On Radical Tenderness: Andrea Brady talks to Andrew Spragg

Andrea Brady’s work explores the potential of poetry to transform our lives, politics and communities. It also refuses to ignore the tensions that exist in the foundations and functions of poetic form. We talk about her latest book, The Strong Room, published in 2016 by Richard Parker’s Crater Press. This book is an ideal starting point for a new reader: angry and thoughtful, and so aware of the time in which it occurs that it can leave you feeling both giddy and anxious. Brady has also produced a remarkable body of academic work, including a timely essay about white privilege in British poetry (The Conversation, October 2015), and the 2016 Warton Lecture at the British Academy about love poetry in times of catastrophe. Both are available online at time of writing. We conducted this interview over email in early 2017, feeling battered by the world events that continue to overtake us all.

 

AS: What do you begin with when you write a poem?

AB: Before I begin I want to mention how hard it is to begin, in this moment, in this world. I find it very difficult to think about poetry in general now, as civil society collapses into naked fascistic violence all around us. The veil of liberalism under Obama of course obscured extrajudicial murder and surveillance, which I’ve addressed specifically in a sequence of poems called The Blue Split Compartments and an article on ‘Drone Poetics’ (New Formations 89/90, June 2017). And I know that the violence which has become drastically apparent is nothing new to members of our communities who are people of colour, undocumented, disabled, LGBTQ, poor. Nonetheless the prospect of cataclysmic and universal war, the erosion of the very slim ecological and personal protections afforded by the law, Brexit and the proliferation of racist violence, make it impossible to settle, to write and think about anything seriously. Everything I manage to say in this interview is pressed through this context, like a tongue through a box grater.

So where do I begin? In this moment I would begin with this intensification, the poem extruded from a sharpening of anger or of love into a point which declares itself as the compulsion to speak. Something explodes the ordinary into a pattern of shards, an emergency. I feel like I only have those modes, and that recently they are the same mode: anger on the part of love, and dangerously, love of anger. Longing or tenderness that crushes me and flies away, leaving me with a handful of tailfeathers. A feeling of rage at how time drips into the vault of my working life, all my best energies spent pushing papers for a corporation which can only exist by constantly expanding its revenue. Wanting to smash it all up and start again. So the poem is also a bulwark against the panic of loss, the only thing made that might not just vanish and be nothing when I am. Really though the beginning is not always so dramatic. Sometimes it’s just words: words that have been gathering on the surface of daily life and start to coalesce around a meaning, vibrating in the particularity of an instant, like iron filings magnetised into a legible shape, a moustache, a bomb.

AS: What do you suggest a reader begins with to read a poem, or your poems?

AB: I suspect many poets don’t know quite what they intend when they begin to write a poem, so the first thing the reader might do is to notice the absence of control. (Some poems are hypercontrolled, of course, but they aren’t so interesting, nor so challenging to read.) The poems which interest me tend to be a series of edges and noise, not allegorical code. Even if poets begin with an explicit intention, the poem will take them to unplanned destinations. I hope it is relaxing to readers to know this. I hope they refuse to let poems coerce them into feeling bad about themselves. I’ve found that my students often regard poetry as either an expression of the immutable truths of their souls, i.e. unmediated expressions of interiority, or a privileged and archaic cultural object whose existence accuses them. I try to encourage them not to allow poems to make them feel stupid. Don’t assume that others have a key that you don’t have, and that if you had this key, you could turn it and the poem would pop open.

Poetry is not very egalitarian and undoubtedly can feel exclusive to people who lack certain kinds of privileges, particularly class and educational ones. This is a bad thing. I am against amateurism, but I don’t think that serious engagement with the history of poetry can only be the result of an elite formal education. I do not propose arcana. I provided a set of notes and links for my book Wildfire: A Verse Essay on Obscurity and Illumination (Krupskaya, 2010) – a book-length poem which explored the history of incendiary weapons, international law, Greek fire, the discovery of phosphorus, the strikes by the female workers in the match factories of Bow, and the continuing use of white phosphorous in Iraq and elsewhere. These notes were not supposed to parade my privilege as a user of research libraries, but to gesture to alternative points of access to thinking about the stories which the poem explored – places where sometimes forgotten or neglected texts can speak. They were pointers, aiming the reader towards specific histories, and this was crucial to the poem’s existence as a political document.

