Saturday, 4 July 2015

Public Address III

Most of my news lately has been about my show, but I have something different to share now, so I'm sharing it here: I'm going to be one of the poets working on Apples and Snakes' Public Address 3 tour!

As the name suggests, there have been two previous Public Address tours - the first, in 2010, was on the theme of 'Home', the second had a more wide-ranging brief, and this third iteration of the franchise sees the poets involved - me, Jasmine Gardosi, Shagufta K Iqbal, Justin Coe, Joshua Judson, Helen Seymour, and Henry Raby - taking the word 'soapbox' as our theme. The whole thing is being directed by the amazing Hannah Silva, who is just one of the most brilliant, experimental, innovative spoken word performers working right now. I'm absolutely delighted to be working with all of these people, it's going to be great.

So, given all that, what am I planning to get on my soapbox about? Well, one thing I'm not going to be doing is ranting. After spending so much time working on Howl of the Bantee I'm pretty much ranted out, and the result of the recent election has made me doubt how effective the angry ranting thing is anyway. I'll be honest, I had hoped that the references to David Cameron, Iain Duncan Smith and the whole pestilent Tory junta merrily ruining this country, which crop up in the course of my Edinburgh show, could be laughed off with a triumphalist 'well, we don't have to deal with them anymore, ho ho'. Instead, they sound like the lamentations of the defeated. My kingdom for a Nordic Welfare Model. 

And partly I'm wondering if it isn't time in my career to stop asking only rhetorical questions anyway. Increasingly I want to write and perform work which leaves questions hanging, which lets the audience make their own minds up. Or not. Yeah yeah yeah, negative capability, all that jazz. But Keats had a point, y'know? 

None of which exactly answers the question of what I want to write, but in the spirit of asking rather than answering questions, I'm not going to tell you outright. Rather, here are a few hints. First, there's Dean Spade's work on the Romance Myth. If you've been following my recent poems on here, particularly those that precede and include the Duke Sequence (aka 'talk about the other things'), you'll know I'm obsessed with the idea that there is a hidden violence inherent in the notion of romantic love we're sold by our culture. I was turned on to Spade's concept by reading this takedown of trans romcom Boy Meets Girl which Tom Leger shared on Facebook, and I think Spade has a good line on the problems inherent in the concept. This is probably also something which is going to play into the show I want to do after Howl..., which I'm provisionally calling Feeling Helpless Safely (or possibly Feeling Helpless, Safely, I'm not sure whether or not it needs the comma), but I have an idea of how these questions of love and violence might be dramatised which I think, if I can bring it off, will be a really good thing to explore for this project. 

Second, some pretty pictures. First, here's Hedwig Gorski, New Orleans poet credited by Wikipedia with having coined the term 'performance poetry':

As Gorski's Wikipedia entry makes clear, she theorised performance poetry as a practice 'distinct within and parallel to...spoken word, slam, poetry readings, performed poetry and performance art' (italics mine). It's interesting to think that performance poetry and performance art were once seen as parallel practices. These days, if you asked people to picture a performance artist and a performance poet you'd get wildly divergent images, I think. Is that a good thing? A bad thing? Could it be a factor in the concern that slam-format poetry is ossifying into a formulaic template? What would a performance poetics that was more in dialogue with performance art look like? And speaking of performance art...

Here's a shot from Marina Abramovic's Rhythm 0, which I think is one of the most flat-out ballsy pieces of performance art ever created. Basically, Abramovic stood in front of an audience who were presented with a table of 72 objects, which they were allowed to use on her as desired. The objects included a rose, a feather, perfume, bread, wine...and scissors. And a scalpel. And a loaded gun. It started out mildly; by the end Abramovic had been stripped, slashed, and had the gun pointed at her head with her own finger being worked around the trigger. 

As Abramovic herself put it 'In theatre, blood is ketchup. In performance, everything's real.' So what is it we do as poets? Theatre, or performance? And what would a spoken word show look like that engaged with issues of real risk in a similar way to Rhythm 0? Would that even be a spoken word show? And how does all this relate to the idea of love as violence?

These are not questions I intend to answer. But I do intend to ask them.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Unfair Advantage

So I came across this brilliant piece by Katherine Cross on how writers with Guardian and New York Times columns still claim to be being 'silenced' by trans people who happen to be on Twitter.

Particularly disappointed that Hadley Freeman buys into the nonsense that Fallon Fox has 'unfair advantages' due to having once had testosterone in her system.  Two facts, one born out of doing research (supposedly a key element in the journalist skillset, but what do I know, I don't write for the Grauniad), and one born of personal experience:

Like, check your privilege before criticizing this national newspaper from the leather-armchaired Ivory Tower of your Twitter account, yeah?

1) State boxing and wrestling commissions, the bodies in the US which rule on who gets to compete in MMA bouts, mandate that trans woman competitors must spend TWO YEARS on HRT, which includes taking anti-androgen drugs - testosterone-blockers;

How lifting weights feels after three months on T-blockers.

