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Poets Nuar Alsadir and Ahren Warner reveal intriguing habits of perception

New books from the two writers reject the conventional collection-of-poems format.

Two new books of poetry, by Nuar Alsadir and Ahren Warner, reject the conventional collection-of-poems format in favour of something more expansive. Many of their pieces are set as prose and it is not always clear where one ends and another begins, so the reader must learn to read across genres including lyric, aphorism, notebook jotting and prose poem, without allowing any one conceptual frame to close. What makes this approach to form so intriguing is its promise to show not so much the writer’s finished thoughts as their habits of perception and processes of composition.

In Hello. Your Promise Has Been Extracted, his third book, Ahren Warner travels around Europe taking photographs (these make up half of the book), quoting philosophers (including “dear Hegel”), and writing poems. The poems are mostly about unpleasant things (stray cats sniffing at bags of shit) and first-world irritations (BuzzFeed, click-bait). For all the distance covered, not a lot happens: in one country a girl borrows his lighter and he looks at her arse as she walks away, sneering at her for buying expensive jeans; elsewhere he is solicited.

If those examples sound a bit rum, I should say that the book’s most striking characteristic is the blatancy of its misogyny: men think and do; women are and suffer. Rape, murder and pimping prostitutes are typical activities for a man; whereas, when we finally see a woman doing something, she is likely to be serving the poet food, or giving him a blowjob. (The blowjob incident is quoted from a CK Williams poem also about visiting a prostitute.) In one short poem Warner compares his beloved to a kitten, a porpoise, a dormouse, and a camelid. Some sort of irony is probably intended here, since the poem ends with the image of a man murdering a child because he had “watched his mother/being raped”; but elsewhere women are likened to blossom, buds, petals, and jewels, so it’s hard to be sure.

There is an imaginative flabbiness at every level in the book, from the metaphors (“the black bullseye of the pupil”) to the sources of the lengthy collage-poem, which are too easily identified to gel into a new context: The Waste Land from TS Eliot, “Briggflatts” from Basil Bunting, “Daddy” from Sylvia Plath. To enliven proceedings, Warner thinks about tortures and atrocities perpetrated on and by Johnny Foreigner, drawing banal conclusions: “old powers settle back into their old ways”. The odour of gap-year chauvinism is overpowering. To excuse it, Warner strikes a self-aware, self-loathing attitude: “How do you feel that the distant pity you felt as a child for the severed limbs of children in Gikondo was a form of historical luxury?” he asks himself. He doesn’t answer this question, but presumably he feels fine about it, since he repeatedly exploits it in his poems to manufacture an air of seriousness. In an elegy for CK Williams (“So yes, he’s dead./It sucks, doesn’t it?”) Warner credits Williams with teaching him “how to think”. This is self-flattery.

Fourth Person Singular bears a superficial resemblance to Warner’s book, but Nuar Alsadir uses new form to discover new content rather than rehearse familiar poses. Her range of references is broad, suggestive of genuine intellectual curiosity, and she engages with her antecedents instead of simply name-checking them. For example, in the opening untitled sequence of aphoristic lyrics, observations, and vignettes, Alsadir considers topics as seemingly unrelated as anxiety, public transport and Coca-Cola.

Only gradually do patterns emerge. About halfway through, she cites Heidegger’s idea of “a hammer seizing its actuality, revealing its form, only when broken”, and wonders: what if the same applies to human subjectivity? Can we, too, only seize our actuality when broken? If so, Alsadir is caught in a paradox, since she is a mother and a psychoanalyst with an interest in Lacan.

According to Lacan, a pre-verbal infant is fundamentally dependent upon external objects, of which the mother is the most important. This leads Alsadir to the startling pronouncement, “Like a mother, an object in use is phenomenologically transparent”. A few pages later she applies these terms more specifically to lyric subjectivity (“What was formerly a mere object becomes an object-to-subject relationship, lyric”), and then – in a brilliant associative leap – to the mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib, whom the soldiers would name “according to the functions soldiers associated with them (‘Taxi Cab Driver,’ ‘Rapist’)”, thus rendering the detainees objects once more: de-actualising them. The movement from philosophy to personal experience, poetry, and atrocity, is intuitive yet careful, and without voyeuristic flânerie.

At first glance, Alsadir’s project may seem like a celebration of the fragmentary, with its untitled sequences and its multiple poems titled “sketch”. One sequence, for example, is the result of the poet setting her alarm for 3.15 AM and, upon waking, scribbling the first lines that came to mind. This results in short, suggestive pieces like the following: “The moment will be shaken/like a snow globe, a sand globe,/world in eye.” But we should remember the last word in her book’s title: the challenge for both writer and reader is to grasp all of these ideas and experiences as a singularity, rather than pretend that they occur in discrete categories labelled “reader”, “mother”, “analyst”, “city-dweller”, etc. As she puts it: “Part truth is untruth, the way multiplying a negative number/with a positive gives you a negative regardless of value”. Rejecting any easy distinction between poetry and poetics, Fourth Person Singular is a fascinating examination of the drive to construct subjectivity, and the shame that can attend it. 

Hello. Your Promise Has Been Extracted
Ahren Warner
Bloodaxe Books, 128pp, £12

Fourth Person Singular
Nuar Alsadir
Liverpool University Press, 73pp, £9.99

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.