Some guy with an indistinct haircut once said in a House of Verse Housemate Introduction post that…
“Politics to me is simply the organisation of human life, and as such, it’s relevant to everything and everything is relevant to it.”
The same guy got that phrase stuck in his head, as he often does with phrases. It rattled around and bounced off everything else in there. It turned out that there was a lot more to say (which is fortunate, because I had a blog to write).
So, I make poems. Sometimes they’re very explicitly about politics. Sometimes they’re kind of about politics. Even if they’re more literally about food, or buildings, or, um, my haircut (It comes up a lot. I think I have some self-examination to do here), they’re always, always in the context of politics. Because how could they not be? We’re in a time where discourse is flying around everywhere and people’s lives are discussed more than ever. I don’t know about you folks, but once I started listening, I found it hard to stop hearing. Critical examination begets more of itself. When you make the jump to let voices into your bubble that force you to check yourself and the systems that made you, every day you see more of the mechanisms that go from the top to the bottom, moving everything.
That’s never truer than in a room full of artists. I’m not gonna wax lyrical about creative people bringing a unique perception to the table – we do, but so does everyone else. Everyone’s is worthwhile, valid, and rooted in valuable, individual experience and insight. What’s unique about politics in art is that we have the vehicle, the pretence and the attention of others that permits us to express it. Some people are lucky enough to grow up knowing this is an option.
Others step up at an open mic night for the first time, see a room full of people ready to receive what they’ve always needed to throw out there. I swear to god, you can see it their eyes – they glance around and say “…finally.”
I mentioned bubbles. It’s a tricky idea. One criticism that some people love to level at arts spaces is that they’re left-wing bubbles or echo chambers. This often comes bundled with the accusation that such spaces thus stifle free speech and debate. This is always backed up by the accuser conveniently missing Tracey Emin; Having a national paper column to praise Tory arts policy that’s kept her in her Spitalfields townhouse but left venues and projects in vulnerable areas devastated (and that’s before EU funding disappears). Skipping over Gilbert and George’s astonishing privilege-driven ignorance in saying “socialism wants everyone to be equal, but we want to be different.” This pulls off the astonishing feat of being both a false equivalence and a false binary, which, to be fair to the lads, is arguably a work of art. Just a shit one (In my opinion).
It breezes past the fact that cutting £165m from local arts budgets inevitably excludes marginalised voices, making it harder for them to find the footing they need to have any influence over their own circumstances. Isn’t it amazing how when these people complain about their freedom of speech being stifled, we can always hear them speak.
I once had a discussion with Nathan Human; one of Leicester’s most underappreciated, creative powerhouses, where he mentioned to me that he’d once heard someone of a conservative persuasion say they felt unwelcome and intimidated at poetry nights due to the prevalence of leftist politics among the attendees. That this was at odds with ideas of tolerance and diversity. My counterpoint to that is little more than “You reap what you sow”. If you’re happy to embrace an ideology rooted in the preservation of old wealth and empirical power. In particular, if you’re comfortable voting and campaigning for a party whose policies have consistently trod on the already-marginalised, cementing a draining grind into a life that ordinary people are resigned to, then you can expect two things:
They will create spaces to heal and recover from this and you may not be welcome in them!
I’ve sat and watched friends and strangers alike jump on stage and take the mic. Let fly all the suffering they’ve ever had inflicted on them. From racism, to transphobia, to child sex abuse, to ableism (hi!), to real home-grown poverty, and underpinning it all. The never-ending fucking drudge of having to sell your time and labour to stay alive and see all of it keep happening. I’m not exaggerating when I say every one of those situations has been permitted or worsened by the work, actions or words of a right-wing politician somewhere in the world. I’m lucky enough to sometimes be able to muster the energy to articulate all of this in detail, with examples.
However, when I and others can’t, and you burst into the space we made for ourselves to get this off our chest to find a way forwards for ourselves, when you demand a platform and attention you can create for yourself like we had to, then don’t expect a Harvard-referenced essay detailing our positions. Expect a weary, resentful “fuck off”, and the freedom to Google the rest for yourself when you get home.
Okay, time to be happy again! You have to schedule it in sometimes. Please do not for a second think I’m having a pop at everyone who comes into an arts event, encounters politics, and doesn’t immediately storm Parliament with placards and megaphones. I would’ve once been the same. This system isn’t designed for us to get it. Our brains aren’t designed for us to all get it in the same way. Our education is also grossly inadequate on this and many other fronts (I recommend Jess Green’s Burning Books for more on this – the poem, the book or the play, they’re all great). All I can recommend is what I’d recommend for every other aspect of life too:
Come with open ears and a critical mind. Use your context – your valid, real context that you’re gifted just by existing. To examine everything around you, but also use new contexts to examine yourself.
As a member of a political party that isn’t scared to call the Russian Revolution “the greatest event in human history.” Stalinism is an easy stick to beat me with (no matter how often we criticise it), but I assure you I’m not here to dictate. It’s my firm belief that only proper engagement from everyone, on their own terms, is the only thing that can possibly succeed in building a better world.
Next disclaimer: your art isn’t political? I’ll say this bit loud: THAT’S TOTALLY COOL AND YOU ARE WELCOME HERE. Y’know how not every poem is like the ones you studied in school? Or how every painting isn’t like the countryside scenes hanging on your gran’s wall? It’s the same deal. Cynthia Rodriguez, one of my favourite Housemates, has a wonderful poem about there being “no such thing as frivolous art.” It was written in response to the also-wonderful Anna My Charlotte apologising for singing a “frivolous” song after one of Cynthia’s performances at the Y Theatre’s sorely-missed Open Stage night. Cynthia nails it better than I ever could. Suffice to say, you don’t have to get up there and give me dialectical Marxism in iambic pentameter to impress me. You definitely don’t have to impress me to be valid anyway.
Get up there and say, sing, dance or show us whatever you feel. Write or draw or play whatever your reality is.
It’s probably more political than you think, because in the face of rising global fascism and a conservative establishment ever more willing to embrace it, just being unapologetically you is a perfectly radical act. Just existing as an artist is part of the fightback. And if you can’t or don’t want to fight, you’ll find that even the most militant of us quite like just hanging out and sharing fun stuff with each other. We all need to get some of our soul back sometimes. That doesn’t mitigate whatever struggles we pursue – it backs them up with an assertion of our right to exist as free, creative humans. It reminds us exactly what those of us who can and want to fight are fighting for.
This is my politics and my art – a place for voices, nuance and authenticity to have their long-overdue 15 minutes. With a view to a future where we never, ever have to answer for those as if they’re a bloody question.
See you in July, you gorgeous House.