Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK




As long as we have literature as a bulwark against intolerance, and as a force for change, then we have a chance. Europe needs writers to explicate this transition, for literature is plurality in action; it embraces and celebrates a place of no truths, it relishes ambiguity, and it deeply respects the place where everybody has the right to be understood…

— Caryl Phillips, Color Me English

Nature rejects the monarch, not the man;
The subject, not the citizen: for kings
And subjects, mutual foes, forever play
A losing game into each other’s hands,
Whose stakes are vice and misery.

— Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Queen Mab”

 

WHEN I LEFT LOS ANGELES in the summer after 9/11 to study creative writing in England, I was only supposed to be away for a year at most. England was a country I thought I knew — I was born there, lived there for a few years, and returned to visit my maternal grandparents nearly every summer in my teens. Wanting to study poetry, I enrolled in the University of East Anglia’s MA program. Based in Norwich, the writing MA at UEA boasts Kazuo Ishiguro, Anne Enright, and Ian McEwan — along with a host of lesser known but respectable poets — among its graduates. Compared to Los Angeles, Norwich felt strangely remote, enswathed by lakes and rivers and marshland studded by flint houses. Two hours from London, and a bit further to Derby (where my grandparents immigrated in the 1960s from Punjab) I found myself at the desolate end of a train line, cut off from the multicultural Britain of London and the heavily ghettoized Midlands. Norwich — and UEA — could not have been any less ethnically diverse. Whereas inner-city Derby, in particular the multiethnic Normanton road, felt like an entrenched if deeply divided community of Sikhs, Muslims, West Indians, and others, Norwich was eerily homogenous. When I inquired of a local cab driver about racism in the city, he assured me that it was not a problem because “there aren’t any black people.” This did not prove to be exactly true.

What was I doing there? I should have asked myself. And what kind of poet would I become? I never thought to question my attraction to British poetry, or my unfounded sense of its legitimacy. At 21, I was drawn back to the country of my own and my mother’s childhood for instinctual reasons I would only realize many years later. And so, forsaking sunshine, naively idolizing the English way of life as one giant costume drama, I wasted no time and devotedly read beyond the mere handful of 20th-century British poets I had encountered as an undergraduate at UCLA.

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I read across a range of British poetry anthologies and journals, from the more obvious midcentury Faber, Penguin, and Oxford surveys to the more recent: Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison’s The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, Edna Longley’s Bloodaxe Book of 20th Century Poetry from Britain and Ireland, Ricard Caddel and Peter Quartermain’s Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970. These collections lacked ethnic minorities from either “mainstream” or “avant-garde” traditions, or included them only with qualifications. (I hadn’t yet discovered the self-consciously, almost apprehensively inclusive Paladin New British Poetry.) The so-called avant-garde poetry of the United Kingdom relies on an unstable and purposeful decontextualizing of the lyric “I,” and its preoccupation with formal and linguistic experimentation is similar to that found in Language poetry in the United States. As I read postwar British poetry fully, I became less enamoured with the Movement tones of Phillip Larkin or Donald Davie and reviled their small, digestible, miserable artifacts of everyday British life, what Andrew Duncan likens to the 1950s domestic white goods of an individualist capitalist economy. If we believe the historical rewrite of pro-Movement critics, the Georgian poets had all but done away with early modernist experimentation. Gradually as I labored through postwar British poetry, the technical, lyrical sameness — a self-assured universal “voice” — began to rise from the pages, forming into homogenous, efficient, and consumable vehicles of meaning. The conservative, mainstream British poem behaved like modernism had never happened. Its low-risk game of truth and meaning left little room for nuanced poetic subjectivities that challenged the singular British voice. 