But good poems should not be remote intellectual objects. They should give pleasure and the flash of immediate recognition, if not total comprehension. If a poem excites you and energises you, you might decide to spend more time in its company. Its threads will get stuck in your teeth and you can worry them out. You will then be in possession of the poem’s meanings as fully as the author is. There are poems which require patience and some extra research if you want to inhabit them; others throw the doors wide open. But because I more or less believe in the Horatian premise that no one can be a good poet without also being a good person, I have to believe that all good poets make their poems in order to speak lovingly to their readers, even from postures of great distress. So the poem wishes to include you, whoever you are. Shake it out and see what is left in your filter. Much will fall through. See if what is left is worth holding on to. The poem needs you more than you need it, though you may notice that your need increases the more poems you read.

AS: A number of your previous books, for example Wildfire and Mutability, speak through a primary set of concepts or themes – what similarities and differences existed in your approach to The Strong Room?

AB: The Strong Room is a small book, or a long pamphlet, and like a few other collections – Cut from the Rushes (Reality Street, 2013), Vacation of a Lifetime (Salt, 2001) – aggregates all the unpublished and occasional poems I had written up until that point. It is not conceived as an extended argument, but as a release from the pressure of unpublished material building up on my desktop. Reading it now however I recognise some aspects of its coherence. Themes: sleeplessness; state and personal violence; masculinity; the desire to escape from the oppressions of everyday life, and the way those oppressions are reproduced over several generations.

I have spoken before about my distrust of the occasional. Also (in Prac Crit, July 2014) about the challenge of writing a book for my sons, after Mutability (Seagull, 2012), which explicitly concerned the first years of my daughter’s life. That book, which combines poetry and prose, was exorbitantly occasional, in that it commemorates moment by moment as they pass, in the joyful, sometimes difficult and overwhelming passion of becoming a mother, of learning to sustain and love a human from before they draw breath. And I’ve spoken about the awkwardness of writing about domesticity, the grace of love. I am lucky to live a life of great privilege and happiness but this seems a grotesque thing to celebrate in poems just now. One answer to this would be my abolition. Less radically, I am intent on doing what I can to amplify other voices who can often access the worlds I inhabit only with difficulty. We all should be reading, reviewing, teaching and talking about poetry by people of colour, decolonising our syllabi and learning about these profusely rich traditions and bodies of work, particularly those of us who are in positions of power as lecturers, editors, curators. To write occasional poetry as a white, able-bodied, straight cis women can feel to me like an abdication of politics, though of course it is profoundly political, most especially when the politics seem to be absent.

In The Strong Room I’m afraid I’ve fallen back on sometimes quite cruel conflations of the violence of and against boys, which includes my own violence, as a parent, citizen, and professional fabricator of obscene poetic images; and the violence – in a sense that might be familiar to readers of the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein – which my sons might embody, and my worries about how to raise them to protect them from becoming victims or perpetrators, and how horrid it is to have such thoughts about small, loving children. I want to write about their tenderness, their immense kindness and softness and beauty, but I find it very difficult to do this. Writing about a child’s goodness has come to feel obscene, in a world where another boy can be murdered on his way home in the rain, or left naked tied to a chair overnight in a room with rats and snakes. The middle in which the poet sits mourning the diremption of law and ethics is not merely broken, it is shattered beyond recognition. And yet I hold my loved ones together with me there. What can a poem say about this? I feel like in a different time I would have given you a different answer. But the paranoia in this book, which embarrassed me when I was writing it, now looks like the simple iteration of facts.

AS: You talk about wanting to convey the tenderness of your children, and earlier about how poets ‘make their poems in order to speak lovingly to their readers’. It made me think of something John Berger said in conversation with Michael Silverblatt: ‘It seems to me that one of the essential elements in tenderness is that it is a free act, a gratuitous act. It has an enormous amount to do with liberty, with freedom, because one chooses to be tender… in the face of what surrounds us, it is an almost defiant act.’ Do you feel there is a radical element to tenderness? If so, what role does it play in your writing and where do you feel its boundaries might lie?

