Framing the Body and the Body of Work:
Identity Politics in Ten: Poets of the New Generation
The anthology Ten: Poets of the New Generation, is a product of The Complete Works (TCW), a diversity and mentoring programme created in 2007 by Bernardine Evaristo. The programme was initiated in reaction to an Arts Council England report which found that less than 1% of the poetry published by major British poetry presses was by black or Asian poets. (In this context, a programme for ‘diversity’ is synonymous with a programme against racism; this essay shall not follow in the footsteps of a mainstream literary culture in which, as Kavita Bhanot notes, ‘we don’t talk about racism, just ‘lack of diversity’’.) Whilst the figures have since improved (12-14% in 2017), all too often, they are only representative of a superficial change, rather than an ideological one. As the director of TCW, Nathalie Teitler, observes, racism and prejudice remain firmly in place, merely in ‘more pernicious forms’. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) poets may feature more in contents pages and publications lists, but, as Dorothy Wang points out, ‘while “hard-core” or “real” literary and poetry critics talk about questions of etymology, prosody, and form, minority poets and poetry are too often left out of the conversation about the literary’. Left out of ‘the literary’, these poets and their poems are consigned to conversations about identity politics. As Kayo Chingonyi says, this is a self-perpetuating consequence of a literary culture which has a ‘tendency to foreground the racial identity of non-white poets, subordinating the substance of their writing’. Crucially, this foregrounding of identity occurs outside of the poets’ agency, and at all levels; Ari Banias and Romana Huk observe respectively that the work of ‘poets of color […] tends to be framed by white readers in a racialized context, regardless of the poet’s intent’, and that ‘the “other” still gets othered, if at the hands of more and more sophisticated theories of reading’.
Prompted by Chingonyi and Banias’ references to foregrounding and framing, this essay will explore the presence and consequence of frameworks in Ten on both a micro and macro level. I will examine how the body of poetic work in Ten is framed by its surrounding paratext, and how this relates to the questions of identity politics and BAME poetics. I will then focus in on Victoria Adukwei Bulley’s poetic engagement with the framed feminine body, demonstrating that the composite elements of Ten’s paratext not only often conflict with TCW and the anthology’s raison d’être, but also with each other, and the poetic text itself. Finally, I will then look to what I will call ‘paramedia’ – the digital text, video, audio, and other (mainly online) resources which surround the poems external to the printed page – in order to demonstrate how these issues might be resolved.
It is necessary to note here that a variety of terminology has been used so far, by authors who write from both sides of the Atlantic – ‘black or Asian’, ‘BAME’, ‘minority’, ‘non-white’, ‘poets of color’, ‘the “other”’. The distinctions between these terms are problematic in themselves, as is the way in which all of them obscure variety of background and assume whiteness as default, as neither colour nor race. For the purpose of this essay, I will use ‘BAME’ because it is the term used by the editors of Ten, yet I wish to acknowledge that ‘BAME’ is not an accurate representative of a much broader and more nuanced issue than a single term could ever hope to encapsulate.
This essay will follow in the bibliographic footsteps of Sarah Ahmed and the zine HOW(ever). As Ahmed observes, citations are ‘the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings’. This essay, then, offers poetics an alternative dwelling to the institution which perpetuates the myopic reading of BAME poetics as identity politics. I will only use the work of women as primary texts, and while men may be cited as secondary material, no cis white male shall be (unless it is at their expense).