In his 1962 introduction to The New Poetry, Al Alvarez famously railed against the Movement’s overriding “concept of gentility” — the “belief that life is always more or less orderly, people always more or less polite, their emotions and habits more or less decent and more or less controllable; that God, in short, is more or less good.” The linguistically innovative British poet and critic Robert Sheppard describes the “Movement Orthodoxy” in The Poetry of Saying as privileging: 

a poetry of closure, narrative coherence and grammatical and syntactical cohesion, which colludes with the processes of naturalization, that is, with the “attempt to reduce the strangeness of poetic language and poetic organization by making it intelligible, by translating it into a statement about the non-verbal external world,” as Veronica Forrest-Thomson puts it. Its poetry favours an empirical lyricism of discrete moments of experience. 

As if off an assembly line — the intimate sameness of the British lyric poem of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s especially, owes its debt of conformity to British audiences’ appetite for readymade meaning. In Serious Poetry, Peter McDonald characterizes the stereotypical British lyric poem. It will be:

in the first person (at least to begin with); it will demonstrate a wry knowledge of what is most current in speech or reference […] it will tell some kind of anecdote or story, and point out the irony of the situation it describes; finally it will find an image or images that transcend the situation, and that constitute an unspecific, apparently secular, epiphany. The poem will cultivate a knowing irony in relation to everything but its own control of language.

Popular (or populist, depending on your view) poetry aspires to a public life in the United Kingdom, something that American poetry lacks. For this reason, the accessible poem — one that eschews “the strangeness of poetic language” to reach a wide audience, gathering intimacy with grandiloquence from the shared experience — is paramount. While the epiphanies of largely white, middle-class male lyric subjects are clearly not universal and personal, lyrical work by black British poets often feels similarly bound up in the perils of anecdote and epiphany. For me, the political necessity — the urgency to respond to a largely white tradition — found in the poetry of Grace Nichols, Jean Binta Breeze, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Benjamin Zephaniah, and Patience Agbabi is compelling. But their poetry does not usually incorporate language that is complex, difficult, or engaged in deconstructing meaning while communicating it via formal structures that extend beyond the binaries of social and racial identity too easily crystalized by the conventional lyric “I.”

In those early months at UEA, I began to wonder if the British lyric mode — dominant and unquestioned in workshops — had any place for me. I read about the 1960s British Poetry Revival and the ensuing so-called “poetry wars” in 1970s London, during which the Poetry Society and its Poetry Review were momentarily taken over by a radically experimental group of (male, white) poets: Eric Mottram, Allen Fisher, Lee Harwood, Barry MacSweeney, and sound/concrete poet Bob Cobbing. Seen as “neo-modernists,” British experimental poets, it is fair to say, studiously avoided any middle ground between themselves and mainstream poetry, occupying the aesthetic and ideological divide just beyond the minefields. Again, there were no poets of color and few women within these avant-garde circles. Some would argue the divides between the mainstream and avant-garde have lessened and that overlaps do exist today between their coteries, publishing presses, poetry magazines, reading series, prize lists, academic departments, and conferences.

Certainly the situation has shifted somewhat in the past 10 years. There are more poets writing now, I would argue, who belong fully to neither camp and who write for a more international readership than the average British consumer of plain-speaking, well-mannered verse. It’s fair to say that young British poets are much more receptive to and influenced by, for example, New York School, Language, and “post-Language” poetry. There’s a transatlantic conversation happening today that was missing from previous decades, due to the sheer effort and sheer interest on the part of editors, anthologists, and poets in both countries, notably the decision to share content between Poetry and Poetry Review. Aesthetic divides seem less politicized than they were in the 1970s — and this may well be because subsequent generations of poets confront the authenticity prized by their forebears with political cynicism. Self-ironizing humor and effacement signal a modernizing of the “Movement Orthodoxy” into a less easily transferable poetry, one that is sometimes divested of meaning, but sometimes also forms a discursive, dialogic space for a specifically urban, international, and modern sensibility.

