. Partly it’s to do with the way I write: usually I’ll only begin a poem because I’ve been writing prose or reading something else and it’s set something off that needs a different kind of expression. The Bentham epigraph you mentioned is a good example of that, actually: I had to read a lot of Utilitarian economics at the beginning of my PhD research, which was also when I was writing that pamphlet. There’s a way of thinking about your work as your own private property that I found very prevalent when I was doing my PhD, actually, which extends to conceiving of the writers you were interested in as ‘belonging’ to you, too: as if the purpose of writing, poetic or academic or otherwise, was to mark something as your territory, rather than to contribute to a community.
4) Do you feel part of a writing community, in any sense? What kinds of things (literary or otherwise) have your work and your concerns as a writer been shaped by?
I studied English Literature at university but it took me a really long time to read any good contemporary poetry, partly because I wasn’t paying that much attention to small presses, and so for a very long time I had no interest in writing poetry because what I thought poetry was was the very specific, flat, uniform tone of nostalgic description and wry personal confession that populates the AQA anthology and most prize shortlists. Once I realised that you could escape the confessional and still use the first person everything changed, and that led me to theory, or rather poetry that incorporates serious philosophical and political thinking: Denise Riley, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Fred Moten, Diane di Prima, Bhanu Kapil, Sean Bonney, Andrea Brady. After that, when I moved to London, I started getting involved in activism and going to (good) poetry readings, often with a social overlap between the two, and making friends with other poets and learning from them. What I can say for certain is that the poetry community that I care about is not an apolitical one. There’s a certain kind of ‘neutral’ poetry careerism that I find simultaneously hilarious and sinister. There are so many brilliant small presses and journals that I am always excited to read: Paratext, Datableed, Mote, Zarf, SPAM, Earthbound Press, Distance No Object, Sad Press, Boilerhouse. And readings: in London, the relatively new reading series Out Else is great, and No Matter in Manchester, and Fred Carter and Dom Hale put on so much brilliant stuff last year in Edinburgh with Just Not.
5) You’ve recently completed a PhD on transactions of maternal sacrifice in social realist fiction. Could you tell me a bit more about that? How did you reconcile, or not, the misogynistic elements of Freudian theory, and indeed, of psychoanalysis more generally, with your own scholarly perspective in the writing of your thesis?
I loved writing my PhD, not least because in the three years between starting it and finishing it, I changed my mind about almost everything that was in it. Freudian psychoanalysis was probably the biggest example of that: I began by thinking Freud was a misogynist without having read very much Freud, or—more crucially, perhaps—without having read the work of psychoanalytic feminists. Jacqueline Rose, in ‘Femininity and its Discontents’ (published in the Feminist Review in 2005) writes that psychoanalysis is not a functional tool way of fitting women into their places, but something that can ‘help us to open up the space between different notions of political identity—between the idea of a political identity for feminism (what women require) and that of a feminine identity for women (what women are or should be)’. My thesis argued for the importance of the erased (or repressed, or banished) maternal body in canonical nineteenth century novels by George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Moore, rooting some of that importance in the co-option of the productive body by empire and industrial capitalism and some of it in the psychoanalytic reasons for such an erasure of maternal subjectivity. Rather than seeing Freudian psychoanalysis and feminism, or indeed Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxism, as antithetical, I tried to read the structure of the novels themselves psychoanalytically– I tried to pay attention to the specifically literary economy of representation, and interrogate conservative demands made of mothering as a primary and necessarily feminine duty, and the racist, classist and colonialist uses that conservative maternal ideal is put to.
6) Maternity, family, fertility, desire – these questions emerge in your poetry too. There’s still a tendency to see writing, and ‘work’ more generally, as somehow antithetical to motherhood and its demands. Has your academic and/or non-academic work offered new ways of thinking about and resisting this idea?
Yes! Although, my mum raised my brother and I largely on her own alongside doing long hours as an NHS worker, so the labour of keeping a family financially afloat and the other more invisible kinds of work involved in mothering were more obviously related to me from an early age. I suppose I’m interested in the history of motherhood at a sociopolitical level: there’s been a lot of writing recently about its personal aspects—the decision whether or not to have a child etc—that is easily co-opted into commodified, Lean In-style feminism and that doesn’t think about the history of maternity as politicised and often radical labour, about the collective caring done by the Women Against Pit Closures during the miners’ strike or the women who gave birth at the Greenham Common peace camp. I should say also that the definition of motherhood I’m interested in is not the strictly ‘biological’ one weaponised by trans-exclusionary “feminists” and the conservative right alike.
7) You’ve also taught and continue to teach alongside your own research. What kinds of conclusions have your experiences on either side of the education system led you to, in terms of the current state of the university as an institution?