AB: I love that remark, and the way that Berger’s tenderness as an interlocutor is apparent throughout that conversation, sitting so close across from Silverblatt, listening intently, grinning with understanding. In fact the radical potential of tenderness is something I wrote about, for a lecture I gave in April 2017 at the British Academy, on ‘The Determination of Love’. In that talk, I wanted to think about love’s determination in the midst of the catastrophes that it always faces, and can’t stop itself from imagining. By which I meant, how love can be resolute (determined) to overthrow the wrong world; how love can be defined (determined) in language which is a machine for repetition, just as love is such a repetition, if you take the Platonists or the psychoanalysts at their word; how love can escape from ends (de-termined), whether that end is death, or the agapic community which promises to resolve all contradictions. There’s a great essay by Jean-Luc Nancy called ‘Shattered Love’, where he talks about Plato’s Symposium as a dialogue which is full of generosity and joy, consideration for others and for the object of discourse. He describes the conversation in that text – and we could say, in the interview with Berger – as itself radically tender, not just about loving, but its enactment. All kinds of love are welcomed; none are excluded, and the true, philosophical discussion of Eros is not presented finally as a doctrine of mastery, but ‘in a state of deprivation and weakness’. The Symposium demonstrates, Nancy says, not philosophy gathering and interpreting the experiences of love, but love receiving and deploying the experience of thinking. And he notes that this happens only once, at the inauguration of philosophy.

Another book that’s been especially important for me in thinking through these things is Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, where he sets out his notions of love for the neighbour as a duty, and that duty as the necessity of loving the one you see, not the ideal one you imagine and who is blocked by the reality of the flawed person beside you. He makes a very powerful claim that love is an infinite debt that you mustn’t ever get out of. For Kierkegaard these premises are of course Christian, and defy the erotic ‘preferential love’ which poets sanctify. But I’ve been struck by the way that radical tenderness and love have re-emerged as the grounds of political organising, for example in the Black Lives Matter movement, which Alicia Garza says started as a ‘love letter’ to Black people. Some of that is a discourse of self-love, self-care as a revolutionary action in a world which works for your extinction. I’m not so much interested in love’s self-determination – what Berger suggests is the choice freely to be tender – as the gratuitousness of it. Maybe this comes back to the notion of debt: it is a fantastic construction, and yet it has profound material consequences. You can refuse to believe in it (though this would impoverish your life), but you can’t deny that it structures the world you live in.

In the lecture I wanted to speak about love poetry because doing that is embarrassing and no one really knows how to describe love; because love is always original even though it is intensely repetitive, and this is a particularly poetic challenge; and because love poets can’t hold themselves back from contemplating catastrophe (maybe because catastrophe is easier to describe than happiness). I discovered that poets’ responses to catastrophe can teach us something in this particular moment about how to outlive our own. But also, the lecture – despite the ornamental surroundings, in Gladstone’s old drawing room or whatever – was itself an occasion (that word again) when I tried to hold a space to think together, with the audience, about what love is, to share my love for the poetry which has kept me in life, and so to enact a loving address as a momentary release from the catastrophe that presses against the door. And this is something I feel like I’ve only learned to be able to value, and to perform, as I’ve gotten older, and moved away from the intensely agonistic displays of intellectual bravado which constituted my academic training. But it is useful to be reminded by Nancy and Berger that love is also a fundamental condition for teaching and of learning, and by thinkers including Martin Luther King and Alicia Garza that it is crucial to political organising.

AS: The title, The Strong Room, suggests consolidation of something, either for storing or in defence. How much did those ideas play a factor in writing the book?

AB: I’ve just been talking about love and harm. One of the key questions in this book is how a person can be protected from harm: this might entail a realistic estimation of its danger, which in the case of my own family is quite minimal, though violence is both endemic in our societies and reproduced by us daily in large and small ways, so no one is completely innocent of it. In the blurb I wrote for the publisher’s catalogue, I described the poems as ‘charms against damage. In times of accelerated peril the poem’s fragile stanzas can be a holding space, whose strength is too weak to contain the world, and too strong to resist it. These poems seek to build this paradoxical space of safety, pleasure, anger and danger as an expanding room for everyone who lives in love or fear.’ To lock yourself into a strong room would be asphyxiating – living out your time in a coffin for value – and this itself is a harmful fantasy (though I sometimes long for a pastoral form of it, an escape to what my friend Keston describes as Home at Grasmere with wifi). My desperation for relief from the torrent of catastrophe takes the shape of some imaginary smallholding. We often go to a remote valley in Wales, where Eric Gill set up his infernal monastery and David Jones wrote some of his poems. The hills are immensely soothing because they are so immobile; the good thing about rocks is that they don’t care about you. But retreating in this way is not a realistic option, and I’m fairly sure it wouldn’t be good for my poems.