The recent deformation and gradual redrawing of poetry battle lines has not, however, allowed for a meaningful rethinking of the “raced” subject in British poetry. And, perhaps surprisingly, recent debates in the United States around conceptual art as sacred spaces of unquestionable moral relativism and privilege have done little to stir debate on this side of the Atlantic. But why not? Why isn’t there a serious critical — or even a popular — conversation about race in British poetry? In spite of high-profile black British poets nearing the canon, poetry in the United Kingdom wishes to remain largely and exclusively free from the “identity politics” of race. Mechanisms in place systematically reward poets of color who conform to particular modes of self-foreignizing, leaving the white voice of mainstream and avant-garde poetries in the United Kingdom intact and untroubled by the difficult responsibilities attached to both racism and nationalism.

A mostly white poetic establishment prevails over a patronizing culture that presents minority poets as exceptional cases — to be held at arm’s length like colonial curiosities in an otherwise uninterrupted tradition extending back through a pure and rarefied language. Daljit Nagra’s prize-winning Look We Have Coming to Dover! and his follow-up Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!!, both rarities on Faber’s list, depict British Asians with enthusiastic racialized self-mockery (note the increasing exclamation marks). Voiced in the hysterics of “Punglish,” a faux parodic mix of English and Punjabi, Nagra’s poetry trots out old stereotypes of the awkward, cheerful Indian interloper, that Other of post-1960s Britain. Nagra is clearly aware of his deft ventriloquizing of Imperial fantasies, as his astute poem “A Black History of the English-Speaking Peoples” clearly shows. But his readership’s enduring affection for both satirizing and shaming the newly immigrated is cruel. In the United Kingdom, we like to think racism exists only in the fringe minority of society — represented by extremes on the right and left of politics. The British look at the United States and abhor the actual physical violence against black citizens. We disregard our own violence done both by language and by the silence we allow.

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At an all-girls grammar school in Derby, my mother — the only Indian in the class — was cast as the Moon in a play about the solar system. This involved her pirouetting expertly around the stage in a borrowed pale leotard. The teacher had procured this from a white classmate, who did not realise to whom it would be given. My mother — 15 and made gracefully thin by my grandmother’s reluctance to feed her girl-children — lightly attached a white chiffon headscarf to both ankles and both wrists.

Play over — the leotard was returned. But the girl to whom it belonged would not take it back. She couldn’t, she said. If she did, she’d have to burn it.

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The boy, who stood smoking outside the Belmont pub in North Liverpool — Tuebrook, a largely white working-class area — leaned forward and chimed the decades-old refrain he’d learned — and I already knew —

“What are you looking at, you stupid fucking Paki?” 

I held myself at some distance as his spittle hit the sidewalk. Then I knew what I was looking at and so did he. Suddenly we were both seeing the same thing.

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At a British poetry prize ceremony, an esteemed white poet and conservative magazine editor sidles up and ends his chat-up line by handing me his card. Send me some of your poetry, he says. I joke, half-entertained by his self-importance, but you haven’t even asked my name, so how will you know it’s from me? Oh, well, it’s some Indian name I suppose, he replies, by now annoyed and distracted by his empty wine glass. Yes! It’s “Gunga Din!” I retort, and walk away thinking he must not receive that many submissions from “the ex-dominions.”

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Allow me restate an obvious fact: British poetry, like British society, has a serious problem with race.

This year’s UK Forward Prize for Poetry shortlist — with a record number of British Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) poets among the nominees — drew some noteworthy contrasts, among them the rare appearance of an American poet. The winner of the Best Collection award, Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen, a response to racism and racial violence against black Americans, stands out for several reasons — the subject matter and its hybrid form as a “lyric essay.” The presence of three books by BAME poets on the Best First Collection shortlist was also historic, especially when one recalls that, only 10 years ago, less than one percent of all poetry published in the United Kingdom was by black and Asian poets. In the United Kingdom, poetry is already a very small publishing industry (estimated at just over one percent of all books published annually). And it is dominated by the “big five” and a proliferation of smaller presses edited almost entirely by white men. The Free Verse Report commissioned in 2005 by the Arts Councils of England, Scotland, and Wales discovered that only 50 percent of BAME poets surveyed expected to be published or achieve national recognition. The Complete Works, a mentorship scheme for BAME poets, was launched in the wake of the report, and 10 years later, the three first collections on the Forward prize shortlist were written by its graduates. 