That’s a big question, even before the pandemic. I love teaching. During my PhD and afterwards I taught at various institutions on very precarious contracts: it was very difficult, especially after my funding had finished and I was trying to live in London on the combined pay of two casualised Associate Lecturer contracts. I suppose my experience of teaching, which is extremely time-intensive—marking, planning and writing lectures and seminars, pastoral care—was on the one hand extremely positive: the conversations I had, the students I taught. On the other hand, you experience first-hand the way universities in the U.K. run on the unpaid labour of the most junior staff. The situation in higher education now, with so many hiring freezes recently announced and the most recent UCU industrial action uneasily suspended, is very bleak. It’s difficult for me, at a purely practical level, to see a future in it for myself, and many of my friends are in the same position.
8) Daddy Poem is such a brilliant name for your second pamphlet. Obviously, it brings Plath to mind, especially the voyeuristic fervour surrounding the release of her complete letters, but also that specific synthesis of sex and power that the word ‘daddy’ has come to be inflected with. Can you describe how / when / why the pamphlet precipitated?
It’s actually a quote: someone I won’t name, who was in a position of power, met with me when I was in my early twenties to discuss my work and, having read the ten or so poems I had sent him, asked ‘so which one is your daddy poem?’ I only thought about using it much later, though: I wrote the long poem which makes up Daddy Poem whilst I was engaged in a long, stressful, and ultimately unsuccessful sexual misconduct complaint procedure at the university where I did my PhD. The rage I felt, the helplessness, the realisation that the institution is a fortress: that’s what is behind it, I suppose. Sara Ahmed’s work on complaint—and complaint as a feminist pedagogy— articulates it better than I can: the way the HR procedure is intended to tire you out, to make you feel ashamed, alone, crazy. There’s a line in the poem that comes from one of the other women who were involved with this specific complaint: in complaining, we weren’t testing the validity of our own experiences, but testing the institution against itself. It failed that test. I don’t know if you’ve listened to Fetch the Bolt Cutters, the album Fiona Apple released in April, but that’s one of the few things I’ve found to be relatable to that experience for me. Sexual misconduct is as rife and endemic in academia as it is in the publishing industry. I think in this sense, ‘Daddy’ for me is a way of uniting both the passive, static unfairness inherent to (even a benign) patriarchal hierarchical structure and the active damage caused by the abuse of it.
9) I really haven’t stopped listening to that album since it came out. Going on from that, I suppose, the poem is set primarily within the university. Obviously, its concerns about abuses of power and complicity are endemic in society, but what do you think it is about the university as an institution that brings these issues to the forefront in such a marked way?
I don’t know. I think the power dynamics in teaching have something to do with it. I also think some institutions are worse than others, perhaps because of logistical things like one-on-one teaching, or teaching occurring in people’s private rooms. The 1752 group are doing good work on this, and within the Universities and Colleges Union so are Survivors Justice UCU. The university is its own ecosystem, too, and so I suppose shame can perform its prohibitive work very effectively: you never know who knows what or who is friends with who, and—particularly if you’re not a powerful person in the institutional hierarchy—you exclude yourself, stop attending things, stop feeling safe in your place of work or study because it can feel like everyone knows something personal about you.
10) Some of Daddy Poem’s concerns regarding the ethics of lyric discourse made me think of the lines from A K Blakemore’s ‘Andrea Dworkin’ in Fondue: ‘so much of what has happened / (molested by the unknown, internally examined) / seems like it would be treated as a metaphor by other, / larger hands / the ones that seek to reassure us.’ I’m interested in what happens to violence when it’s converted into language, which is in itself a deferring machine, when the material reality of that violence becomes deferred again through metaphor, and how this metaphorizing by ‘other, larger hands’ can become a tool that abstracts and disembodies horror in a way that serves, rather than resists, the status quo. How do we negotiate and negate that risk as writers?
I love that poem, particularly that use of ‘reassure’. I don’t think there’s an easy answer. I’m also not sure it’s a straightforward matter of conversion, per se, although it’s attractive to think you might be able to take harm and transfigure it, expel it. I suppose those ‘other, larger hands’ refer to a metaphorization by others, though: the use of sexual violence as a stand-in for something else. I can never believe it when I see someone use rape as a comparative term. It depends where the reader is, too, and who they are– where they’re looking. I know my own experiences of violence occur within the context of my whiteness. There is such an enormous body of work by black writers and theorists about violence and the legacy of slavery, like Dionne Brand, M. NourbeSe Philip, Claudia Rankine, Sadiya Hartman, Simone Browne, Christina Sharpe, that has to structure any meaningful understanding of how sexual violence functions in a bigger context. We saw in what is now referred to as the ‘#MeToo movement’ of 2017 onwards the way what Alison Phipps has called ‘political whiteness’ centred a carceral white feminism, despite the intentions of its founder Tarana Burke. A few months ago at the Femspectives feminist film festival in Glasgow I saw The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open, a film by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn, which is one of the most moving pieces of work about violence against women and girls I’ve encountered: it’s a story about two First Nations women who have a chance encounter in Vancouver when Rosie (played by Violet Nelson) is running away from her abusive partner. It centres that violence within the context of colonial violence against First Nations and global indigenous communities more broadly; within interlinking networks of intergenerational trauma. There’s a great essay about it by So Mayer, here.
