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Secret Poems

This essay is part of a Sydney Review of Books essay series devoted to the labour of writing called Writers at Work. We’ve asked critics, essayists, poets, artists, and scholars to reflect on how writers get made and how writing gets made in the twenty-first century.

I tried to write a poem about my writing practice and it was unsatisfying. My poems and my writing practice sit in different parts of my body. That is, there’s a gut level thirst for writing poems, but it’s my limbs and organs where the practice is embodied, where my poetry becomes embedded. I’m never ‘inspired’ to write. It’s more a compulsion. In the grimmest terms, it’s a disciplinary practice required for a restless body and mind. Someone once told me I possess an unfortunate mix of tendencies towards Protestant work ethic and Catholic guilt. This is a severe summary of my psychic energy; it’s not something I should brag about. But I feel a sick sort of pride in it.

In Marilynne Robinson’s Home, the main character Glory remembers how, as a child, she confused the words ‘secret’ and ‘sacred’. It struck me how it was not a mere phonetic similarity these words shared (probably Robinson’s intention), but that part of an object or ritual being sacred is indeed its mystery; its secrecy. Sacred is a historically common perception of poetry. Its practice is secretive.

Secretive could describe how it felt when I became a poet and I couldn’t figure out how others wrote poetry. My poems were scrappy and not very artful, while the poetry of others reverberated in my body. But there is also Fred Moten’s sense of the relation between the poem and the secret as always both collective and political: ‘[p]oetry enacts and tells the open secret’. In an effort to unmask conditions of being (in particular gendered and classed conditions), I began reading lots of Silvia Federici. I read Marx too (Karl, but also Eleanor). Anne Boyer and Alice Notley. I was brazen and read and listened to poets and thought ‘I can do that’ while simultaneously clutched by fear, thinking ‘I can’t do that’. I don’t think I fall into the South Asian cliché of disappointing my parents for pursuing the arts, but that was the narrative I had for myself at the time (one reason I don’t trust or write narrative). Trying poetry, having already embarked on a career in publishing, felt like an extension of the disappointment I imagined I bore.

I never found out exactly what the other poets did when they wrote, but I emphatically turned to the form anyway. Reading poetry seriously for the first time felt secret – sacred – to me. Poems are immortal. They become immortal because they exist against the world. Poems are salves. Contemporary lyric poetry is an antidote to the lived conditions that emerge from relationships between people and labour and institutions. This history of these relations is also the history of the production of the autonomous, atomised, ideal subject of the liberal order (a subject predicated on the exclusion of the feminised and racialised ‘Other’). Or maybe poetry sits opposed to something even less tangible. Sometimes I think this ‘something’ is narrative itself. That is, the formal function of narrative as indexical to a historicised concept of society that can be traced alongside its development. While this function of narrative gives us rich material from which to contemplate the human condition at various points of history, the formal function of poetry offers us a way to interrogate the conditions of how meaning is produced. Contemporary lyric does this by foregrounding a subjectivity that slips between the individual and collective; it troubles the linearity that narrative implies. Poetry demands something of its readers that forms a bond of meaning-making between poems and those encountering them. Narrative neatens, while poetry atomises. The aesthetic possibilities of poetry might be wild or constrained to extreme proportions – it atomises our relationship to meaning itself by encouraging an experimentation that takes us to the edge of language’s limits.

Each of us is individually forced to negotiate the terms of the capitalism system we have been pitted against. Some more than others. It gets hard sometimes. When your work situation doesn’t allow you to easily travel to Djab Wurrung embassy in Victoria, to help the community there protect sacred trees from destruction by the state government. My poetry is an antidote to abjection but only when I write it. I cannot say what it is when you read it. But the truth is, poetry is probably the only written form I would trust in a revolution.

When I became a poet I was already becoming a communist.

I’ve heard people referred to as a ‘true poet’ and fear that I am not that kind of poet. I don’t really want to be a true poet anyway. I’m a communist poet.

Bernadette Mayer wrote Midwinter Day over the course of one day in 1978. It is a poem that embodies her practice: work, motherhood, domesticity, writing, Marxism. It is a formative poem for me.

It turns out the answer to the problem of poetry’s secrecy is community. In a poetry community we talk about writing and share our work with each other. We collaborate on chapbooks, read poems out loud to each other occasionally. The secret is that it doesn’t need to be secret.