It can only be a good thing that British poetry publishing is slowly becoming more racially diverse. But is it enough for poets of color to simply win prizes and appear more frequently in publishers’ catalogs? Does this adequately challenge a national tradition in which so few ethnically diverse voices have been historically heard? I worry increased visibility of BAME poets is superficial and, when the dust settles, British poetry will return to a largely monochromatic, monolingual expression of sameness. The literary establishment here needs to rethink the subject matter, aesthetic modes, and assumptions about “literariness” made about poets of color in the United Kingdom. 

While it won a major UK award, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is a striking example of exactly what is not happening in popular British poetry. Although the majority of her book engages with racism in the United States, one notable exception is “August 4, 2011 / In Memory of Mark Duggan,” in which we overhear a conversation between a white English novelist and a black poet about the shooting of Duggan by police officers from Scotland Yard’s Operation Trident, which led to the London riots of that year. Comparing the London riots to the LA riots in the wake of the Rodney King beating, the English novelist asks the black poet if she will write about Duggan. “Why don’t you?” she replies, much to the Englishman’s irritation. As Rankine writes at the beginning of this section, quoting the novelist James Baldwin, “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” Disqualified, or made unwilling, by the fact of his racial (and national) embodiment, the English novelist refuses to write about and, in doing so, to read critically a nationally significant historical moment. Rankine writes: “How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another? Are the tensions, the recognitions, the disappointments, and the failures that exploded in the riots too foreign?” As she points out — and as I myself witnessed growing up in a mostly white suburb north of Los Angeles — the LA riots were more than a response to one instance of horrific police brutality.

Like London in 2011, the fissures and violent ruptures in American society emerged suddenly from those hitherto unaddressed questions, hidden by too-easy assumptions about dominant and assimilated forms of identity, civil rights, and citizenship. The undeniable power of Rankine’s book, both within and beyond a self-determined and politically aware tradition of African-American poetry, foregrounded throughout by the complexities of racial identity, is made possible by a strong literary tradition in the United States of laying bare questions about race and society. And, crucially, the United States has a strong tradition of formally diverse and innovative poetic style that we simply do not have in Britain — we are mostly locked into a semi-confessional, detached, and wary handling of the self as a stand-in for the folklore of universal human experience. Maybe we British need to stop speaking as subjects. After all, it was just after World War II that the British became “citizens” instead of monarchical “subjects,” and that’s arguably due to the pressures of decolonization from the Commonwealth, not a wish to offer greater agency and rights to individuals within the State.

Could a book like Rankine’s Citizen have been written by a British black or Asian poet about a daily experience of racism and racial violence? And who would have had the courage to publish it here, recognizing in it a deeper and more potentially divisive critique of imperial oppression and post-colonial exclusion closer to home? Since the 1990s, Britain has lost some of the powerful rhetoric that was more easily locatable within a post-Windrush generation of performance poetry than poetry primarily written for the page. In British poetry, these things matter: performance poetry is perceived by some as lacking the seriousness and gravity of published work. And even when it is published, “performance” work, especially when using dialect or direct political messages, has been pigeonholed as “punk” or “hip-hop” or “rap” — anything but what it is: poetry. This is one reason BAME performance poetry — and other poetry written by poets perceived and marketed as performers — hasn’t had enough impact on representations of race in the mainstream of lyric-dominated British poetry. 

