20.09.17 – She Grrrowls: London Book Launch

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Hypocrite

I was at primary school when I first learnt what the word ‘hypocrite’ meant. I remember because I recall shouting it at other players during after-school netball games. I say shouting, but I’m quite softly spoken and so maybe I wasn’t all that loud. But I remember one friend laughing at me as I said it. Those who get close to me will learn this strange mix of vehement-quiet-girl still exists within me (why I’m so excited for the Shy Radicals book).

It was when I was a teenager, that I began to see my parents – and adults in general – as human beings. With flaws. One of those flaws being that they were massive hypocrites. As a child who had school reports detailing my strong sense of right and wrong, it was only natural that I developed this idea that being a hypocrite was not something I wanted to be, and with that I found it hard not to be overly righteous in defending my views. I never believed that I would become a hypocrite.

But maybe I was wrong. If I am to analyse the details of everything I do, I regularly go against what I believe in. I can do a lot better. And although I’m taking steps towards doing better, there will always be things I do that don’t live up to my ideal version of myself, especially when it comes to making money. For example, my current day job is teaching English as a foreign language. It can be a very rewarding job, yet, a big part of me is also uncomfortable about the fact that there is so much demand to learn English. It reminds me of how privileged I am to have been born where I was. Such a small country, such a widespread language, such a horrible history of colonialism.

And here I am, post-Brexit, living in Spain, not able to speak the language – because if you know English, why bother with any other language? Even the one of your heritage. My plan, to return to the UK, hopefully better acquainted with Spanish, and focus on my career as a writer. I feel I haven’t given myself the chance to properly try to live my dream. For a dream, I know it will seem less of that in reality, that it will be a struggle. But then so is working full-time and trying to work in the arts as a second job. It’s time that I make it a priority.

And in doing that, it’s likely my morals may be called into question. I might still be a hypocrite, and I might face dilemmas. Except maybe the money will be too much of a temptation, because I already auditioned for an advert for Transport for London because it paid more than my annual wage at the time (I’m now earning about half that annual wage, but my mental health is a lot better and I’m living in my own apartment instead of with my parents). And this dilemma is if I am lucky. Whenever I have seen other poets at Buckingham Palace, or on adverts, I have been excited for them, knowing that (despite the moral implications) I would be honoured to be asked and can’t imagine doing anything other than accept it. Even if I did feel uneasy about it.

This is for the same reason that I accepted my first job offer after I finished my MA and stayed there for 4 years. Because I have been taught that things are so bad that I should be grateful for whatever I can get. But right now, I have taken a risk and applied for Edinburgh Fringe Festival and booked to stay at a hostel for a month. It’s nearly double my current rent. I’m trying to save, but I am worried about being able to afford it. I thought about applying for some extra work that would ease these worries – £1000 for a month’s work online – but in the end, I wasn’t sure I would be able to commit to it on top of my full-time job teaching.

So, to imagine the fee that comes with doing adverts, such as the Nationwide ones, knowing that it could enable me to live my dream. It would be too good to refuse. And as another poet pointed out, it is the system that is the problem, and most of the time we are just trying to live. I’ve worked for minimum wage for WHSmith, JD Wetherspoons and Sainsbury’s. It doesn’t mean I agree with what they stand for, so if I was asked to pen a poem for those same companies, would it be any different? Perhaps it would, being that you are publicly associating your own brand as a poet with their brand, therefore it is a kind of endorsement that isn’t as true being a sales/bar assistant, which carries with it an element of anonymity, of being part of a uniformed mass.

In the midst of debate around the Nationwide adverts, although admitting he respects the poets in the ads, poet Luke Wright sparked debate with his poem Renegade Poets, which I think is what was intended. It is not so much the poets in the ads being targeted, but rather opening up a discussion about what it means when we accept these opportunities, especially for those of us who write political pieces and are vocal about things like Feminism and Capitalism. ‘McGough is doing Waitrose, and Clarkey’s doing chips…’ Wright says, while acknowledging it’s not about one specific case, and that it’s not new.

He laments about the art that is lost, the compromise you have to have, when selling your work in this way. One line that struck me was: ‘if nobody wants to see your show, it’s probably not good enough’, because part of me thinks there’s more to it than that. For example, with She Grrrowls, the audience can vary widely in numbers, and sadly I think being a feminist night, featuring women, this makes it more niche. Then again, there’s also music and comedy, which are arguably less niche than poetry. I have also had a promotor basically tell me that I don’t bring enough audience to the show. Whilst that may be true, I would never say that to one of my acts. It’s rude and patronising.