If the poem is a strong room, its strength comes from its weakness, its porousness, its variability. The title is supposed to integrate the desire to retreat from violence, and the recognition that the only way violence can be countered is through encountering it, in the self, in the people we love, in the world we endure. The poem really can be strong, because it is never strong, and without wanting to echo a sacrificial logic, I think that is one way of plotting our survival.

AS: In the words of your poem ‘The Underworld’, ‘So, tell me about utopia’?

AB: Dream. History. Too far away, too hurtful now to imagine.

I’m thinking of that quote from Ursula K Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed: ‘We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.’ All utopias are imperfect, but the giving of nothing – the hand held out is empty, but open – seems like a fitting gesture. It’s also a gesture Kierkegaard imagines in relation to love (‘the free heart must not belong to anyone else or to anything else; yes, even the hand that gives it away must be free. It must not be the hand that takes the heart by force and gives it away, but it must rather be the heart that gives away the hand. This heart, free as it is, will then find total freedom in giving itself away. Nothing – the bird you release from your hand, the arrow from the slackened bow string, the bent branch that snaps back – nothing is as free as the free heart when it freely gives itself away’). And Lacan imagines the open hand differently (in Seminar VIII), as an allegory of love: you see a flower or fruit before you, but when you reach out to take it (tailfeathers), it bursts into flames; there is in its place another hand, reaching back towards your own.

‘The Underworld’ is a dialogue poem towards the end of The Strong Room which Ayla, my eldest child, and I produced for a performance on the theme of utopia at Polyply, a reading series run by Will Montgomery and Kristin Kreider at Royal Holloway. It was 2014, so she was six years old. I just sat and typed out our dialogue as she drew. I wanted to reproduce the dialogue just as it was to explore the limits of our political imagination. A child of that age can imagine anything. How might she see a better life? What couldn’t she see past? I didn’t form my responses to her specifically for publication, and as I reread them I saw how even someone who is committed to radical political thought will unthinkingly initiate their child into conservativism – there’s an excruciating bit where I say something about how the government is ‘the people who are supposed to make sure everything’s ok and there’s no fighting and everyone’s happy’. Lisa Robertson, who read the text out with me at Polyply, collapsed with laughter at that point. That’s my utopian moment, I guess. It’s a moment of hope and of stupidity. You can also see how without meaning to, I guide Ayla towards imagining conflict, towards the abolition of money and labour. These things don’t actually interest her. She wants to make a society out of a fantastic place – living underground, remaking the real – and because she doesn’t want her parents to work all the time. But I steer her towards war and conflict. I infect her utopia, and it starts to fall apart; suddenly there are bad people, flying machines bringing war, sentries outside the castle. I loved her ideas about what the utopian people wear, what they eat. And how logically she defeats me. At one point we are talking about the hydraulics of her utopia and how they will pipe water down into the underground and I say, isn’t that going to make your world dissolve if it’s made of mud? And she says – ‘No it wouldn’t – this world isn’t dissolving and it’s got water in it!’ Not dissolving. Opposing substances, held together in an imaginative space, which is also the space of being able to take a brief break from work, sit down with your daughter, eat some biscuits and talk about how you might otherwise live. Oh, that’s a space, a strong one, empty hands, the utopianism of poetry, to which any poem is extraneous.

 

Andrew Spragg was born in London and lives there. He has written for Bonafide, Hix Eros, The Quietus and PN Review. Recent books include Tether//Replica (Spiralbound/Susak Press, 2015), OBJECTS (Red Ceiling Press, 2014), A Treatise on Disaster (Contraband Books, 2013) and To Blart & Kid (Like This Press, 2013). Now Too How Soon was published with Contraband Books in Autumn 2017.

Andrea Brady’s books of poetry include The Strong Room (Crater, 2016), Dompteuse (Bookthug, 2014), Cut from the Rushes (Reality Street, 2013), Mutability: scripts for infancy (Seagull, 2012), Wildfire: A Verse Essay on Obscurity and Illumination (Krupskaya, 2010), and Vacation of a Lifetime (Salt, 2001). She is Professor of Poetry at Queen Mary University of London, where she runs the Centre for Poetry and the Archive of the Now. She is also co-publisher of Barque Press.