Both contemporary avant-garde poetry in the United Kingdom, with its dispersal of the lyric “subject” through linguistic process, and the British mainstream’s Movement-inspired poem leave little room for expressions of complex identity and difference. At times, in the hands of a BAME poet the lyric form can become a beguiling call toward the homogenous white space of intimate revelation and universality. Expressions of difference enact a kind of closure that erases the ambiguities and subjectivities upon which poetry depends — after all, as bell hooks reminds us, “language is a place of struggle.” And while no one wishes, least of all me, to argue that BAME poets should or should not write about specific subjects, the singular lyric voice should not merely reproduce poetic sameness through an universal “I” or self-fetishizing difference through a poetic diction of otherness.

The proliferation of difference — no, the expectation from a mainly white British readership that poets of color must grapple with the longing of exile and alienation by fixating on exotic tropes (a confluence of saris, mangoes, pomegranates, arranged marriages) — is evidence that British poetry lacks nuanced, fluid, transcultural paradigms of racial and national identity. Let us remember, too, that immigration and its narratives are constantly shifting. I refuse to unthinkingly reproduce the traumatic race divides of my grandparents’ and my mother’s generation: BAME poets, myself included, need new, bolder ways to self-determine. However, while I personally advocate for poetic complexity and linguistic difficulty as well as a rethinking of the dominant, authoritative mode of lyric speech that smacks of privilege, I would caution against writing that entirely avoids the real social obligations of communication.

The (now notorious) tweeting of Margaret Mitchell’s arguably racist novel Gone with the Wind by American conceptual poet Vanessa Place (in the virtual blackface of the character “Mammy”) and the (also notorious) reading by the white American conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith of the Ferguson teenager Michael Brown’s autopsy report as though it were “a poem,” will be increasingly inevitable if BAME poets withdraw themselves from wider discussions about race and the politics of poetry. Conceptual and appropriative gestures like Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” of Brown’s violated body and Place’s supposedly anti-racist gesture, its powerful, unquestioning critical and academic following in the United States, (and to a greater extent among UK and European avant-gardists) must be openly challenged by UK BAME poets as it has been in the United States.

Contemporary British poetry lacks a vocabulary to speak about race, and a willingness to be critical, despite this happening elsewhere in literary and cultural studies. Recent, important work about race and American poetry by Cathy Park Hong and Dorothy Wang among others has no counterpart in the United Kingdom. On reading M. NourbeSe Philip and D.S. Marriott’s work side-by-side, the American critic Romana Huk proposes that:

an alternative, raced radical framework, existing in a pluralized arena alongside white western postmodernism, might allow not only for less appropriative overlaps in reading avant-garde work, but also for better understanding of the complex projects of a number of black writers in the current generation who are annexed to the “mainstream” simply because they can be more readily categorized (and published) as representatives of the way “blackness” is expected to display itself in British envisionings of pluralized identity.

Huk, whose work on black British poetry far outstrips other attempts either side of the Atlantic, is especially sensitive to the absence of poets of color in the “British avant-garde.” Marriott — one in a handful of black poets in the British avant-garde — has written extensively and brilliantly on the very same questions Rankine raises in Citizen, notably in his poem “The Levees,” written after the US government’s failed response to Hurricane Katrina. His critical book, On Black Men, includes a haunting afterword about the murder of Stephen Lawrence, addressed, like Rankine’s book, to a “You” who operates in a charged, ambiguous anti-lyric gesture. For Marriott, “Language writing should be seen as a fetishistic poetics of embodiment, a failed articulation between aesthetic and propositional judgement, and a willing suspension of imaginative adequacy in its disablement of meaning, response and agency.”

It is noteworthy and bizarre that Marriott is not better known in the United Kingdom and the United States (he teaches at UC Santa Cruz). His recent book, In Neuter, printed by the Cambridge-based experimental small press Equipage, tackles neglected questions about violence, subjecthood, suffering, and responsibility in ways that are extremely linguistically and theoretically complex. It is also worth noting that Marriott is so far the only poet of color on the press’s list. Like Aimé Césaire, whom he sees as a revolutionary black modernist who delegitimized modernism’s imitative structure of readymade experimentation, Marriott’s work resists categorization. His indefinite allegiance to all subjectivities — victim and oppressor are key among these — denudes the self, revealing its consequences in an exceedingly personal game of language play. And yet his work is not nearly celebrated enough in Britain or the United States.