Nevertheless, the sentiment harks back to that line in Wright’s poem. If you are familiar with Wright’s work, you’ll see that at least in this sense, he practises what he preaches. How do you make something good enough? You work hard at it. At the night Homework, as well as in his solo shows, you can see the effort that goes into creating quality pieces, and the poem Renegade Poets is a great poem too, with an ending that really drives the point home.

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The point being to think more about making these decisions, instead of doing what I imagine I might do – just see the money and and say yes. So, yes it’s important to think about this topic, but at the moment, I don’t think I’m able to make a decision. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong in all contexts, but something that comes down to an individual company and what they stand for, and the person making that choice.

When I did my MA in Creative Entrepreneurship five years ago, part of me thought that if I had the right tools I could be successful in the arts. I grew up with two teachers as parents and they worked hard in their field and have been able to provide me with a good life. I have become slightly disillusioned since graduating and working, that although we were taught that the “struggling artist” cliche is a myth that doesn’t have to be fulfilled, I still fear know that by taking a risk later this year, I will living on the “cabbage budget” and may never see the “champagne budget”.

Disillusioned, but only slightly. I still hold on to my dream, and feel I have to give myself that chance. On another  related note, Roxane Gay recently pulled publication of her next book How to Be Heard after ‘alt-right’ Milo Yiannopoulos received a $250,000 advance from Simon & Schuster. It is an act of protest. She has been able to stand by her morals and principles, but she has also been quoted by The Guardian as saying ‘I can afford to take this stand. Not everyone can. Remember that.’ Whether these moral choices are something we can do from the start of our career, or whether it is something success enables us to do so is still up for debate. I may be a hypocrite now, but I will try to push myself and do better.

Feminist Poetry

One funny (aka annoying) thing about identifying as a Feminist and being relatively vocal about it as a poet (like putting on an event with women-only features) is that you get put in a particular box.

The thing is, the whole point of Feminism is to not be put in a box; it’s about dismantling binaries of gender, and dichotomies such as the infamous virgin/whore one. I guess that’s why lots of people have been sharing comment from Maisie Williams about the label “Feminist” – reducing it to the simple catchy phrase that anyone who isn’t Feminist should be labelled “sexist”. I don’t want to go too far into this part, because the statement that is being shared is reductive and denies the nuances of sexism and misogyny, but it also denies the complexity of what Williams was trying to express, which was actually about trolling and shame, rather than Feminism (in fact the idea that women can be just as nasty as men is Feminist). Her words have been taken way too far out of context,now having read the original interview. One critic I have is that by labelling people “sexist”, you’re actually perpetuating the culture of shame (I haven’t read this yet, but I think it will be really eye-opening when I do).

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I’m categorically not interested in arguing about whether we need the label “Feminism” needs to go, or whether it needs a rebrand. It is a type of activism related to gender, acknowledging the systematic oppression of women throughout history. And personally, Feminism needs to strive to be intersectional – how can you care about women if it’s only one type of woman? This means that you listen to people from other oppressed groups and take on board what they say, taking into account some of your own privilege. I strongly believe that patriarchy damages men and boys, and this is something that is very much a part of my Feminism, yet within this an understanding that men and boys have also tended to benefit from the system. If people want to know what Feminism is today, my recommendations are:

bell hooks – everything
Laura Bates – Everyday Sexism
Michael Kimmel – his books, but also him speaking

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But anyway, I’ve got carried away. What I really wanted to say (moan about) is about the conflict I have between my Feminism being an important part of my identity and yet people sometimes have the trouble to see that this means that I am a person, a human being, and not an object or a number to get a certain quota. It’s important to me to write poetry on Feminism and it’s something I’ve been doing for around 9 years, since I started to take my poetry to the microphone. When I was younger I wrote about being a Feminist who waxes (and a guy in the audience asked me if I was really a Feminist – shock, horror!) and about the beauty industry. Recently, I still write about these kinds of topics, but also about female genital cutting, rape as a weapon of war, and dismantling damaging notions of masculinity. However, when I started writing poetry, it was sickeningly and overwhelmingly about boys. I look back now and I laugh (cringe) because I can’t even remember who the hell I’ve written about so emotively. I mean, I once wrote a poem about a guy I fancied at a club who had a broken arm. I won “Best Loss Poem” at Glam Slam in 2011 with a tale of heart-break, after a string of unrequited love/lust/infatuation. Things aren’t always easy just because you’re in a relationship, so I still have a few sombre poems, but also a whole host of lovey-dovey poems, which are really hard to write well!feminism-is-the-radical-notion-that-women-are-people-quote-1

