Picking up where my grandmother left off
Protest as we know it seems to be a vital & a necessary endeavour in the times in which we live for people to see they are not alone, further debate & instigate change. There is however something seemingly impervious about the singular vision it must require to be an activist: a public life lived for change-making while simultaneously having to navigate the specific private relationships with those closest to you within your community. The friends, families & neighbours who you are most likely protesting for. It is both an admirable & a heavy task. Zadie Smith’s new novel Swing-Time speaks far more eloquently than I can on the burden of living a forward-facing public life in the battle for personal freedoms set against the isolation this can create within communities. Discord in the novel between the narrator & her mother: an activist turned politician, seems to stem from her desire for ‘betterment’ when she joins Parliament in the hope of representing her local borough which brings deformation to her own home. Protest therefore seems to raise the issue of autonomy. Is the cause always the goal or is there a tendency for the rise of a charismatic, engaging figure to rally people into action who comes not only to advocate the cause but embody it, potentially over-shadowing its original aim? Is this a problem of celebrity? Is it vital for a cause to have one leader – if so what does it cost to become a figure-head of a movement? What happens when The Protestor becomes more central to discourse than The Protest itself or the inverse, what does it do to a person to have their entire essence sublimated to the intent of political change?
For me, protest has always been tied to art; you could easily tell the history of art through a history of protest: artists who challenged the given-truths of their times: the poets, novelists, storytellers & playwrights all critiquing the established order of the day, having to tow the party line for fear of reprisal, those who had to self-publish because they had no interest in doing so; their work viewed to be too dangerous (the many who still do – just look at the rise of independent publishing as a counter to the key-clenching gate-keepers of mainstream publishing), the renegades using their art to disrupt & counter the dominant narrative their society holds to be true, art which is imbued with the goal of raising consciousness & causing trouble. Overall though, I think the radical potentiality art engenders must eventually rest with the art itself & not its creator. Artists are indeed catalysts for change but the relationship between Art, Artist & Audience is inextricable. We should not privilege Artist or Audience over Art itself. These three composites operate together as a kind of Trinity – a sort of secular Godhead. Artists without Audiences are speaking into vacuums. Audiences without Artists have no-one to transpose the mundane into something beautiful & Artists who care more about themselves than the Art they are supposed to be creating are wankers. Individuals are fallible, surely it is safer to share an aim amongst one another than invest it in a single figure? Power corrupts, after all.
If protest as a verb lies in the action of vocalising or expressing objection to something that has been said or done so there must be an active intention within the artist to embody that. Though art is the ultimate expression of endeavour, for work to be radical or subversive there must be an inclination – no, a need – within an artist to object, dissent, disapprove & oppose (given truths, prejudice, cultural edicts, populism). Be that through form, style or subject, art & specifically poetry: literary work where feelings or ideas are what are foregrounded through style & rhythm – is a site of protest. Poetry seems to be a mode of literature that is always undergoing change: change to what it has been, what people want it to be & where it is going. Every month the consensus seems to waver between the old boys; fearful of their own longevity & publishing deals, proclaiming that poetry is dead & trend-struck media types, running with the hype, tweeting furiously that poetry is the new rock’n’roll. Poetry itself seems unmoved by these fragile verdicts & easy think-pieces; it continues instead to work on itself & transform just like poets themselves do: constantly seeking to improve, read more, find time to create better work, cultivate readership, improve their craft & somehow, not to give up the whole endeavour in process.
It may sound trite for some; the seasoned activists – those who’ve physically put themselves on the line for a cause to have some young poet use the word protest in conjunction with poetry but then I think about the people I consider great poets: they are intrinsically political, their work knows its stance & indeed the certainty of its leaning, functions just as validly as something something less didactic (than ideology) like say, aesthetics to make the work textured, unified whole. Work that knows itself is true to itself.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about different forms of protest & the small, seemingly tiny acts that go to disrupt a larger unequal power structure. I also think there is something beautiful & increasingly important about those small daily acts of resistance that often goes unspoken. For some people even managing to get out of their bed & face this loud, strange world is a dissident act. From that I think about other small acts, what Sara Ahmed writes about the need for ‘sad queers, melancholic migrants & feminist killjoys’ to disrupt mainstream dialogues. This happens first amongst friends, family members, within communities & at their borderlines through dialogues & debate, then spreads. There is a vastness to minutiae. Small acts together are cumulative: a stone thrown skipping upon the water – sends ripples out exponentially.
Where I’m at now, & that of course is likely to change (Foucault said it best: Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same…) seems to rest specifically in the importance of knowing history as a person, my history as part of various communities: as working-class, Irish, non-binary, queer –facets of my identity that when written down become as daunting a prospect to live-up to or embody as the figure of that public activist but they are in constant flux. They are not fixed or static. The further we walk away from the task of understanding our sheer interconnectedness with other people, learning to accept our differences & the intersecting & parallel lines of our lived experiences are the more estranged I believe we become to our sense of self. It is what gives rise to the pathologies of hatred in all its varying forms. I see writing as a means of trying to bridge the gap in people’s consciousness: what Miss Nina Simone called the responsibility of the artist to ‘reflect the times’. This wasn’t something zeitgeist or hashtag-induced– this was, for artists like Simone & still is for all of us – vital. To know where you are from is to know where you have been, where you have been kept, the hard-won rights (‘come so far’) celebrated but a constant reminder that being equal to dominant power at play is not necessarily equally good (‘still got so terribly far to go’).
