|Dorothy Lehane and Nancy Gaffield talk to Sarah Crewe about her latest book, garn.|
The last line of the last poem in garn states: how do you solve a problem like Eliza? Answer: I am she. In what ways are you and she ‘problems’?
It’s not so much me or her personally, but rather, it’s we, as in, the working class, when we do anything other than what we are told. We’re prescribed specific pathways and routes and any deviation from that provokes a range of responses, from “ungrateful” to “weird”. This applies to so many facets of life, from the arts to our vocations, from our healthcare to the way we raise our children. If we don’t effuse about how endlessly grateful we are and keep our mouths shut about the micro/macro aggressions we face in predominantly middle class environments, then we’re seen as a problem.
At times, the borders/boundaries of poetry and the poetic manifesto seem enmeshed in this work. Might you tell us about whether that was intentional? Generally speaking, or perhaps specifically with poems such as ‘squirming’?
For that poem, it absolutely was intentional yes. I realise that poetry as unpaid labour is not a problem restricted to working class poets, it’s a problem for all of us. But I needed to write something which highlighted the hypocrisy of event organisers claiming to value working class voices, but not offering w/c poets so much as bus fare home for their time. That’s rank, and I use that word for its layered meaning, because not only is it rotten but also a power flex, unconscious at best, from apparent facilitators for marginalised voices. But garn as a whole is, I hope, a very direct work in terms of its poetics. There is no ambiguity – I don’t even think reading Pygmalion is necessary to get the gist of what the work considers. In that respect it’s the least obscure thing I’ve ever done. I’m not hiding behind a shark, a sea creature or the Baader Meinhof group. This is eliza, a working class woman in a multitude of middle class settings. The poetry is the vehicle, the poetics is the manifesto.
You use a diverse and eclectic range of sources and intertextual material. Could you elaborate on your research process?
My research process has become the backbone of everything I write, and that is probably the biggest change to occur within my poesis of the past five years. Writing in a vacuum has zero appeal to me, and in turn, why would it appeal to anyone else to read what I, or indeed anybody else, produced in a vacuum? When writing on systemic oppressions, the myopic approach of Me, Me, Me isn’t going to cut it. It needs to have more to it than that. Intersectionality was not built on the experiences of one person. It needs a collection, a chorus of voices from which we can learn and grow into the best version of ourselves. I also think one of the key issues facing w/c people in the UK is that we’re regarded as one big white straight urban homogenous blob who will blindly vote a certain way, speak a certain way, and write a certain way. We have everything to lose if we don’t prove otherwise. And we can do that by stepping outside our own bubbles and reading round a subject that we want to write about. There is also the point that by sharing sources, cross referencing and intertexting, we illuminate work that might either help someone else in their own research on working class poetics, or best of all, bring the reader to another voice they may not have heard before. Which is a wonderful side effect of footnoting if ever there was one.
We think of your poetry as politically ground-breaking, a type of ‘rage-poetics’ in its call for social reform. We are interested in hearing how you negotiate political and social injustices through gesture, rather than subscribing to a type of didacticism. Can you say something about how you have developed this complex rendering of voice, and perhaps more generally, rage as a mode of delivery?
I love the idea of rage-poetics, thank you! I’m keen to avoid didacticism as I don’t claim to be a teacher or an educator on any level. There are far too many pieces of writing out there masquerading as poems when they are, in fact, chunks of chapters from a thesis. While I’m also wary of the word gesture, I am continuously striving towards the end goal, which is, poetry. Sometimes that can be a difficult balancing act when the content is furious and full of anger. I try to remember that, like dancing, it doesn’t have to be mechanical and contained all the time. It just has to keep moving and avoid monotone. If every single poem was in the same register, then it would be boring, no matter how potent said rage was.
garn is constructed with exquisite dynamism and precision—you employ a vivid and unexpected word choice, sonic and syntactic play, could you say something about your trajectory from earlier works and projects? How might garn speak to those works in terms of thematic concerns/ literary devices? And where might you venture next?
Thank you. The priority in my work is the language and the rhythm. If it doesn’t work sonically then it isn’t going to work on the page and vice versa. In terms of earlier projects, I feel there seems to be a conflict between the internalised pressure of sentence structure (i.e., what we’re taught via the mainstream is Proper Poetry) and the urge to resist that. Frankly, I think you can detect the jitters in my earlier work and the lack of confidence is reflected. It took about five years of writing to finally accept that actually, both can be done, and the switch can occur within the same poem, let alone the same sequence. In terms of how garn speaks to my earlier work, I had a conversation with another poet a while back about how certain themes make a special guest appearance until finally you grab them by the horns and write about them. I feel garn has been the point whereby I stopped alluding to my own trajectory and finally wrote about it. My first book, floss, is working class women’s psychogeography via the ancestors. While garn still employed that technique, it required another level of self permission and cheerleading from loved ones who support the work to go for it, guns blazing. It took a lot of conviction and many poetic routes around the houses to do that.
