Better than language and ‘queer praxis’

Before we start I need to make an important announcement, at long last Timothy Thornton’s ‘Jocund Day’ is now available for sale from the Mountain Press site. I’ve written about this before and I don’t propose to repeat myself other than to say that it’s important and only costs five of your very best English pounds. I also note that Mountain Press is going to publish work by another three of my favourites, Neil Pattison, Luke Roberts and Francesca Lisette all of which we ought to get excited about.
Also published this summer is ‘Better Than Language’, an anthology of younger poets put together by Chris Goode. Let me say at the outset that we all owe Chris an enormous debt of gratitude for putting together material of such high quallity. Before I get on to the poetry, I’d like to give some consideration to some of the things that Chris says in his introduction. I don’t normally pay much attention to introductions but I read this one because I wanted to know how someone else would ‘frame’ this material and because the collection contains an incredible amount of strong material. There is much in the introduction that I agree with but there are two things that I’d like to take (tentative) issue with. The first is-

In fact queer praxis – whether or not the term itself would be gladly accepted by the poets considered – stands out as an important influence on much of the writing collected here. Returning again and again to the body, and to erotics, and especially to performance as both theme and modality, many of these poets are working inventively with language and forms through which they seek to evade or disturb or infect or destabilise the normativities of patriarchy, gender and sexuality. For some more than others, this reflects their own lived experience, for none of them, though, I think is it a matter of identity politics exactly. Rather this sense of queerness which runs through so much of the anthology (reflecting in part, to be fair, my own editorial interests no less than some generational tendency) is plainly continuous with a clear thread of anticapitalist thougt and ideation that, again, comes through more strongly in some places than others, but is almost always present, as in the most delicate love poem as in the boldest most amped-up geopolitical bulletin.

I’ve quoted this at length because I don’t wish to be guilty of cherry picking in order to make a point. I want to start by acknowledging that I am thoroughly straight in terms of sexual orientation and that I am about thirty years older than most of Goode’s contributors. I’m also ignorant of the latest trends in sexual politics. I do like to think that I might know something about the doing of poetry and have to query whether the first sentence of the above is altogether helpful in terms of what follows. The most obvious point is that nobody talks about ‘straight’ praxis yet this is the obvious other side of Goode’s coin. To be fair, he does acknowledge his own ‘editorial interests’ when talking about ‘this sense of queerness’ but it isn’t for me the most unifying factor in the collection and is probably less than helpful for those approaching these poets for the first time.
The single most unifying theme for me in these poems is the description and expression of desire together with a sense of unaffected honesty. The first quality has been notoriously absent from English culture for the past few centuries and I hope to give some examples below of the refreshingly frank expressions contained in this material.
Regular readers will know that the Bebrowed editorial board has little time for dishonest or overly mannered verse, in fact we tend to condemn dishonesty as the gravest possible sin which frequently gets in the way of otherwise accomplished work. I have to report that I have yet to come across a single dishonest poem in this collection although there will be a discussion on the mannered in what follows.
The other brief quibble relates to the Cambridge School’s Brighton Faction and all things Keston Sutherland- I have to say that Goode’s description of the influence of Sutherland and Bonney on the work is a little misleading and his attempt to place in the tired old debates about the Cambridge School only serves to perpetuate a way of thinking that is rapidly becoming irrelevant.
The poets in the anthology are Sarah Kelly, Jonny Liron, Francesca Lisette, Joe Luna, Nat Raha, Linus Slug, Josh Stanley, Timothy Thornton, Anna Ticehurst, Jonty Tiplady, Mike Wallace-Hadrill, Tomas Weber and Steve Willey. I’ve written before in praise of Lisette, Luna and Thornton and their work here matches that level of quality. The Thornton section contains extracts from ‘Jocund Day’ and from ‘Pestregiment’ which was first published in 2009. I have a copy of the original and in many ways it’s a pity that all of it wasn’t printed here because that would give mre of an idea of Thornton’s range. This stanza is probably the most ambitious of the four included here:

Your Albion slack having eaten mandrakes under brute
encouragement pales slacker. Settlement only eyot aerial
just drive you, filamentous outgrowth of a bitch, escaped
dead mesh sifting. Clock: that sounds like something
you should definitely never do. Kids wave out the Volvo
to the pyres and a dog. They hangman posit, they, they uh,
lawns just perform said anything about Shropshire just
three-point the hell to grips with this software now only
drive alchemy
this, into fucking in the grit, which is tock
as it is felt, it'll do you hey riven at the cirrus broadcasts.

