Keeping poetry outside the comfort zone

A poem is an active, not a contemplative, entity - it should channel disobedience

I have been a vegan and pacifist for over 25 years, an anarchist for 30 years and a poet since I was a small child. Over a lifetime of writing, these four factors have interwoven into an "activist poetics" in which I practice "linguistic disobedience" in the hope of bringing about positive social, ethical and political change. "Linguistic disobedience" is pushing language to work both in unexpected ways and outside the expected poetic modes of the officially sanctioned.

Is there such a thing as "officially sanctioned" verse? Yes, there is. It's poetry that passes through newspapers, schools, bookshops and even the net, without causing discomfort in the reader and publisher, student or teacher; without prompting questions about the problems of the environment in which we read, and the poem was created.

"Linguistic disobedience" might be achieved in many ways: by speaking out of turn, by disrupting syntax and "meaning", and by offering comparisons between disparate things. It might be a case of the poem acting as "witness", a recording of what's normally "unseen", ignored or denied. It can be subtle -- using allusion and slight shifts from convention -- and it can be volatile -- from agitprop to rants.

An activist ecological poem might offer a glimpse of deep natural beauty that is nonetheless necessarily "disrupted" by the highly disturbing reality of species loss, deforestation or, say, the ecological implications of buying the latest flat-screen television technology. That beauty exists at all in a damaged world is to be celebrated, but our appreciation of it comes so often at a cost that we don't always register. We must be conscious of its vulnerability.

I am trying to write a poetry of cause and effect, of the interconnectedness of things, of awareness that our actions have consequences. I have spent a life enjoying the sublimity of a golden wheatcrop on the verge of harvest -- the smell is intoxicating and the play of light and shadow as a breeze ripples across the full ears of wheat gives the illusion of being at sea. Because of this, many of my inland Australian images are evocations of the ocean. And the dry air, coupled with massive skies, enhances the image. But the reality of such farming is horrifying.

Whether it's York gum and jam tree habitat around where we live, or salmon gum further east, or any other flora and fauna-rich ecologies, so much was cleared on a vast scale to make room for crops grown in heavily chemically-fertilised poor-quality soil. The run-off into river systems (when there's adequate rain -- vegetation loss has reduced rainfall even further) means nitrogen build-up, which is toxic to river-life.

Then there's the scourge of salinity (ironically, the salt can be quite beautiful in itself, though it means death for most plants), spreading because the natural water pumps -- trees -- are no longer there, and the salt is leached to the surface. The poisons used in farm-monocultures, and the loss of native wildlife, are constants. But the irony that such appreciations of beauty carry for me, as part of a colonising culture, is that each vast wheat paddock means the dispossession of the indigenous people (the Nyungar, Yamatji and Wongi) from whom the 'wheatbelt' land was stolen.

My primary focus has been the ecological, writing out of the Western Australian wheatbelt about specific land degradation and damaging farming practices, but in the context of ecological concerns that are international (I coined a term, "international regionalism" -- opening international lines of communication while respecting and valuing the local) and especially in the context of dispossession of indigenous peoples and their loss of rights "over" land. I have lived for many years in the US and UK, as well as in rural Western Australia, and have created a comparative poetics that, while concentrating on the local, tries to bring into play experience (and witness) in other geographies.

I try not to write poems of propaganda (though I have written 'rants'!), but ones whose subject matter and language will draw the reader into considering "issues" without being instructed what to think. Readers are a poem's creators in so many ways, and use the signs as they will. But employing language in unexpected and "disobedient" ways can jar readers into different modes of consideration, to reflect not only on the themes but on what poetry actually means.

I have used poetry in many protests, sometimes effectively, other times not. I once literally (if temporarily) stopped bulldozers knocking down bushland for a development while reading out poems... I have long used poems to highlight animal rights issues, and wrote poems during the many anti-nuclear campaigns that took place in the port of Fremantle during the Reagan era.

Poems can express "extreme feelings" and still work against violence; this is what most appeals to me about the medium. In recent years, I have been using poems in campaigning against the death sentence around the world.