The point is that about 5% of my material is overtly Feminist, but Feminist lines and themes will slip in because it is such a big part of my being. And let’s not get me started on the comment (insult) that one guy made about my work being “very feminine”. It was the only comment he said, and he spoke with a sneer, out of his judgemental, condescending nose. However, there is also very little I don’t write about as I play with different forms and get inspired by different things. I guess it’s difficult because when you become a brand to market – as sadly you do when you put yourself out there in the creative industries – people want something like “Feminist poet” to cling to. Perhaps what concerns me is how others perceive me, and I worry that there may be any negativity surrounding this. But is this real or imagined? A certain poet has seemed to change their mind about sexism being morally wrong, but it seems to be going well for them. Like, my hashtag below was a joke, yet the “joke” responses that followed weren’t at all funny in my opinion… but then, Feminists have no sense of humour, so… I didn’t know how to respond to someone who is meant to be a peer, and who I expect to be respectful, so a simple sarcastic “lolz” was all I could muster.

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Anyway, I guess I need to remember what Benjamin Zephaniah once told me – that if you are a black woman who is a lesbian and in a wheelchair, you have to write some poems about other things than those aspects of your identity. So, there’s only so many poems I can share about Feminism before people will think that’s all I do! So I guess I need to be aware of what I put out there, and share every part of my writing more widely, not just the more political pieces. Maybe it will make up for all my Feminist ranting. But one thing’s for sure – I will never give up on Feminism or on myself! I’ve been through a tough time recently, but Destiny’s Child and Christina Aguilera and Nirvana have helped me through it! And now I have been writing for so long, but I feel good getting it out! 💪

Sex Work

I’ve been avoiding writing about this topic, because I know it is so sensitive and I am, quite frankly, afraid of putting a foot wrong just to speak my mind.

It is something I am undecided on, and that I find it so difficult to be decided on. I figure it’s partly a good thing, as it maybe means I’m more open to listening than on topics where I have vehement opinions.

Feminism in London (2015) took a stance on the issue by giving a platform to women who support the Nordic model, including ex-sex workers, and women who have been trafficked. When I saw this, although I didn’t agree with 100% of the methods, I was completely convinced.

At Women of the World this year, they showed both sides through performance, but didn’t try to have a panel on it (due to past occurrences I think). In turn, this meant it didn’t take a position on the issue. And I got the impression that Founder and Artistic Director, Jude Kelly, didn’t really know where she stood on this matter either.

I recently watched this video below and I couldn’t recommend it more.

It runs through the following options when thinking about sex work and legality:

-Full criminalisation: seller, buyer, third parties.

-Partial crimination: selling and buying legal, but other activities (e.g. selling on streets, in brothels) banned.

-Nordic model: criminalising buyer, not the seller.

-Legalisation: all legal!

And what do sex workers want? Decriminalisation. 

One of the issues FiL picked on with this, was how it differs to legalisation, and they argued that it doesn’t (but have a read of this). Whilst I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for people trafficked into sex work – including one speaking at this event – Toni Mac makes a good point that people are trafficked into other industries and nobody calls for a ban on the entire industry itself. But then again, I read that 95% of victims of trafficking are forced into sex work. Needless to say that most of these people are women. So, it shows that this is to do with women’s position in society; the fact that it’s a gendered issue is obviously going to provoke ideas that all sex work is a form of violence against women. But some women do choose it, so where do they fit in? Often people point out the issue with capitalism and that sex work is simply another form of exploitation. It begs the question of whether it matters whether its sex work or not.

What I find difficult may be a process of unlearning. As much as I don’t want to add to the stigma against sex workers, I am uncomfortable with what I have heard  about legalisation in Germany, where sex has been marketed within a deal where you also get a beer and a hot dog, dehumanising the women involved. That this advertising will be seen with young children, that on family tours these children will see themselves reflected differently. I really hope that decriminalisation won’t mean the same thing happening. As someone who works with young people, I can’t see myself promoting sex work as a viable career choice to those that I work with, especially when wanting to encourage young women not to limit themselves or see themselves as objects. Women are already objects in advertising for tech job recruitment and more, so how, in an unequal society, with women making up a majority of sex workers, can we make progress so that fewer women are exploited for their bodies?

For me, sex work is like no other work, which is what makes it so difficult to get my head around. However, if this is to do my relationship with sex as an act that is uniquely intimate, then perhaps what is needed is better understanding, more voices from sex workers, about the work they do and how they negotiate it with other aspects of their lives. At FiL I heard statistics about the mental processes of sex work, the disassociation, that it takes 3-7 years for sex workers to see themselves as being exploited, that many will tell themselves they enjoy their job etc. It is also where I heard the term “prostituted women” and thought I understood the phrase, only then to read something that argued that by saying that of all sex workers, you take away their agency.