I would argue that this is both startling and very, very confident stuff. There are so many wonderful things in the above but I’ll simply point to ‘lawns just perform said anything about Shropshire’ and ‘Clock: that sounds like something / you should definitely never do’ as examples of a really strong talent. It’s also of note that there seems to be a complex relationship between subject and form in all of Thornton’s work as well as a lyrical delight in what language can do. It is this quite joyful lyricism that marks Thornton off from the rest.

Now we come to the Jonny Liron problem. I have read some of his stuff in a Grasp publication earlier this year and formed a view that Liron was out to shock and that this desire to unsettle by fairly obvious means gets in the way of anything else. It transpires however that there is another Liron who is a very accomplished and effective doer of poetry. He’s also the poet that most accurately reflects the disturbing and destabilising aspects of ‘queer praxis’ that Goode outlines. His ‘Room Manoeuvre’ manages to combine elements of the disturbing with some finely crafted lines and a theme that is more or less straightforward. Even so, both aspects of the Liron persona are on display here. The one that’s out to shock does:

if you kiss me there
and stuff coke up your blow hole
keep my cock in there is mysterious
pointing see anti depressed zone
of yes so she just says yes and wants it
'make me feel special'

horny stream kid puckers up to be
black in sheen of piss flicked up
to de respect the massacred respect time

This I think teeters on an interesting edge between the need to de-stabilise and the need to say something useful. In the above the latter probably wins out and it could be argued that the useful things are more likely to be heard if they are thought of as part of the sloganeering.
The poem is five and a half pages long, this is the final part:

now the precarious testimony for reading
the unsilenced body shuddering relapsed
form of smell and yearning wound glazed
streets and strategies of tongues and hands
no bodily possibility of resistance to this
rising tide of welcome hurtling straight
of the crowd of the crown of your rose
the fundament tactic of singing up against
the air in the wall is a door floored by naked
heads and teem the sea and car park flooding
the disco of fear with subversive emptying
re-railing the corollaries of obedience to
disappearance and plants twirl up in bared
velocity preaching louder by the train wreck
of poster boys find each other and hold each
other so we watch by the fire and lose weight
in the search for food, hoods become material

In terms of the initial Bebrowed quality test, the above contains a great many lines and phrases that I wish I’d written and the whole thing is put together with an impressive amount of sustained thought. In an anthology of very impressive work this poem is another one of those that stands out for me. I’m particularly impressed by ‘the train wreck / of poster boys’ and ‘smash troops of faggot joy dancing the gross / streets and strategies….’. There’s also an extended prose piece that I haven’t yet paid sufficient attention to but that seems to be doing the half-controlled mania thing.

I’ve written at some length about Joe Luna in the piece on the Claudius App in which I made a tentative observation that what might be important are the things that aren’t said. I noted that I was struggling with this observation and this was due to the inevitable fear of being wrong but also because it feels more than a little glib. ‘Better than language’ does however give me an opportunity to try and work this through in more detail. I want to make use of the ‘A bigger you’ sequence which is dedicated to Josh Stanley and is ‘about’ love yearning and desire. There are eleven poems, the first and the last are fairly conventional in form and the others aren’t. Some of those that aren’t seem to go some way to demonstrating my point but I’ll start with the first poem:

a bigger you your
on surplus debt
a fraction of my total love
hived off
at meat incarnate
bobbing in the swim spunk
numberless acrostic

on drum time I
sing w/your load
in my mouth your
cuteness
a bloody kid
raked in the light
of an image we

forget to touch

I’m sure that most would agree that this is fairly conventional and very well done, I like its directness and the honesty of expression. The last four lines especially are an example of language in a heightened form used to express complex thins that prose can’t begin to touch. I’m not sure whether ‘your load / in my mouth’ should be filed under ‘erotics’ or as an expression of intimacy and I don’t think that it really matters.

The fourth poem is more oblique as well as being quite radical in form. I’ll try to replicate the spacings:

rent asunder as
the blood
activates our
screen, dump
or
portal
tending to
a local
heartache
wounded in
thick grass
bending to
a visionary
bliss
sanctioned in
our midst

I’m of the view that this is remarkable more because of what may be going on in the background and the questions that are opened up for the reader- is it the hearteache or the visionary bliss that is sanctioned? who or what is doing the sanctioning needed? why is the heartache described as local and whose heartache are we talking about? why is there a very deliberate comma between screen and dump? I’m beginning to work through these and several others mostly be referring to other bits in the sequence but also by thinking about my own experiences and responses.