In her recent monograph on paratexts and translation, Valerie Pellatt notes how a book’s introduction ‘purport[s] to contribute explanation and justification’ and ‘prime[s] the reader with a set of expectations controlled or at least guided by the writer of the introduction.’ Pellatt’s language here, her emphasis on ‘explanation’ and ‘justification’, is particularly pertinent to Ten, an anthology which does have a succinct ‘explanation’ for its existence, an explanation which is also a ‘justification’, an attempted correction of an unjust literary culture. In the introduction to Ten, Karen McCarthy Woolf upholds this, presenting the poems in the anthology as work that ‘challenge[s] the paradigm of identity as a political, historical and literary phenomenon’ and that ‘pushes at the limitations of the binary’. It is clear that Ten, as a product of TCW, is intended not only to sway the statistics, but also to challenge the pernicious racism not measured by figures, particularly the consignment of BAME poetics to identity politics. For Woolf, the poets of Ten achieve this agenda ‘not by writing work that becomes meaningless as polemic or stereotype’ but by writing ‘with the skill and dexterity required to embrace the pressing complexities that this second decade of the 21st century presents’. This enforces the expectation that Ten will reject identity politics of ‘stereotype’ in favour of poetic ‘skill and dexterity’, engaging specifically in a ‘conversation about the literary’. Whilst I don’t agree with Woolf’s judgment that polemic work is meaningless, and ‘polemic’ is not a term that I would equate with ‘stereotype’, her expansion from a rejection of ‘the paradigm of identity’ and ‘stereotype’ to ‘the pressing complexities’ of this contemporary moment is astute. Mainstream literary culture’s obsession with identity is, arguably, not only attached to race, but is a broader symptom of ‘this second decade of the 21st century’. Verity Spott, for example, observes critics’ attempts ‘To reduce the process of art by trans* subjects to an expression of identity’, while Rebecca Watts notes that ‘Time and time again, the arts media subordinates the work […] in favour of focusing on its creator’, a consequence for any poet ‘considered representative of a group identity that the establishment can fetishise’. From Woolf’s statements in the introduction then, both explicit and implicit, the reader turns to the poetic content of Ten expecting a rejection not only of the foregrounding of racial identity, but also of the foregrounding of identity more generally.
Immediately, one senses a difficulty here, due to the inherent nature of Ten’s anthological framework and its status as a product of TCW. As the editors of the anthology Out of Bounds: British Black and Asian Poets note, ‘If all anthologies offer readers ways to make a journey, they also limit the roads that we can take.’ As an anthological product of TCW’s diversity programme, Ten offers readers a poetic ‘journey’ different to the well-trodden, guided tours run by the institution. Yet in doing so, the poets in this collection are read amongst, and as, BAME poets; to an extent, the ‘roads’ to interpretation are limited to those laid down by identity politics.
The broader difficulty of anthologising is not the only framework which interferes with Woolf’s introductory statements. The expectations which she generates also stand at odds with those drawn from the visual influence of the anthology’s cover and the statements contained in its blurb and preface. In these paratexts, a foregrounding of identity lingers on. There is little argument against the fact that, as Nicole Matthews states, ‘book covers […] really matter’; they are ‘key conduits through which negotiations take place between authors, the book trade and readers.’ Although these ‘negotiations’ mainly occur in the transaction or acquisition of a book, and are far less influential by the time its contents are being read, even within this limitation, the cover’s import is particularly worthy of analysis when there is an ideological agenda and institutional resistance behind the text itself, as there is with Ten.
Figure 1. Olivia Twist, cover artwork for Ten, 2017
The cover artwork of Ten is by Olivia Twist, featuring four faces drawn using Sharpies (fig. 1). Whilst these faces are from Twist’s imagination, she told me that, ‘The writers were from all over the world so capturing that in some way was very important. […] I wanted to create images that represent the hands that fed into the book.’ Although cover artwork usually represents the contents of a book in some way, it tends not to represent ‘the hands’ (read: the faces or identities) which composed its content unless this content is itself biographical (or is the collected, lifetime work of an individual). The presence, therefore, of these faces on the cover of Ten, this representation of ‘the hands that fed into the book’, suggests that biographical background is of importance to the poetic content. This is of course true – Ten showcases a diversity programme which gives a voice to poets of a particular identity. However, overtly highlighting this intention and exploiting it through what Pellatt calls the ‘major temptation’ of the cover, could be seen to undermine Woolf’s introductory redirection towards poetic qualities. The intent to extract BAME poetics from involuntary identity politics is hindered as a visual representation of the poets’ identity is foregrounded over their poetic skill from the very beginning.
The contradictions continue in Ten’s blurb and Teitler’s preface, which proudly state that the anthology ‘includes poets with even more diverse backgrounds’ than earlier volumes, such as ‘the first hard of hearing poet’, and then argues that ‘diversity and quality are synonymous’. At what point did a poet’s, or anyone’s, disability become a defining identity? And does not Teitler’s statement that ‘diversity and quality are synonymous’ contradict her assertion that TCW has ‘at its heart not a major advocacy programme, but rather the development of exceptionally talented individual poets’? Diversity and quality are not necessarily synonymous, and to say that they are, marks the quality of the anthology’s poems as derivative of their authors’ ‘diversity’, prejudicing (albeit positively) a reading of their poems. (These prefatory statements also contradict what Teitler says elsewhere, in a shrewd essay which argues that in order to rid poetics of racism, ‘we need to talk about the language of framing the subject of race in poetry.’)