Part of what I’m uneasy about is the idea that if we decriminalise sex work, that we are accepting that we can’t do anything about its existence. FiL argued “we don’t want a reform, we want a revolution.” But when that revolution appears to be impossible, it seems to make sense to do whatever it takes to protect those most in danger of suffering at the hands of these four failed models. After all, Toni Mac states that “Prohibition barely makes a difference to the amount of people actually doing those things, but it makes a huge difference as to whether they’re safe when they do them.”

She goes on to say that “you can’t simply legislate a better world into existence.” You simply can’t disagree with this statement because so much of this is cultural, and changing attitudes is massively challenging. I can see everyday with my work with children how ingrained sexism and misogyny (as well as so much more) is on this young people. Again, Toni Mac makes a very powerful point about the question “Would you want your daughter doing it?” which has been my thoughts, not necessarily in terms of my daughter, who doesn’t yet exist, but more about the young women with whom I work. But Toni Mac turns it around and gets you to imagine that she’s already doing it, asking “How safe is she at work tonight? Why isn’t she safer?”

New Zealand is the only place that has decriminalisation in place, written in collaboration with sex workers, and I guess all we can do is see what happens and hope we finally have a solution. So far, things seem to be working well. I admit, I have been guilty of seeing sex workers as either victim or privileged, and this post itself definitely isn’t perfect. But I’m trying to understand, and where I can, to learn about sex work from all voices who have the experience to speak; I will listen and try to be a better ally.

“If you care about gender equality, or poverty or migration or public health, then sex workers’ rights matter to you.” 

What would you do if this happened to you?

Today has been a good day. I reflected on how I’d appreciate my job more if I wasn’t so focused on things outside it (making it in the poetry biz). In this moment, I realised that I can enjoy my job a lot more by adjusting how I’m looking at it. Sometimes I see it as something preventing me from doing things I want to do. I’m sure we all do from time to time. Actually, there’s room to be quite creative in my role as an Academic Mentor for English, and it’s given me a lot of experience that is sure to benefit me in my future career.

Today I also took the opportunity to read some of my poetry on the theme of adventure to some visiting primary school students as part of World Book Day/Week. They were in Year 6 and were adorable, and so hardworking and talented. It was a real pleasure to work with them to produce their own adventure poems! I saw only a handful, but I was really impressed by the imagination and creativity of their work, and how enthusiastically they scribbled away.

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I left work having read an Irish myth with some Year 11s, and having written some sonnets with my Creative Writing Club. I was feeling pretty chuffed, and looking forward to writing a different blog post and hoping to revive the novel I started a couple of years ago now. I then passed a man who, mid-crossover, held out his hand to me. There was a wad of cash and a piece of paper, and he was gesturing to me to take it. He told me, “you’ve had a good day, you deserve it.”

I was really taken aback, and for some reason, I said “that’s alright” and refused the money. It was about £20-60. I didn’t look at it long, and soon enough the moment was over. But it got me thinking. I was so curious as to why someone would do that. And why me? Pure chance, luck of the draw? It also made me think about my reaction – why did I reject it?

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Well, my first thought after rejecting it was that I could have given it to someone who needed it more than me; if this was a random act of kindness, I could have accepted it and passed it on. Remember the film, Pay it Forward? I thought of the woman who is regularly on the streets outside Bethnal Green tube station, about the poets coming to perform at my place of work for very little money, and the friends and loved ones who are struggling to earn who I could treat with it.

If my first reaction was that I’m not deserving of it, why was this? I’m on relatively low pay for the job I’m in, for my qualifications, and still live with my parents due to this. Plus, with my artistic ambitions, saving every penny should be important. Maybe because it was near payday, and maybe because I had been reflecting on how lucky I was already that day, I felt like I should reject it, that I didn’t deserve it.

This idea of what one deserves is interesting, especially as I tend to make a lot of assumptions about what I deserve. However, as I’m writing now I realise that these assumptions are  bound up in exchanges. Perhaps it felt bad for me to accept the money because I’d feel guilty: no exchange took place. However, by rejecting it, I may be denying him the good feeling of this random act of kindness, if that was his intention. There are two strands of thought to which this is then tied. Firstly, this idea of exchange, I’m guessing, must stem from living in a capitalist society. I hadn’t done anything to earn that money, so why should I have it?

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Secondly, my mind jumped from thinking about what I could have possibly done to earn the money. That maybe I didn’t do anything, maybe I just was. I began to wonder of the intention in a way that may not make sense, but I wondered about the gendered aspect of this situation. Would he have offered the money to a man? I questioned this, and when I told my dad, he not only said that he would have taken the money, but that he imagined if he was a woman he would be wondering about the intention of this.