I’m going to leave it at that for now but will write about the other very talented young people in the very near future. Better than Language is available from Ganzfeld Press at only a tenner. There really is no excuse.

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19 responses to “Better than language and ‘queer praxis’

  1. There is something complicated to say about why there is no such thing as ‘straight praxis’ that is to do with hetero(and other)normativity being so ubiquitous it goes without definition, and that queer praxis seeks to make itself explicit and visible in opposition to unspoken hegemony, but I a far too removed from the reading I did on Queer Theory for my MSc to make the point well…. x

    • twenty five years ago I could see the validity of an oppositional stance and the hegemony thing can also apply to left handers, people with mental health problems and poets (not to mention Marxists and anarchists). My main concern is that poetry is too small an enclave for us to start thinking in more groupings than there already are.
      I’m still of the view that the only criteria that matters is whether or not a poem is any good regardless of the perspective/preferences/beliefs of the poet.

  2. I agree totally with your final point! I think the ‘queering’ of things isn’t necessarily about sexual identity any more though. I think we still need oppositional stances (or maybe explicitly ‘othered’ stances if that isn’t getting too liberal-arts-college speak?). I also suspect some sort of attempt at catching a zeitgeist on the part of the editor?

  3. There is also something specific about queer praxis (as opposed to theory or reading); a different way of thinking and doing. I tried to write about this in the Greenham article, perhaps not very successfully.

  4. Thanks very much for this generous response to the anthology. I hope it’s not out of line to want to address very briefly the couple of interesting questions you raise.

    With regard to the topic of ‘queer praxis’ I think your other correspondent is exactly right: ‘queer’ is an essentially oppositional (or, I think I would rather say, dissident) position, a relational strategy which, crucially, refuses altogether the coin that you imagine flipping here. I share your anxiety about an overzealous pursuit of ever more fractional groupuscules, but to name the queerness of these poets — the ‘straight’ as well as the ‘gay’ and the ambivalent and the undeclared; the cisgendered as well as the trans; those for whom particular describable patterns of sexual and social alignment or identification are formative and relevant, and those for whom no such pattern exists (which is also a position not much encouraged by heteronormative culture) — is not (I would suggest) to “think in more groupings than there already are”, but rather to respond sensitively to what these poets are, precisely, *already* telling us. It is striking to me that so many of the most interesting emergent poets are writing in an identifiably queer lineage, particularly as compared with previous generations. Striking also that, whereas earlier queer poetries are often consigned to the ultra-margins even by those inveterate margin-dwellers of the ‘straight’ experimental poetry scene, no such arrangements are made among this new crop. (There are some residues of chauvinism, I suspect, but we’re getting somewhere.)

    It’s a fair cop, to a point, about the rehearsal of the old London/Cambridge narratives, though it felt important to be able to explain to those who don’t already know those old stories (a readership I am keen to reach with the book) something about why I was making a claim for the ecumenical promiscuity of the Better Than Language poets, and for that outlook as a virtue. (And this does, I think, specifically reflect the emergence of Sussex as a new centre of gravity.) In telling the story, I suppose one naturally restates it, even as one disavows it. And, after all that, and almost comically, it was the poets themselves who most frequently named Sutherland and Bonney as the writers by whom they felt especially influenced. So: the narrative may be becoming, in some ways, redundant, or exhausted, but this testimony suggests that you are premature in calling it irrelevant.

    At the risk of outstaying my welcome, perhaps I might just briefly pick up on your “the only criteria that matters is whether or not a poem is any good regardless of the perspective/preferences/beliefs of the poet”. Again, I know what you mean. But in the phrase “whether or not a poem is any good”, the idea of the “good poem” is surely not an open and shut case? I can think of any number of technically and stylistically excellent poems — which may additionally exhibit the virtues of honesty and directness that you name — that I think are finally not “good poems” in toto because they are disengaged from the working context in which they are produced and circulated. And given that that context is — as all perceptual spaces are — teeming with political information, I think I would say I might find it hard to imagine a construction of “good”-ness (contra its opposites, which we might all agree we don’t want anyway) that is not to some degree dependent upon the “perspective/preferences/beliefs of the poet”. Which is not to say that I can’t imagine a good poem made by a poet whose perspectives &c I could not at all share or endorse. Only that I can’t imagine a good poem that did not consciously participate at some level in the social life and discourse surrounding it.