Ideological contradictions such as this do not just occur between elements of Ten’s paratextual framework, but also between paratext and the poetic text itself. This is most evident when looking at Bulley’s poem ‘About Ana’. ‘About Ana’ references the controversial death of Ana Mendieta, the feminist Cuban-American performance artist known for using her own body in her artistic practice in the 1970s and 80s. In this poem, Bulley pays homage to Mendieta’s ‘feminist strategy of self-representation’ whilst adding her own contemporary emphasis – highlighting the way in which the photographic emphasis of mass and social media has impacted the female body and body image. Bulley turns Mendieta’s death into a protest against this, ‘a woman shout[ing] No’, as she describes Mendieta’s body: ‘In the photo / she is naked and feathered.’ There is an ambiguity in these lines. Is ‘the photo’ a reference to a photo of Mendieta’s dead body, whose fall was described in the lines prior, or is it a reference to her short film, Untitled (Blood and Feathers #2), in which Mendieta covers her naked body with blood and feathers (fig. 2)?
Figure 2. Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Blood and Feathers #2), 1974
The possibility of both shows how Bulley alludes to Mendieta’s work which ‘refer[s] to representation of the female body’ in order to enforce her own poem’s engagement with this, whose new impetus she lays out in the lines which follow:
she is naked and feathered. She
looks like the first woman,
like she doesn’t know
what a camera is, that somewhere
in the world it’s believed
these things can steal a soul.
These lines evoke an Edenic parallel through the religious language (‘believed’, ‘soul’) and the image of ‘the first woman’ who ‘doesn’t know’ – a reference to Eve before she ate from the tree of knowledge. The fact that Mendieta fell to her death further suggests this allusion. But Bulley adapts the reference abruptly after the line break; the reader finds ‘a camera’ where ‘Knowledge’ or ‘Sin’ would usually be. This substitution is made more noticeable by the indentation of every other line. Here, it prolongs the reader’s expectation of the biblical reference to ‘Sin’ or ‘Knowledge’, and so delivers Bulley’s variation more sharply; in general, the indentations provide repeated blank spaces, repeated fallings into the starts of lines, reinforcing the context of Mendieta’s death and the lapsarian parallel. The significance of Bulley’s adaptation is confirmed in the final lines of the poem, in which the persona compares themselves to this prelapsarian ‘first woman’:
[…] I myself am
bored by fig leaves
and shames I did not choose.
Unlike the ‘first woman’, the poem’s speaker does know ‘what a camera is’, and so the poem implies that the knowledge of the camera, the image and the culture associated with it, is a repetition of the knowledge which leads Eve to be ashamed by her nudity, and to cover herself with ‘fig leaves / and shames’. Awareness of the camera, of body as image, constricts the female body, covering it up either literally or metaphorically through gendered stereotypes and humiliation. This reading is supported by Bulley’s initial reference to Mendieta’s short film which suggests the feminine body as ‘sacrificial victim’ or rooster. This returns the reader to the poem’s opening lines:
The truth is, nobody
knows how Ana Mendieta
met her death.
Revisiting these lines reinforces the irony of the phrase ‘The truth is’. No one, in fact, knows the truth ‘About Ana’ and her death, whether she was pushed by Carl Andre (her husband who was acquitted for her murder) or whether she fell. But what Bulley suggests is an alternative truism (also linked to male culpability) – that it is the visual objectification of women that causes a contemporary fall to ‘me[e]t’ a metaphorical death of ‘shames’. Only when this visual scrutiny is on a woman’s own terms, as in Mendieta’s short film, will she be able to still appear ‘like the first woman, / like she doesn’t know / what a camera is’.
Reading ‘About Ana’, it is difficult not to reflect again on Ten’s cover, as well as the fact that inside the anthology, each author’s critical introduction is prefaced by a full-page author photo (as is also true of the earlier publications in the TCW series). These photographs cannot but put an emphasis on identity – particularly, identities which readers construe from a visual first impression (fig. 3). It is as if the anthology is defending its blurb’s claim, shouting, “Look! They are from ‘even more diverse backgrounds’!”. Via email, Teitler informed me that each author had chosen and supplied the photos themselves. Even with this element of authorial control, the photographs are problematic as the poets’ writing, and the critical introductions to their work, are made secondary to what they look like.