I think we need a wider focus as a society, a better understanding & ability to correlate history & fiction but most importantly actually do something about it. I cannot recall the amount of times I’ve had a conversation with someone in which their closing statements always seem to be something along the lines of there must be more to life than this. There is. The this of their sentence is a trickster – it tells us this is as good as it gets & demands people better do things in the way they’ve become accustomed, as if anything other than all out conformity is an act of terrorism to the common order. All of us know that there is more than ‘this’, somewhere deep inside ourselves. Each time we articulate it we resist it. We must keep resisting, keep talking but keep actively resisting.
My grand-mother had always wanted to be a historian. She had a keen interest in archaeology & wanted to excavate fallen cities, working out why they had been ruined & why society chooses not to learn from the past. Instead on her eighteenth birthday – her passport: her birthday present – she was sent to England to work as a nurse & instructed to send her wage back to her family of ten in Clonakilty to keep them alive. I think about her a lot, the reasons behind her immigration & how truly British her later children & their children really are when many of the reasons for her departure stem from the fall-out caused by British rule in Ireland. She never got to be a historian, but she passed as much history as she could onto me from an early age & as I’ve always been interested in stories in a way her dream lives on. I don’t know how she’d feel about me calling history a fiction, but I think for so long it has been – the story written by the victor, about the victor who is unchallenged in his ability to edit & re-write the past. Maybe that means literature is for the losers, the outsiders, the renegades. I think I’m happy with that & maybe she would have agreed with.
Since working with Apples and Snakes on Rallying Cry & hearing Zena Edwards talk abut her own personal poetic mission to constantly re-humanise what is viewed as otherness, to explore lived experience & cultivate sustainable alternatives to the ways we live & also tell stories I think I’m simply picking up where my grand-mother left off. I’m reminded of Jorge Méndez Blake’s installation ‘A Single Book Disrupts The Foundation of A Wall’ from 2007 that shows the impact an outside force can have: a 75 x 13 foot brick wall balancing on top a single copy of Kafka’s The Castle – the wall bulges in the presence of the novel inserted at the bottom of the structure, creating an arch atop of it. It shows literature can literally disrupt physical reality & in praise of those small acts I wrote about earlier it is a reminder to us that even introverted figures, who forsake the public world for the private that even small acts can have a monumental effect: thoughts & attitudes can be changed far speedier through culture than legislation – there is power that art catalyses which helps people to recognise themselves: their virtues & foibles & possibly connects them with some higher sense of self or consciousness & things begin to change.
I consider myself a writer first. I don’t trust or particularly agree with the current political landscape we operate in & have no aspirations or inclination towards a political life – to speak frankly, this system is fucked – however I am aware of the public role of the poet & how art is intrinsically politicised due to the relationship between subject & spectator – nor do I think the artist should run away from the political ramifications of their work – I think they have to embrace it: know in their heart what it is the work says & let it speak for itself. We need more work that shows where we have been, where we are now & where we might be headed.
As an individual, protest for me stems from much more private inclinations: maintaining & strengthening a relationship with Nature in a world that is at pains to destroy, pollute & capitalise on the natural world. I find my love to be a protest: specifically, my queerness, my gender identity, the people I sleep with, my friendships with other queer people & my admiration of women as well as my frustrations with the wider world. It all comes down to people. People as relational in a place that doesn’t foster positive, authentic relationships with one another, the earth or to us: so, I try to remind myself about that – make myself do better. Publicly, I suppose my work is how I protest. I don’t think I’m particularly good banner-clad & forthright, I need time & space to gather up my thoughts on the unrelenting storm that is the 21st century to get enough strength to rally against it. So, I choose this: to do it from the side-lines, if you like, telling stories, writing poems, performing for audiences. It leads me back to my grand-mother & in a way, Ireland: The Shanachie, an anglicised spelling of the Irish word for historian/storyteller (as I don’t know any Gaelic) is what I think I’ve made of protest. Originally, they were bards & storytellers who amalgamated history, stories, folklore & music through their performances & what is interesting is that they were a kind of class of their own but lived within the old clans in a kind of servitude while simultaneously having a fair amount of prestige within their community which again seems to echo with this idea of the responsibility of the artist, the strange double-bind between being a public or a private figure & the need of protest to be an active verb. To be a Shanachie means to be a bearer of the ‘old lore’ & while the old ways have been forgotten or lost I find storytelling, poetry, spoken-word, the oral tradition, whatever people want to call it (because it seems everyone is always arguing over terminology) one of the most effective ways to challenge & contest this version of the world. Reality is what has been thrust upon is. Stories help us join up the dots: chart the topography of some place new.
Photo: Sabiheh Awanzai
[First Published September 2018]