    Mostly, though, thank you again, very much, for writing about the anthology and for your enthusiasm for the exceptional work that I’m pleased to agree it comprises!

    bests, Chris

    • Chris,

      Thank you for taking the time to make such a considered response. I’d like to open with my view that this group of poets (and the others referred to in your introduction) constitute something really quite important / significant in the weird tale that is post 1945 English verse. So I’m incredibly enthusiastic about most of their stuff even though I reserve the right to argue with it as poetry. Given that I see your anthology as a landmark event, I’m a bit nervous that it should be characterised by the notions of ‘queer praxis’ and the thread of queerness that you use. This isn’t because I’m in any way averse to dissident or subversive positions but is rather because I think most of this stuff is good enough and complex enough to manage without easyish labels. I too hope that your book reaches a very wide readership but I just worry that most of those will accept the very plausible frame that you’ve built. My other concern is that poetry is already in a ghetto in the UK and the notion of queer praxis may just create another ghetto inside that one. I also think that you are absolutely correct to draw attention to the interest given to the body but I would also wish to emphasise desire which I think is the strongest thread, in fact some of the best work here manages to combine sexual and political/social desire in startling ways but I’ll expand on this in a later blog. I’ll also freely confess that I’m more comfortable with the ‘desire’ label because I think in the long term it has the potential to be more destabilising in what passes for our cultural life.
      With regard to the entire Cambridge/Brighton school thing, I have to confess that this is my usual knee-jerk response to this particular perceptual set being dredged up again, I’m not suggesting that we should bury the past but we should surely be able to walk away from it. Shouldn’t we? I do have this massive and naive hope that this group of young people are talented enough and confident enough to wake away from these tedious and destructive distinctions.
      With regard to criteria for poetry, regular readers will tell you that I do have this habit of deploying gratuitous one liners that often get me into trouble. On this occasion however, I think I’ll try and stand my ground a bit. It seems to me that the world of contemporary poetry is factionalised to such an extent that you know before reading that, for example, John Wilkinson will give a glowing review of something by Keston Sutherland because of their membership of a particular troika rather than the work itself. You also know that the work of Geoffrey Hill is treated with enormous disdain by most of those identified with the Cambridge Tendency and you know that the so-called mainstream dislikes Hill but positively loathes all things Prynne. This is a really bad state of affairs and my small voice of protest is directed against this compartmentalised way of thinking. I know for example that it is perfectly possible to like the work of Prynne, Hill, Muldoon and Fleur Adcock at the same time and for different reasons but they all produce accomplished material. I’m not about to delineate what I would constitute as ‘good’ because this would take us way off the beaten track but I’d like to have a go at agreeing with your notion of conscious participation combined with an honest expression of thought and emotion. There are many poets that I dislike but the ones that I find most offensive are those that pretend in order to either impress or manipulate their readers. I’m also of the view that our response to poetry should be more visceral and less structured by the strange world of lit crit.
      I hope the above is reasonably coherent, once again we all owe you an enormous debt.

      Thanks

      John

  5. Thanks John. Yes, admirably coherent for this time of an evening!

    I hope others won’t find the lens of queer praxis as rebarbative as you suggest (if a rebarbative lens is itself an imaginable thing!), or as likely as you think to occlude or impede the reception of the work: of course I was seeking rather to open something out. After all, I hope that my identification of that aspect of the work, as I describe it, is an excavation rather than an imposition. I’m surprised you would think of ‘queer’ as an “easyish label” when all the evidence — including this conversation — suggests the reverse, that queer is more or less a byword for a difficult, fraught, irreducibly complex matrix of concerns and tendencies, and as such the very opposite of a reductive characterisation. At any rate, the introduction aims to orient a non-specialist reader within a suggested array of possible relations with the work, of which this is only one — & evidently the one that has most caught your eye, for the reasons that you have partly outlined. I hoped the intro went through quite scrupulous motions of disavowing any terminal or overemphatic commentary. Perhaps not quite clearly enough! That’s useful to know.