11) What about reading ethically? Plath’s reception in popular culture obviously comes to mind here. How can we foster a method of reading that is both contextualised and compassionate? Is that feasible on a cultural scale in a capitalist, patriarchal society, without overhauling the institutions and ideologies that foster such an appetite for disembodied suffering in the first place?
Anti-capitalist reading? I’m kind of joking, but also not really: reading unproductively, maybe, or reading together. A move away from the kind of institutionalised or professionalised reading that strips things for parts to build your own shiny argument, and tends to flatten texts and writers down to a single attribute. In her book Enduring Time Lisa Baraitser writes about psychoanalysis, amongst other things, as a kind of time away from capitalist time; time without an objective—maybe reading ethically could be a kind of reading psychoanalytically, of thinking about context and intention without being reductive, without being pressured to find a marketable ‘message’ or ‘point’. My friend Emilia (Weber, also a poet whose work I love) always makes a point of saying ‘I think this is brilliant’ rather than ‘this is brilliant’ as a way of circumventing the cycle of superlative declamation about texts that characterises publication at the moment, and therefore colours the way we ‘witness’ other people’s reading, especially online: to try and remind yourself that there isn’t a binary mode of engagement that requires a definitive qualitative assessment.
12) When I originally read that refrain in Daddy Poem, ‘learning about violence’, I parsed it in the sense of experiential learning - an understanding acquired by virtue of existing in and interacting with the world. But lately I’ve been thinking about it in the more literal sense of formal education, of violence as something that is quite nonchalantly embedded within the fabric of the literary curriculum and the canon. So many of the writers we study as literature students were just … awful people, with awful politics, who did awful things, but it’s the genius of their work that takes precedence. I don’t want to fall into the trap of equating the two – the experience of violence and the reading about and around it – but what do you do with all that anger? Are there ways in which it can mobilise us and productively inform our work going forward?
Yes. I suppose the first thing to say is that this is why the long and complicated work of decolonising the curriculum and decolonising the canon is so hard, and so important– and why even the tiniest, most incremental moves toward it are met with so much resistance. There’s so much to read about this—recently I found Decolonizing the University by Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial and Kerem Nisancioglu to be a good text to turn to for people both within and without higher education. Anger is useful, certainly—not least because repressing it rarely helps. In Sophie Collins’ brilliant small white monkeys, which is about shame and sexual violence, she quotes from an interview with Lisa Robertson: ‘I think that anger can indeed become productive. Especially if one gives oneself the space for reflection too. And certainly anger can aerate the debilitating sadness that is another response to the rampant institutional misogyny that structures much public and commercial discourse…’ That space for reflection, I think, should include the ways in which you yourself might profit from other kinds of violence—if you’re white, for example, or cis, or rich—and the ways in which the expression of anger is racialised: the way the harmful stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’, for example, is used to dismiss and vilify black women’s experiences. It’s also necessary to consider how your actions-in-anger, however understandable or nobly-intended, might impact other people: Alison Phipps writes brilliantly about this as well in her work on avoiding a carceral response to sexual violence. Where’s that professor going to end up after he gets quietly and delicately ejected from his institution? In another one, probably. I find this question difficult, because I’m so angry, and getting angrier every day. Intellectually I understand that there are nuanced ways to deal with the problem of this embedded violence, but it is… difficult.
13) Last year, you and Grace Linden conceived of and edited a pamphlet, THE PEOPLE’S HOUSE, a collection of texts that respond in some way to other texts. Could you speak a little about your intentions in and the process behind its creation?
Grace and I had worked together before, and we came up with the idea for the symposium ‘Poetics in Commons’ that Dan Eltringham and Sarah Bernstein ran at the University of Sheffield in May 2019. We wanted to think about the idea of common response: of how the things we read interweave and react with each other. Initially, it was a pamphlet Sarah printed for us using her printer credit (thanks Sarah) and a collaborative reading that took place during the first day of the conference. Then, we opened the call up again for more responses, and worked with the artists Holly Isard and Julia Utreras to turn it into a risograph-printed pamphlet. We wanted it to be something that thought about poetry as common space—for the people what belongs to the people. In the end, the printing process coincided with the lead up to the 2019 election: it feels so bound up to me now with that period of frantic hope, of endless hours of canvassing and campaigning, and with the total, visceral heartbreak of election night itself. We ended up holding the launch a few days after, at Burley Fisher Books in London, and it felt good to be with other people who felt the same, who had tried very hard, and were grieving.
14) You have a new pamphlet coming out this year with Sad Press – what’s it *about*?
Yes! I’m excited; I love Sad Press. It’s called In the Pleasure Dairy, and it’s one long poem. Pleasure dairies (also called ‘fancy’ dairies and ‘polite dairies’) form a large part of my PhD thesis, in relation to the 1859 George Elio