2) I have, myself, been on testosterone-blockers since April, at the same time as which I've embarked on a get-fit campaign, which has allowed me to observe their effects on my physical strength.  Despite training hard during the process, in a mere three months, I have lost 2kgs of muscle from my torso area. It was actually easier to hoist the backpack in which I carry my gym kit before I started lifting weights about. This put me in the interesting position of watching cis women who attended the circuit training sessions I was going to visibly finding them easier and easier as the weeks passed, while I found them harder and harder. There is an advantage here - and at times it certainly seemed unfair - but it isn't on the trans side of the equation.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

A stain, a gift, a shadow

Hiding in a toilet stall,
I photograph the bruise:
this capillary trace of the way your cupped palms
made their percussive contact with my skin.

I call it bruise: it's really just a hint
of sepia, a watercolour tint,
a stain, a gift, the shadow of your fist.
Impermanent: not tattoo, still less brand,

it aches to be recorded. With inexpert hands,
that I would never think to cup when striking,
I tilt my phone, I shoot the spot and wish
you'd left behind a far more livid kiss.

This loving violence I memorialise
perhaps more than is necessary or true.
This mark, this ghost desire left behind:
I take its photo, and I name it bruise.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015


She sounds like Sidse Knudsen
telling Chiara D'Anna she's late.
She tells me to climb on the couch,
compliments me on my boots,
wears a magnifying lens to better see
the Orion's Belt of follicles
still clinging to my lip.
Admires my work with the razor.
If she sees my tattoo, it's not mentioned.

I close my eyes.
I hear her breathe.
She puts the wand against my skin.
The warm pain comes in waves.

(Btw, in case anyone's wondering about why I mentioned my tattoo here...)


Monday, 8 June 2015


This game of chess, this drive to seize and take,
this duel of bluff and countermove and feint,
is what your songs and movies celebrate?

This urge to rob another of their space,
the meet-cutes that seem like intimidation,
this is what your culture venerates?

This fight in which I seem to have no chance,
this slow-quick-quick-slow-lunge assassin's dance:
you call this romance?

I'm not enchanted. I refuse to hymn
this torture that we sanctify with rings.
I will talk about the other things,
and abandon, on this board, my toppled King.

Zugzwang: a situation encountered in chess where any move you make will weaken your position.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Pyjama Revenge (after...oh, take a wild, leaping guess)

The part of me that hates to bake
would make my birthday cake for you
if you asked me in that tone of voice
telling me you have to:

read the recipe. And make the cake.
The part of me that flinches from
a stranger's touch would melt
like rum-soaked amaretti if your finger

flicked my side as Cynthia's strikes Evelyn.
The part of me that's seen this scene
and knows where it is going
will wish it didn't climax with

a safeword silenced by a woollen sock.
There's part of me that needs to know
if I say no, you'll stop: and part of me
that wishes you would not.

Yes, I know I did use Pyjama Revenge as the title for another poem in this sequence (and I suppose I may as well admit it is a sequence at this point); that title obviously draws its inspiration from a different scene in the film and has therefore been renamed The Flirtatious Use of Tape Measures. This poem gets the original title, being based on the relevant scene.

A couple of points need to be made here, lest any dickheads out there try to say 'but that fat trans lesbian poet said all subs secretly don't want their doms to stop' to justify their Christian Gray-esque behaviour:

1) This is not a poem about all subs - it's about two at most, one of whom is fictional - me, and Evelyn, the sub character in Strickland's film, and our differing reactions to Cynthia's behaviour in the scene leading up to the 'revenge' moment (what Evelyn finds unsettling about Cynthia in that scene, I actually really like, essentially);

2) I'm a poet, so I choose my words carefully. There's a difference between a need and a wish;

3) Very few people are so unimaginative as to use 'no' as a safeword.

Friday, 22 May 2015

A nice bath and painkillers (another one after Peter Strickland)

It's all downhill from now, she says,
and her younger lover smiles,
and tells her she's many years left.
I have been that younger lover: laughed aside
the fear of aging that you voiced.

Now I see the wrinkles spread
around my eyes like cracks in pressured glass,
hurricane lamp weakened, brought in
too often from the cold,
and wonder how I'll feel
to no more be the light, the nectar.

If I had known the last time was the last,
would I have told my hunger
in the bite of fingertips
against your muscled back?

If I had known how words like spinster
fill the twilight with their beating wings, would I have said so freely
all the things young lovers say

to hold their older paramours to ransom?
You're the last, I promise you :
I never thought this possible. 
As long as I'm yours, I remain alive.

I think one of the reasons The Duke of Burgundy fascinates me so much is the age gap in Cynthia and Evelyn's relationship. The two most important romantic relationships I've ever had were with women over a decade older than I was: now, as a lesbian approaching 40, I find myself having to deal with the possibility that future partners may be younger than me. And I appreciate, now, that this dynamic - the age-gap relationship - feels very different from the other side of that gap. Things feel so much more serious, more final. Oh, young people talk a good Epic Romance game: every love is the last love, everyone is The One, every promise lasts until the End of Time. But it's easy to say that when you're young and full of other people's stories. Later in life, with Time's Winged Chariot drawing so near you can hear the music on Time's Wicked Car Stereo, it's harder to credit all those promises. And yet you cling to them, you hope: and maybe the cruellest thing a younger lover does is to make an older one believe there is hope, after they've gotten used to living with its absence. Believe that I love you, they say: and you do, because what's life without love? 

And that, of course, is how the cruellest trap closes on you, like the lid of a trunk, a bed that's lifted by a simple spring. And there's no word to say to end these torments: except, perhaps, the one you fear the most. The word goodbye.