Wordsworth wrote of "emotion recollected in tranquillity". While admiring and understanding him, I've tried to create my poems in situ, outside tranquillity, in the location of the damage that's being done (by land-clearers, rally organisers, the military, miners etc). A poem is an active, not a contemplative, entity for me, and the writing process not merely a retrospective consideration.

I often call on childhood experience of being on the farm, or staying in mining towns with my father, but never intending nostalgia. Memory belongs to the "now", and the poet has a responsibility to link the two, to bring positive change and confront the damages done.

Ben Whishaw as Hamlet by Derry Moore, 2004 © Derry Moore
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The art of coming out: how the National Portrait Gallery depicts the big reveal

Portraits of gay celebrities, politicians and sports stars line the walls in a new exhibition called Speak Its Name!, marking 50 years of advances in gay rights.

I have a million questions for the doctor friend I’ve brought with me to the National Portrait Gallery. A million questions that, if I really think about it, boil down to: “Why were the Tudors so godforsakenly ugly?”

Inbreeding? Lead makeup? An all-peacock diet?

I don’t know why I assume she’ll know. She’s a neonatologist, not a historian. But I’m desperate for some of the science behind why these 500-year-old royals look, if these imposing paintings of them are anything to go by, like the sorts of creatures that – having spent millennia in pitch black caves – have evolved into off-white, scrotal blobs.

My friend talks about the importance of clean drinking water and the invention of hygiene. We move onto an extremely highbrow game I’ve invented, where – in rooms lined with paintings of bug-eyed, raw sausage-skinned men – we have to choose which one we’d bang. The fact we’re both gay women lends us a certain amount of objectivity, I think.


Alexander McQueen and Isabella Blow by David LaChapelle, 1996 © David LaChapelle Courtesy Fred Torres Collaborations

Our gayness, weirdly, is also the reason we’re at the gallery in the first place. We’re here to see the NPG’s Speak its Name! display; photographic portraits of a selection of out-and-proud celebrities, accompanied by inspirational quotes about coming out as gay or bi. The kind of thing irritating people share on Facebook as a substitute for having an opinion.

Managing to tear ourselves away from walls and walls of TILFs (Tudors I’d… you know the rest), we arrive at the recently more Angela Eagle-ish part of the gallery. Eagle, the second ever British MP to come out as lesbian, occupies a wall in the NPG, along with Will Young, Tom Daley, Jackie Kay, Ben Whishaw, Saffron Burrows and Alexander McQueen.

Speak its Name!, referring to what was described by Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas as “the love that dare not speak its name”, commemorates 50 years (in 2017) since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales.

“Exhibition” is maybe a grandiose term for a little queer wall in an old building full, for the most part, of paintings of probably bigoted straight white guys who are turning like skeletal rotisserie chickens in their graves at the thought of their portraits inhabiting the same space as known homosexual diver Tom Daley.


Tom Daley By Bettina von Zwehl, 2010 © Bettina von Zwehl

When you’re gay, or LBTQ, you make little pilgrimages to “exhibitions” like this. You probably don’t expect anything mind-blowing or world-changing, but you appreciate the effort. Unless you’re one of those “fuck The Establishment and literally everything to do with it” queers. In which case, fair. Don’t come to this exhibition. You’ll hate it. But you probably know that already.

But I think I like having Tudors and known homosexuals in the same hallowed space. Of course, Angela Eagle et al aren’t the NPG’s first queer inhabitants. Being non-hetero, you see, isn’t a modern invention. From David Hockney to Radclyffe Hall, the NPG’s collection is not entirely devoid of Gay. But sometimes context is important. Albeit one rather tiny wall dedicated to the bravery of coming out is – I hate to say it – sort of heart-warming.


Angela Eagle by Victoria Carew Hunt, 1998 © Victoria Carew Hunt / National Portrait Gallery, London

Plus, look at Eagle up there on the “yay for gay” wall. All smiley like that whole “running for Labour leader and getting called a treacherous dyke by zealots” thing never happened.

I can’t say I feel particularly inspired. The quotes are mostly the usual “coming out was scary”-type fare, which people like me have read, lived and continue to live almost every day. This is all quite mundane to queers, but you can pretty much guarantee that some straight visitors to the NPG will be scandalised by Speak its Name! And I guess that’s the whole point.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.