I’m not saying there is anything gendered in terms of taking the money or not (yet) as my mum also said she would take it. But I have to admit that these years of walking as a woman have made me defensive when it comes to men talking to me in the street due to the amount of negative, intimidating situations I’ve encountered. A random act of kindness did provoke some suspicion. I felt the same way when a man offered me a seat on the train once: do I look pregnant? I panicked.

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I wondered what was written on the note, probably a nice message about having a nice day and doing something nice with the money. The guy that approached me was just a normal guy, nothing stood out to me as unusual. And he did seem genuine and nice. Perhaps it links back to experiences as a teenager with what strangers were to me. They threw water balloons at you. They slapped you in parks. They called you to their van to ask directions. They kissed you at drunken parties. They called you and threatened to “shank” you. What is sad is that I’ve internalised these experiences, so that when a stranger does something we can probably safely assume was kind, I question these motives – and my deservingness – so automatically that it is simply a reflex to reject the money.

I’m really interested to know what others would do, so please comment below to let me know how you think you might react to this situation. I’m also really curious to find out why this man offered me this money, so if he ends up reading this, please let me know! I wish I had stopped to ask why. For now, I’ll override my initial concerns and put it down to a random act of kindness. And maybe next time I’ll be more aware of it happening.

 

The Norwich Radical: My One Year Anniversary

The other week I wanted to show Bande de Filles aka Girlhood, to 6th Form students in order to get them to come along to the Feminist Club. They had been keen after having Feminista UK coming in to run a workshop with them. Sadly, my efforts at putting colour-posters up, guying popcorn and even buying the DVD specifically to show the film were wasted at this time. It was rather depressing to hear the music at the start repeat in an empty classroom. I guess they’re overworked. And as an English Mentor, I keep giving them extra reading to do as it is!

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I’ve been writing for The Norwich Radical for a year now, where I look at the arts through a feminist lens. Girlhood was a film I highlighted for its Feminist credentials. So, I thought this would be an opportune time to highlight the articles I’ve written thus far. You can get a whole list by clicking here.

In order of appearance:

I’m Sorry You’re Offended

Sirens at Soho Theatre

Soho Comedy: Women, ‘It’s Like They’re Real People’

Emmy the Great: Oslo, Hackney

The Bechdel Test Fest

Women of the World Festival 2015: Part 1 and Part 2

Three Women Poets

Women Fashion Power: Not a Multiple Choice Question

Woman Verses World

The Place for Poetry: Fragment and Process, Visual Culture and Performance

The Last Word

Soon Every House Will Have One

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To Kill a Mockingbird – Is it Just Me?

In Defence of Telling Girls They Can

Let’s Talk About Sex: The Institute of Sexology and Sex in the Afternoon

Feminist Picks: Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Homework: Molly Naylor and Katie Bonna

Arts Funding: Young People, Women and Intersectionality

Suffragette: The Fight is Not Over

The Hollow of The Hand

Hannah Silva’s ‘Shlock!’

The World Goes Pop

Warsan Shire’s Her Blue Body

Richard Yates: An Accidental Feminist?

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Feminism in London: Engaging Men in Feminism

Last year at the FiL conference I went to a similar workshop about men and Feminism. This year, The Great Initiative came to deliver the workshop, which went through a some of the activities they would do with school children as a way of engaging them within discussions on gender and equality. Although the focus is on men and boys here, it is a far cry from the misogynist MRAs one can get used to trolling online. The men who are serious about addressing gender do so in a pro-Feminist way. Through ‘Great Men’, they aim to disrupt gender stereotypes and engage participants in the movement towards gender equality. The diagram below shows how they go about this.

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In the workshop, we started with word associations on big pieces of paper connected to men and women. The main bulk was in groups, where we discussed pros and cons men being engaged with Feminism. Our initial reaction to the task was that there simply aren’t any cons to men being engaged with Feminism. We then thought more about it in terms of either the act of engaging men itself and what are essentially maybe teething issues, so things like feeling men are to blame rather than it being about a system of power, but arguably paradoxically having to think about being in a position privilege and how that can be used for making the movement stronger. Yet, in terms of men who are engaged in Feminism, there may be a resistance to, in some ways, giving up power, and in turn a danger to dominate rather than listen and try to understand how life is coloured with experiences of being a woman. I managed to take a photograph of our notes on the topic. When the discussion was opened up, we managed to summarise, and there were moments where it descented into debate, but at the end we were left with this list to keep in mind, and some tools and approaches to engaging men and boys in Feminism.

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