Figure 3. Timothy Pulford-Cutting, from Ten, pp. 36-37
D.S. Marriott argues that ‘it is racism which produces the racialized body’, and that moreover, as Frantz Fanon noted before him, this racist production is intrinsically tied to visual culture and the politicised image. As Bulley makes clear in ‘About Ana’, visual culture has also impinged on the feminine body and is tied to the production of sexism. The potential undertones of the author photos are then, for Bulley, twofold, and sit even more uncomfortably with the subject matter of ‘About Ana’ due to this intersectionality. This relationship between poetic text and visual paratext is made even more noticeable by another paratext, the critical introduction to Bulley’s poetry by her mentor, Catherine Smith. (These introductions are further frameworks which guide and limit readers of Ten. How likely, for example, is one to read Bryan’s poems as anything but what Pascale Petit forcefully asserts that they are: ‘spellbinding incantations to transmute trauma’? And how likely is a reader to suggest that Momtaza Mehri may not only ‘specifically address communities of the refugee diasporas’ when Petit declares that this is what she does?) Smith says that Bulley’s ‘boldest poems concern the body – her own, and those of others; the body as both private / intimate, and public / political.’ These comments prime the reader’s sensitivity to the way in which ‘About Ana’, the first poem overleaf, protests against the ‘public’ ownership of the ‘private’ body – the imposition of ‘fig leaves / and shames [they] did not choose’. The web of conflict and contradiction is complicated further – the visual paratext of Bulley’s author photo jars uncomfortably with the poetic content it frames, an effect which is heightened by Smith’s critical framework. And this all occurs alongside the aforementioned clash between the anthology’s intention to foreground poetic skill over identity, and its blurb, preface and cover, which work to do the opposite. In order to explain this complex disorder, one must turn to the ‘political economy’ of poetry, the market which ultimately governed the production of Ten.
To do so I approached the publishers, Bloodaxe Books, for comments on the author photos. Neil Astley, the editor, first said that Bloodaxe uses author photos in most anthologies (regardless of content), and also on the back covers of individual collections (as many publishing houses do). He explained this through the experiential truth that ‘readers connect more with books that have author photographs’ – they sell more copies and garner a wider readership. In light of this, Astley said, not to include author photographs of the Ten poets may have been to their market disadvantage:
Sometimes common sense and a desire to expand the readership of poetry has to be prioritised over an ideological agenda when you’re promoting a poetry anthology with its own ideological agenda.
Astley’s comments highlight how paratext (particularly visual paratext) is inseparably tied to marketing, which might often contradict or partially sacrifice the agenda presented within the covers, the introduction, or otherwise. As Mehri reminded readers in an online post, ‘Poetry is as transactional as any other form of work.’ (This does not, however, fully explain the identity-focused nature of the statements found in the preface, a paratext unlikely to have much influence on the purchase of a book.) The question of whether an increased readership is worth the ideological sacrifice has no definitive answer, it is left to individual judgement. So too is the question of which of these contradictory paratexts will prevail as the most influential framework through which the text is read. This could never be answered definitively as each individual reader will be more susceptible to and influenced by different elements of paratext for a variety of different reasons (some might not, for example, choose to read an introduction or preface). It is only when one turns to the frameworks constructed by the poets themselves that one finds a way in which they might subvert a literary culture where, as Vahni Capildeo found, ‘marketing and identity politics [are] combining to crush’ BAME poetics into identity politics.