My next work is an imagined dialogue with my imagined uncle, Alexei Sayle. Turns out there is much to discuss with a working class Scouse Marxist who hotfooted it to London for university, who can tell why?
Your poems are notable for the striking use of page space. Can you elaborate on your choices?
There are several elements to this. One is that the idea of presenting a book of my own poems that all have the same layout is complete anathema. I realise there are different takes on this school of thought and some poets thrive on constraints. But I’m not one of them. I also believe that poetry, just like thought, is non-linear. It’s gloriously haphazard, all over the place, and that’s why I love it. Those words can live and breathe wherever you want them to. There are so many other examples of how and why the space on a page deserves to be put to better use than straight lines, but the obvious connection to the psychogeographical element of my work is maps, and the subsequent undoing and re-writing of them. Sometimes a poem genuinely works best in a column, but other times the tension of blank space and positioning of words serves the poem so much more. In relation to my own praxis (and I believe we discussed this when I read at the University of Kent Paris – how bourgeois does that sound?!) the use of the page space reflects an obsession and lifelong love for social housing. Granted, some of it is in the high rise frame of straight lines. But there is so much more to it than that. You only need to walk around London to witness the breadth of architecture that was encompassed in these projects. It seems like a former utopia now, not least when it’s sadly noted how much of it has been sold off. But the shifting shapes of my own poems reflect how those alternative structures have imprinted themselves on my psyche. I am so full of pride to be from, to have grown up in and to live in social housing. I strive to recreate that feeling of both identity and joy when producing a sequence.
Another notable feature is the exuberant use of language and shifting registers. The use of idiom and vernacular are prominently in juxtaposition with more specialist language. What is your motive here? How are you using these voices to create tension?
Again, this comes down to finally feeling assured that it was ok to do this. That sounds utterly ridiculous when you consider that so many working class people (and sorry not sorry for the bias but here goes, particularly the Scouse ones) speak a heady mix of slang words and sublime snippets of poetry waiting to happen. It also seems more than a touch bizarre when you consider that innovative poetry from the 1960s – 1990s was quite the regional mix (which Geraldine Monk covers extensively in Cusp). But after that, it seems to wane somewhat. I can’t help but link that to innovative poetry getting hitched to academia, and the latter deciding that dialect and accents simply won’t do for Serious Work. But there’s only so long you can put the lid on yourself, so to speak. The vernacular and the specialist language are contrary to tension, they co-exist, and (with the obvious exception of quotes) rather than separate voices, they’re often the same voice.
Why do you think conservative attitudes to language and poetic form persist in British poetry? (In academia and publishing?)
Because the fight appears to be to get more voices at the table, as opposed to dismantling the table altogether and building a new one. Or simply finding a new way to sit and listen to each other that doesn’t involve a restrictive table. Conservative attitudes to language and poetic form persist in English poetry because while the faces change, the structure does not. While deference to kyriarchal blueprints continue, then Oxbridge and all its hybrids, in both academia and publishing, will reign supreme. It’s part of a bigger power structure and it’s insidious. Assimilation and replication will get us approximately nowhere and yet it’s the path that all too many take. I have so much love and respect for poets putting together their own presses, their own zines and their own nights with zero institutional support right now. The tide might not be turning but there’s some beautiful things growing and happening underwater.
What are you reading these days? Or rather, what should we be reading?
I’m so excited by the re-emergence of non-mainstream poetry in the Port of Liverpool right now. So, this seems like a good time to mention Matthew Thomas Smith’s second collection, DANCES, which I’m reading, re-reading and punching the sky at each and every affirmation of working class existence that lays on the lines of that book. I’m always reading LUDD GANG, the zine set up in aid of the Poet’s Hardship Fund. I want to tell the reader how much they should be reading Dorothy’s beautiful and crucial work on the female auto immune experience, House Girl, but who knows if this will be allowed.
Sarah Crewe is a working class feminist poet from the Port of Liverpool. She is the author of two poetry collections, garn and floss (Aquifer Books, 2021/2018). Her latest work is ego te absolvo, (Gong Farm, 2021) a sequence of poems on The Exorcist. She also produces mazie, a DIY zine of music reviews and poetry. She has a MA in Poetry as Practice from the University of Kent, with a thesis on working class women’s psychogeography in experimental poetry: the work of Geraldine Monk and Maggie O’Sullivan.