Editorial: ‘Looking out of the window is work’

Martha Sprackland

This issue of Poetry London is slightly chunkier than usual – no bad thing, of course, but an admission nonetheless. A lapse in control. At any rate, a bumper edition, the first of 2021, and, sadly, my last one as editor of the magazine. Which explains its sprawl, perhaps – I found so much I wanted to include, against that dwindling opportunity to do so.

There’s so much I’m proud of, across these last five issues. We’ve published poems from war zones, from young people who were – or whose parents were – immigrants to this country, from laureates and stalwarts as well as poets who, until I was lucky enough to find their poems in submissions, I had never read before. A poem from our Spring issue last year, submitted to the Forward Prizes, was shortlisted for Best Single Poem – energising to know that we were publishing poems that others, too, found to be exceptional. I have been lucky indeed to have the chance to do this job, and I have found so much that is resonant, unusual, exhilarating.

Here, in this issue, I find a seriousness, sometimes a difficulty, that is perhaps unsurprising, after the year we’ve had. Yes, well, I think to myself, as I write this. These are strange and grave times. Across eight pages of this issue runs the essential reading of Nicole Sealey’s erasure poem, in which a blazing message rises from the Ferguson Report, the words picked out along the lines like beacons. I found much concern in these poems, much anger – Holly Pester’s ‘tense neck, anguish, bad relationship, society, all levels’, Major Jackson’s we ‘enraged at cages’ – felt an unsettled politics, an unsettled spirit, an unsettled rapport with other people. The crooked ethics of contracted work under disaster capitalism. Expendability.

In their poems in this issue Pester, Alison Winch, Ruth Padel and Tara Bergin assess the boundaries of this work. ‘Is making a complaint work? … is your weeping work?’ Its roles and gestures are echoed in many things; the flattened logic of transaction and exchange so easily reach beyond the confines of the market. It’s there in Adham Smart’s onset of spring, with its diligent ants, its ‘engineers in heartwood furnaces’, the industry of bird and worm and spider like workers at dawn in a city (like Tanatsei Gambura’s ‘Construction crane a monument in the sky’). In Padraig Regan’s preparing of a luxe meal the ingredients of which ‘I can’t afford’.

We live on top of stress fractures. We are to stop, to stay in place, keep apart, but maintain our output, keep producing. Tighten our belts, but pay the landlord, the epoch’s doublespeak.

I am glad, then, to have been led here to think of other forms of ‘work’, of a redefining of the term, away from the breaking-wheel, the coercive constraints of wage-labour. I recognised the sustaining role played by care, mutual aid, more nebulous acts of collective making; of the intricate building-work of musical orchestration in poems by Jay Bernard and Fahad Al-Amoudi; of funeral rituals; of the provision of food; of domestic chores, of parenting a small child; of sunlight raking and preparing soil, of gathering and making active in service not of money but the creative, connective and nutritive.

In this issue of the magazine Nick Makoha, the founder of the Obsidian Foundation, recalls the hard work that brought to fruition, in 2020, the inaugural iteration of a UK residency for Black poets, six alumni of which have poems in these pages. The work was necessary and hard-won – the founder who was sleeping only ‘for a few hours each night’, and the participants who ‘fitted full working days, parental and caring commitments’ around the workshops. The space that Makoha, Tobi Kyeremateng, Theresa Lola and the Obsidian Foundation teaching faculty have made for these writers is transformative, as these new poems show.

It feels trite indeed to assert a hope emerging from the darkness, or finding the joy in everyday things. For certain, those things are here – in the euphonic, euphoric glint of a pleasing word or glimpse in darkly playful poems by Selima Hill, Legna Rodríguez Iglesias and Chrissy Williams. But to focus only on those here would be easy work, and there is much to do.

What lightens my own spirit, I have found, is doing this particular work – a job, but not only a job – this lively listening as others speak, for themselves, to tell of their own lives. Here, in these pages, I have tried to read widely, to listen well, and to bring together under shared covers poets writing from all walks of life. Our name may carry a city in it, but these poems fly here from much further afield, geographically and elsewise. In these past five issues we have published poems in translation with their original Arabic, Bulgarian, Dutch, Filipino, Galician, Italian, Kurmanji, Russian, Romanian, Slovak, Spanish. I trust that the internationalism of this outlook will continue through the magazine’s future.

And what about off the page? Another hope – to watch in the coming months the completion of some of the projects we’ve been developing for the past year and a half, including the launch of a new digital archive, spanning Poetry London’s thirty-three-year history, and a new iteration of the competition, judged by Malika Booker. It is with regret that I won’t be with the new team to see all these shoots come into leaf, but I wish them luck.

Instead, here’s all I could fit in my arms, for this last issue before I go. I’ve loved doing this! I’ve loved it. I am grateful to my colleagues Ali, Dai, Ellen, Hadiru and Jess, and previously Ahren, Erika and Martha K, as well as Emma, Giorgio and Martin, and I’m grateful to each writer who has let me publish their magnificent poems in the pages of Poetry London. It’s been wonderful work.

this i caught in open fields. i carried it 
home for you, dear heart, eat
                                  (Fran Lock)