    I share your dislike of too compartmentalised a way of thinking about poetry, as a glance at my bookshelves would attest: but equally I recognize that there are networks of affiliation that it is worth trying to think through discriminatingly — not to the extent of Andrew Duncan’s cartographic excesses and speculative tribal pedantries presented as rigid isobars, but so as to be able to watch carefully how poets read each other, and write in each other’s company. If I may respectfully say so, I think such efforts help avoid too hasty an acceptance of facile narratives of clique and blind fealty. I’m a bit dismayed, then, by your low opinion of the integrity of John Wilkinson and Keston Sutherland as each other’s readers. For sure I think they want quite similar things, and I think they have read each other carefully and admiringly over an extended period, and have wanted to speak (as prominently as their respective platforms will allow) to the importance they have attached to each other’s work as each has developed. But I don’t doubt for an instant, as you imply you would, that should Wilkinson find Sutherland’s next chapbook unpalatable, say, or that Sutherland thought some future turn in Wilkinson’s thinking retrograde, that they would be quickly ready — if not exactly eager — to say so, albeit in respectful and collegiate terms. It is certainly true to say that, at least as things now stand, the Better Than Language lot are refreshingly free of tribal doctrine, but I don’t think that’s a sign that they have abandoned commitment to certain values in order to excite a more energised mobility under the roof of a broader church than their forebears have wanted; more that they are readier to accept that those shared values and commitments may find articulation through a more plural range of voices than my generation (even) were, and in some cases still are, ready to accept.

    But there I shall shut up, lest I divert any more attention from your kind advertisement for the book; landmark or not (and I’m incredibly grateful for the suggestion that it may be), it has, for now, sold way fewer copies than I’d hoped! So, thank you again for writing about it so acutely and so encouragingly.

    warm regards
    Chris

    • Chris,

      Thank you again for making me think more than usual, I’d like to respond in some detail because I think your anthology is important and demands healthy debate. I’ll get on to ‘landmark’ later. I’ve now worked ut how I arrived at the position expressed above. Somewhere on the web (probably Twitter) I saw something about the anthology and noted that it contained 4 or 5 names that I’d been impressed by so I ordered it.
      When it arrived I read some of the poems. I started with those poets that were unfamiliar to me and was struck by the consistently high quality and by the range of material. In fact I can’t think of another anthology that has impressed me more. I then read your introduction and found myself nodding in agreement with 95% of it. The ‘queer praxis’ statement was a bit of a jolt because it’s at variance with the impression that I’d formed in my head.
      Over the next couple of weeks I read and re-read some of the work and then returned to your introduction. By this time I’d come to the ‘landmark’ view because this group (and a few others that we could both name) are immensely talented and embody a remarkable series of new ‘voices’ that mark a radical departure from what has gone before. Having come to this view I’ve begun to feel a bit protective about this work is ‘framed’.
      I’m trying hard to resist the pomposity of the ‘it’s too important for labels’ riposte but there is a concern that to the ‘ordinary’ reader phrases like ‘queer praxis’ and ‘thread of queerness’ do stand out in a way that’s different to the ‘anti-capitalist’ tag that you also use. I don’t want to go through a poem by poem analysis of which themes or threads are also present, suffice it to say that I think I can make a case for ‘desire’, ‘play’ and ‘subversion’. There’s also an overt delight in language which is probably why this anthology makes me feel so confident about the future.
      ‘Easyish’ was one of those thoughtless quips that I’m happy to withdraw without reservation.
      I don’t have any intention to cast doubts on anyone’s integrity. I don’t think I’m betraying a confidence to report that Sutherland has acknowledged that a particular group of poets know each other is a problem because things tend to get a bit introspective and incestuous. My ‘point’ is that it is inevitably more difficult to be robustly critical about fellow members of any particular faction. So, this was a comment on compartments and factions and I used Wilkinson and Sutherland because of Keston’s comment to me.
      I’d like to say a bit more about the ‘landmark’ thing. Along with Sutherland’s ‘Odes’ and Jarvis’ ‘Dionysus Crucified’, this anthology is making 2011 a very special year to such an extent that I don’t think comparisons with 1971 are entirely out of order. The poets that you have gathered are immensely talented and represent a quite radical break with what’s gone before and I feel privileged to read and write about them.
      You may have seen that I’ve used Twitter to invite other contributions to this conversation.
      With regard to advertising, I’m pleased to give your collection a wider airing but I do write primarily as a reader because I enjoy the process and want to give voice to my various enthusiasms.

      Best

      John

  6. I don’t want to open things up again, as John’s last post seems to have brought things to reasoned mutual understanding, if not outright agreement… but.. (and bear in mind the following caveats: I’ve not read the book, I am relying on John’s precis & commentary, and as far as queer theory & practice goes, I’ve encountered these only in an archaeological/feminist/anthropological context, and the last time I did any serious reading on this topic was 4 years ago)… I think the ‘jolt’ John talks about might be because of seeing the ‘queer’ element as a label or a box; conversely, I want to re-iterate my point about the queer stuff that it’s not about putting things in boxes or saying ‘this is queer poetry’ but a statement about the praxis, the doing and thinking that underpins the work. I think it would be odd to have a volume of explicitly or implicitly feminist work, and not to acknowledge that as a common theme or thread, a way of doing and thinking that informs and underlies the work. But perhaps, as someone who’s worked on projects that used queer practice very consciously I need to declare my own interest?