Marriott’s poetry was a major discovery for me, as a poet unwilling to exist squarely in either of the main camps currently available: on one side, an avant-garde poetry that relishes “post-identity” literature, evading the actual lived experience of difference, and on the other, a mainstream lyric mode that normalizes difference by fetishizing and orientalizing BAME poets for a “universal reader.” The inadequacy of these two opposed styles is made even more obvious by the contentious machinery of the British poetry industry.

How is it possible that only a few poets of color in the United Kingdom appear in anthologies, magazines, reading series, presses dedicated solely to innovative and experimental poetics? How is it that the centers of “radical” poetics — the supposedly progressive, Marxist annex within overwhelmingly white universities — willingly exclude poets of color from their registers? Especially those who partake in the dreaded work of “identity politics”? One recent example is Emily Critchley’s anticipated follow-up to Maggie O’Sullivan’s Out of Everywhere: Linguistically Innovative Poetry by Women in North America & the UK (1996), which has just been published. Out of 44 experimental women poets, it appears that three are of Asian descent (Sascha Akhtar, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, and Myung Mi Kim) and only one is black (the British poet Elizabeth-Jane Burnett) — a total of two North American and two UK writers of color. I can think of several inexplicable omissions — a jaw-droppingly long list that would include Harryette Mullen, Bhanu Kapil, Evie Shockley, and M. NourbeSe Philip, and even slightly more mainstream British poets Sarah Howe and Vahni Capildeo, as well as the exciting (and new) work of the young poet Nisha Ramayya. Ramayya’s Notes on Sanskrit is fascinating, difficult, and brimming with ideas about how language shapes and is shaped by cultural and racial assumptions, among other things. All these women are all missing. 

A recent review of Sarah Howe’s book begins with the publisher’s blurb:

Loop of Jade is described as an exploration “of a dual heritage” — Chinese and British — a “journeying back…in search of her roots.” My heart sank a little. Without diminishing the importance of such endeavours, the intervening three decades of identity politics has also led to, perhaps, a sense of, well, here we go again.

The reviewer misses the point — it is not “identity politics” that is at fault here, but publishers who only stage a poet’s racial identity when that poet is not white. Howe’s book moves between lyric and experimental modes, and dodges the uneasy limits of poetic subjectivity. Her work retains a deeply intellectual authority over itself in an industry that would prefer to ornamentalize poets of color.

Yet this is common practice, and not just by mainstream publishers. A recent call for submissions from the Peepal Tree press, an otherwise indispensible resource for black and Asian poetry, encourages black poets to submit to a “filigree” themed anthology. The call offers examples of filigree meant to inspire submissions: “fine patterns on saris,” “intricate designs of gold jewelry,” “henna patters,” “the complexity of lace fabrics for West African textiles and clothes.” The superimposition of “filigree” on the black poet’s physical and literary bodies is exactly the assumption of shared racial heritage that needs to be done away with, and fast. I can only shake my head in utter despair at the absurdity of these meaningless racial clichés. Such editorial guidelines threaten to recreate ad infinitum the existing paradigm of voices speaking from “the daily marginalization of the darker voice.”

BAME poets themselves must set the boundaries and the agenda, individually and collectively, for discussions about race and British poetry, and how this relation is impacted by individual experience and racial, religious, and regional identities. These subjectivities must be in our own hands and presenting them must be an active choice — not one determined by exploitative publishers or audiences. Attempts at comedic self-irony or hoax through ventriloquized or stereotyped versions of identity are not lasting solutions once the applause has died down, and we return to those communities in which we daily face assumptions about our national and racial identities. We must choose neither the mainstream nor the avant-garde, both of whom have already decided, wrongly, who we are as subjects.

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Sandeep Parmar is a BBC New Generation Thinker, a poet and a scholar of British and American modernist literature.


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