As Pellatt observed in 2013, ‘Twenty years on [from Gérard Genette’s seminal study Paratexts], we can see that paratext is more or less infinitely varied.’ Five years further on from this, in a time of the ‘Instagram poet’, Pellatt’s words are even more pertinent. Much of this variety comes from what Sophie Seita calls the ‘“post-digital”’ nature of our time, in which ‘digitality informs the processes of production, distribution and reception whether a work is printed or not’. As reductive as generation-specific glossing can be, it is not always entirely meaningless and in this context, the poets of Ten are certainly ‘Poets of the New Generation’; each of them utilises a range of digital and social media in their poetic projects. As Mehri explains in the Radio 4 production Pick A Sky and Name It, which weaves readings of her poems in-between dialogues with her mother, music from her childhood and comments of her own (in itself a bricolage of media): ‘The internet just switched up the entire game.’ Ten’s poets appear on Vimeo, SoundCloud and Radio 4; they have blogs, Tumblrs, and Pinterest pages, Twitter and Instagram feeds. For example, on Degna Stone’s website, next to the section titled ‘Poems’, there is another labelled ‘Dresses and That’, where she posts images of dresses she makes. Bryan’s blog includes a Youtube link to what she’s ‘Listening to…’: a song by the jazz trumpeter Leron Thomas. Bulley’s website showcases her film and poetry project, Mother Tongues. Mehri’s Contently page links to a Google Drive document she created, ‘The Black Muslimah Toolkit’, an extensive reading list of poetry, academia, music, and other resources, organised under categories ranging from ‘Black/Muslim Poetics’ through ‘Between Feminism(s)’ to ‘Tasbihs & Turntables: A Playlist’. The vast extent of this online material illustrates that for many of these authors, the largest proportion of their readership is not found in the readers of anthologies, but in online communities. Moreover, these online realms are where many of the anthology’s poems were first published and their contents constitute the primary paramedia for the poets’ wider oeuvres.
The most crucial difference between these online frameworks and the paratext of Ten is that, on the web, the poets themselves are far more likely to have constructed them. As Kei Miller notes, ‘the World Wide Web has been an especially friendly medium (or, more accurately, a collection of media) for the poetry community’. It is especially friendly because it not only allows for that community (or rather, communities) to expand, but to expand on their own terms. This is evident in the short film SONG, a collaboration between Bryan and the filmmaker Jaoa Fernandes, which shows Bryan giving a reading of her poem ‘Song’. At one point, Bryan says, ‘I’ve been told I have presence. Sometimes this presence is used as a euphemism for what some people consider to be challenging social coordinates. [The punctuation here is my own – an interesting consequence of a Vimeo-based encounter with poetry is the ambiguous aspect of its form.]’ As she says these words, the camera pans around the room, in which Bryan is the only black person (a fact made starker by the film’s monochrome colour palette (fig. 4-6)).
Figure 4-6. Natacha Bryan and AÕ, SONG, 2016
Here, Bryan’s poem is influenced by the cinematic framework, which adds a visual emphasis to her statement that her ‘presence’ is ‘challenging social coordinates’. Importantly, as in Mendieta’s film, this visual influence on Bryan’s work is constructed on her own terms, as co-producer of SONG. Not only does SONG illustrate how Bryan has agency over this paramedia, unlike Ten’s paratext, but it also shows how digital media has made porous the distinction between primary and ‘para’ (or secondary) material. SONG is not only a cinematic framework for Bryan’s poem, ‘Song’, but is also primary material in its own right as an intertextual short film.
Discussing the difficulties inherent to anthologising women’s writing, Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young note that it is important not to discredit the importance of anthologies whose restricted call-outs raises awareness of underrepresentation so that future anthologies may do ‘a better job’ at including work by these underrepresented voices. Like Spahr and Young, I do not wish to condemn as essentialist the very things which help to correct essentialism (even if this process might involve one step backwards for every two steps forward). Anthologies such as Ten hope to achieve for BAME poetics what Spahr and Young seek for women’s writing: ‘an editorial practice that uses equitable representation to think about how feminism [for Ten, read: race] is related to something other than itself, and to make writing that thinks about these things visible.’ Only then will readers be able to focus on questions of prosody. Until mainstream literary culture reaches this point, this writing will remain most ‘visible’ online, where it is the poets themselves who are in charge of this ‘editorial practice’ and where work may be produced and accessed without an explicit cost, alleviating some pressures of the market. It is important to note here that an independence of identity is not mutually exclusive of an expression of identity; effacement is not the purpose of these spaces. Rather, they serve to provide places where poets may do what Sandeep Parmar insists on:
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.
In order to enact what this essay argues for, and fulfil Parmar’s demands, I will conclude not with my own linguistic framework, but with one offered by one of the Ten poets, Degna Stone:
If I do want to talk about race and identity I will talk about being a Northern, working class British woman as well as being black but if I want to write about something completely different I have the right to do so.
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