  7. PS: I have found that ‘queer practice’ often embodies the very qualities John identifies above: ‘desire’, ‘play’ and ‘subversion’.

    • I think that I need to acknowledge our relationship, ie that you are my daughter before we go any further. I find myself in the odd position of arguing for less ideology rather than more and I do worry that the ‘poetry is poetry’ argument can be seen as hopelessly naive and idealistic but I think that I’m still in the position that it’s important (to me) to have a bit of demarcation in that poetry in my head is somehow apart from the political and social realities / struggles that some of us choose to engage with. As you know, I’ve thought a lot about ‘mad’ modes of expression and threads but these seem less significant when placed against a poetic scheme of things. I’m beginning to ramble so I’ll stop other than to remark that I do view this as an important conversation to have.

  8. Many thanks John (and to Kayt too).

    I’m happy to leave it there if you are — the points of variance between us feel productive rather than uncomfortable (for me at least, and I think for you) and I’m not interested in talking you out of any of the positions that you’ve very eloquently articulated here.

    If I did have a final question — and I’m totally content for you to let this one pass! — it would be in relation to this:

    “to the ‘ordinary’ reader phrases like ‘queer praxis’ and ‘thread of queerness’ do stand out in a way that’s different to the ‘anti-capitalist’ tag”

    I don’t have any reason to doubt that this is true (save for a quibble with ‘ordinary’ that your scare quotes are already acknowledging), but I wondered if I might ask — not as a challenge, but because I don’t think I really understand — what do you think is the nature of the difference between the ‘queer’ tag and the ‘anti-capitalist’ one, and the ways in which each, respectively, stands out?

    Should I take you to mean that there is less comprehension of ‘queer’ (in the terms that Kayt, I think, gets spot-on), or less receptivity to it, or less acceptance of its validity in this context, or do they seem categorically dissimilar; or is it a mixture of those things, or some other thing(s) entirely?

    From my position, the ideas of queerness and anticapitalism are inextricable, in fact almost interchangeable. I don’t expect everybody to agree, and I’m aware that even in the most rarefied circles of right-on-ness, there may be a provocative tenor to such a proposition. I think I’ve felt that, but without also feeling (let alone feeling *as a consequence*) that the tactical impulse behind such an elision would be misunderstood, or that some kinds of reading would be repelled by it.

    So, if you have any inclination to amplify on this, I’d be very much obliged: but it’s up to you, and should you prefer to let it go now, it wouldn’t detract at all from my gratitude for your hospitality to this conversation so far.

    bests
    Chris

    • Chris,

      This is going to be thinking out loud stuff. I need to state my own background- 56 years old, working class, straight and from the north-east. From someone of my background I think it is reasonable to find an anti-capitalist thread much more familiar than a queerness thread and I think that’s to do with familiarity with some kind of socialism being the norm and queerness (as dissidence) being viewed as much more exotic and challenging.
      There are all kinds of reasons for this ranging from emotional repression and distinctly joyless childhoods through to neurotically structured notions of gender but the fact remains that must of us in middle age are much much more comfortable talking and thinking about class positions than we are about those stubborn threads of queerness that permeate all our lives. The jolt that I experienced was initially and in part about my own queasiness in this regard but also about my concern of the effect such phrases might have on my idealised ordinary reader. This entirely fictive character may also feel a bit excluded, as if you’d brought together a group of queer poets who were making poetry in a queer way which is much more threatening and daunting than anti-capitalist poets making poetry in an anti-capitalist way.
      So, for me, the issue centres around both familiarity and threat. All of my adult life has been taken up with various forms of engagement with capitalism and debates or challenges to my position and views don’t bother me. Stuff that puts into question my identity as a straight male is a much much more complex kettle of fish because of both the nature and the potential extent of the challenge.
      I’ ve gone on long enough although I would question the inextricability of queerness and anti-capitalism and wonder whether you really feel that to subscribe to queerness you must also be against the current economic order. Can’t we have queer theory with a free market tinge?

      John

  9. Thanks for such an open and interesting reply, John. One reason I think it’s useful to have this conversation is that, especially in the arenas of leftish modernist poetry that you and I both sometimes inhabit, there is a tendency to talk in abstractions — perhaps for good reason, but I feel at least somewhat invested in a project to encourage some acknowledgement of the tangled specifics of upbringing and circumstance in shaping our reception habits and, by extension, the ‘ordinary’ reader we fantasize about.

    So, for my part, I spend most of my professional time in the world of theatre, in some (not all) regions of which the idea of anticapitalism is far harder to swallow, for my colleagues, than the idea of queerness — the latter seen not perhaps in its full political context, but recognized at least as a kind of sexual and social difference that is fundamentally anti-assimilationist. (Even the sexually straightest people who work in theatre are — to say the least — “in touch with” the queerness of their own existence.) Likewise, in the lower middle-class neighbourhood where I grew up, I think there would have been at least a partial effort of acceptance towards queerness (rather as if it were, say, a disability) but a furious ‘zero tolerance’ of anticapitalist sentiment.

    I realise in describing this that my own line about the inextricability of queerness and anticapitalism is in part a recognition that for many people, one of these will be more like medicine and the other more like a spoonful of sugar to help it go down. (So at least this permits me to feel more confident that my impulse is not, as you were worried it might be, factionalising.) And I see this sense of a variegated unity and coherence in the BTL poets, and this feels to me to be something that’s happening in their work, not just in the social structures around the work.

    I think because queer theory arises out of early efforts to apply critical thought to the position of the homosexual in society — efforts which in themselves resist the Western liberal tendency towards assimilation and absorption, simply by continuing to fix attentions on difference — and because the premise of that assimilationist movement has been so much to do with the homosexual validated first and foremost as consumer, as economically active participant, it is certainly hard for me to disentangle queerness and anticapitalism as two elective positions. To go back to that coin-tossing we started out with, you’re right that ‘straight praxis’ seems not to be a thing, though of course in one sense it is, it’s just invisibly aligned with other varieties of cultural dominance; but your straightness is the flipside not of my queerness but of my homosexuality, as two non-elective circumstances of our respective beings. I was queer before I was homosexual (by which I mean I was plainly different to other little boys before I was consciously homosexually active), and then I was gay (when I came to see the cultural environment in which I thought my homosexuality would be lived), and now I am “gay” only sometimes — provisionally, tactically, when the chips are down and the niceties of my position are not helpful; outside those times, I reject “gay” because I dislike its implicit politics and its readiness to mimic heteronormative gestures and patterns. (cf Jonny Liron, btw, who is basically heterosexual but rejects ‘straight’ and whose work is distinctive partly because it is presents such a furiously sustained effort of engagement with queer praxis and, to a point, queer self-identification.)

    But my position is, I think, quite a narrow generational perspective, to some degree. I can think of at least one poet in BTL who is assertively gay rather than queer but whose work and thinking exhibits what I would think of as queer characteristics. Meanwhile, for some younger (-than-me) performance artists I know, queer theory is already exhausted and redundant and they are positioning themselves as trans (as distinct from transgender): which I accept, though reluctantly — partly for exactly the reasons you’ve invoked, that I think these kinds of hygienic separatisms can sometimes increase rather than reduce misunderstanding.

    I suppose in the end I can only accept completely and cheerfully your criticisms of my intro, without then feeling that I would necessarily wish to do anything differently, given that each of us (like all of us) is looking at the world through quite particularly conditioned eyeholes, in the company of whole ranks of hallucinated ‘ordinary’ readers; and given that the intro is as careful as I think it reasonably can be merely to offer readings, and alert visitors to possibility, without seeking to insist very proscriptively on any of them. And if a reader is so alarmed by the existence of those possibilities that they cannot then see the work for themselves (which you have clearly done, as your brilliantly acute reflections on those poems amply demonstrate), I suspect they aren’t going to be able to engage with the work even slightly on its terms, but only on their own — in which case I would imagine they’d find it confounding under any circumstances. Its generosity towards them, not least.

    Well. At worst I think we are waving to each other quite cordially from either side of a ravine; and, excitingly, I think we might agree that the work we’re discussing is, in part at least, about that same ravine.

    With which plaintive but picturesque suggestion I shall have another crack at bowing out.

    all bests
    Chris

    • This is a much shorter bow, what I’ve enjoyed about this conversation is your integrity and your ability to get to the root of things quite quickly. I’m not sure about the ravine but there is a great deal of agreement between us. I’d like to say a lot more about Jonny Liron’s remarkable work but I’ll leave that for a separate blog piece.

      Thanks

      John

  10. Given the detailed discussion above, which has traced its own trajectory, I find myself with the desire to throw a few spanners into it… although I’m going to try and keep it brief as I may otherwise end up trying to outline my entire theoretical programme (which I think may not be possible really, so best to avoid)…

    Whilst Chris mentions in his introduction that Queer Praxis is an important influence in “some” of the work anthologised in BTL, it seems to me that to remove the frame, or cognitive current, of queer praxis from the work that is produced out of and through it would possible result in a partially (if not totally) depoliticised reading of that work, which in fact this work and queer praxis is striving against.

    After discussing brief some the things raised by this post with another of the BTL poets, I attempted to outline the core of what queer praxis is for me & my work / life / politics (if they can be separated in the first place). An anti-capitalist stance is, as for Chris, inseparable from this.

    As the assimilationist gay rights movement pursues marriage equality and the revoking of the US military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, there are individuals (often people of colour, or people who are working class) who identify with the letters following L & G in LGBTQ(QAI.. et. al.), who continue to struggle for their basic survival, a struggle that free market capitalism in its current state will never opt to set eyes on, yet alone solve. There’s also our coalition government, who, whilst progressing & engaging with some issues, such as gay marriage and equality in the workplace for transgender individuals, are, as we know, dismantling the welfare state and the NHS, vindicating those on benefits, etc, all of which have adverse effects on queers, transgender people, the disabled, who are already discriminated against by the more ignorant members and organisations of our country – and the ones who are running it. Whilst art won’t necessarily solve these issues, to identify as Queer (itself heterogeneous when it comes to identity) is in part to be in solidarity with these struggles, to fight them, to understand and challenge my own privileged class-position (although this position has been complicated economically at times, and is correlated with being Transgender, Queer, Female and a British Asian)

    To live and work by framework of queer praxis is, for me personally – as I can’t speak for others who will inevitably have their own definition or usage for it – is to live and work within a largely-heteronormative, cisnormative late-capitalist quotidian that doesn’t speak to or represent me in the terms of my identity, to challenge this quotidian’s structuring and to fight both for rights and a mode of living amidst it. My desire(s), play and subversions are inseparable from this politic, as neither of these are or will be (and possibly aren’t able to be) represented by the life and everyday that my class position would allocate me.

    (As mentioned to a friend included in the anthology, I was concerned that this would turn into an ‘about me’ post, which it sort-of has. But I feel the need to raise this in the light of the discussion. Whilst to claim that my poetry as presented in the anthology covers all of the above would be facetious, thinking of queer praxis without some of its engagements beyond the page seemed like it was missing something critical.)

    yours,
    nat

    • Nat,

      First of all I’d like to thanks for stating clearly how queer praxis, your poetry and the anti-capitalist struggle are interlinked. Please accept that I have no desire whatsoever to diminish your (or anybody else’s) committed and engaged work, indeed I feel that it is essential in these dismally oppressive times to point out the casual stupidity of placing any kind of faith in market forces. I would however want to take issue with your view that to remove or amend the queer praxis frame would somehow depoliticise the work.
      I think it’s difficult to remove the political from the poetic but my main concern is the work that Chris has put together is incredibly strong as poetry and to frame it in this way runs the danger of creating a further faction within the already fractured thing that is British poetry.
      Since 1960 British poetry has been beset by an increasing number of labels and vociferous sniping between the various groupings which has resulted in the form becoming less and less relevant in our cultural lives. I view this as a tragedy on many levels but most of all because those committed and engaged voices rarely get heard outside of their own ‘box’. This is not a concern about individual poets who are obviously free to define their own work as they see fit but more an issue for people like Chris and I who write about this material in the hope that it might reach a wider audience. I also think that using just two aspects of the work does a disservice by occluding the other threads that can be discerned as commonalities.
      I’ll also take this opportunity to repeat that I see this as a landmark publication which signals a major opportunity to save poetry from the ghetto it continues to place itself in. The other point that both Chris and I have probably missed is that this stuff is very, very good as poetry per se regardless of ideology- a point I’m going to make more fully in my next blog.
      Thanks again,

      John

  11. Reblogged this on Do you see me now and commented:
    I really like this Blog. It seems very important that it should exist in view of its engagement with contemporary poetry. I’m also interested in Chris Goode’s intro to the anthology Better than language, which is mentioned here. So I’m reblogging.

    • I don’t know whether it’s important or not but it’s certainly a rewarding thing to do. I think I’ve said more than enough about queer praxis but there are other elements of Chris’ introduction that I intend to return to.

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