I once nearly wrote a poem about the complexities of Desi women raised in cities such as Sydney. This is because I was living in Sydney and also because I had forgotten what my hometown Brisbane was (the place where my immigrant family lives). It had been years since I’d felt remotely ‘Indian’ (though I did try to write a poem about the gross response of Hindu nationalists to a Wendy Doniger book). I couldn’t write fraudulently. That is, I couldn’t write to my ‘Indianness’, which was diasporic, which felt disingenuously performative if I tried to invoke it in writing. Since my father died, though, I’ve been contemplating his homeland – not in Malaysia where he was born and raised, but Kerala, where the Indian Communist Party formed and where his father was orphaned and adopted. But to attempt to think about these things in poetry would still feel fraudulent – as though it were a performance for the white literary community. Anyway, it’s not fraud that I’m interested in, but artifice.

Lately, I’ve been reading Veronica Forrest-Thomson on this subject. In Poetic Artifice she drills and drills and drills down into words. She’s fierce about what poetry – ‘the most garrulous study that exists’ – is, and what it does that other literary forms cannot do. Forrest-Thomson observes language as belonging to the ordinary world as well as poetry, and that it is from ordinary language ‘upon which Artifice must work to create its alternative imaginary orders’. Language can be decoupled from ordinariness to fulfil a poem’s aesthetic destiny. She carved out a critical space for poems to be read not only for their thematic content but also their formal and aural content. She has been criticised by later poetry critics for misreading poems in ways that seemed to weaken her argument, but her attention to the relationship between poetry and language and what makes words ‘natural’ or how to fashion words for artifice have become fecund ground for me as I edit and rework my poems. Peter Riley has noted that Forrest-Thompson used ‘the full forces [of ugliness and beauty] available in order to isolate the poem from the world as a privileged area of free play’. It is this sense of poetry as both a space for play as well as a space where language rules matter that guides my poem writing, which by necessity involves rewriting. There are some methods of artifice that I’m equipped to enact, and some that are beyond my comprehension. I notice a sense of work within the playfulness of writing poems.

The truth is, I have a sort of communist aversion to labour. I am sympathetic to William Morris’s distinction in Useful Work vs Useless Toil:

Whatever pleasure there is in some work, there is certainly some pain in all work, the beast-like pain of stirring up our slumbering energies to action, the beast-like dread of change when things are pretty well with us; and the compensation for this animal pain is animal rest.

Like most subjects under capitalism, I must exchange my labour power on the market. This is the source of my animal pain. (See also: white supremacy, rampant sexism.) Poetry is not work, but it must reckon with my beast-like pain and dread. It is my animal rest.

‘The We of a Position’ by Wendy Trevino begins like this:

I started to make a list of things that have happened, beginning with ‘global financial crisis’ & ending with me standing here in Oakland, reading something about labor, writing & fighting. Without even trying to include everything, I ran out of steam by the time I got to the third instance of ‘looking for work’ and the first word of students occupying UC buildings.

Trevino’s beast-like pain and dread has a purpose: she channels it into ‘writing & fighting’. Her poems are fighty; they think about cruelty but are not cruel themselves. If poems could be weapons against cruel politics, maybe Trevino can make them. Trevino’s book is about cruel fictions:

A border, like race, is a cruel fiction
Maintained by constant policing, violence
Always threatening a new map. …

Then again, as Roberto Bolaño once wrote, ‘There is a time for reciting poems and a time for fists’.

I keep remembering poets I’ve been reading lately, like Jasmine Gibson and Trisha Low. My poetry used to be ‘concerned with’ excess but I think I had confused my inability to prune my poems effectively with some sort of blatant critique on contemporary consumer capitalism. I thought I could do Lara Glenum’s ‘gurlesque’ and write poems about the grotesque, about women’s bodies (my body), about warped beautiful things, about revolution and care labour. Forgive this simplistic description but the poems I wrote back then contained these things. And yet when you read Jasmine Gibson’s ‘Hot-Hand Fallacy’, it becomes apparent how a skilled poet plays with these elements of excess. Her poems are long and lush and full of big scenes, but there’s a controlled manipulation of sounds and words too. Like when the narrator of the poem remembers getting a fat lip on a car door: ‘I thought I’d lose a tooth and future suitors’. Thought and tooth phonetically pair, as well as ‘lose’, ‘tooth’ ‘future’, ‘suitors’. These words feel like they should knock against each other, but they don’t. The poem goes on to do other remarkable things, but this one line catches me sometimes, unexpectedly. And then there’s her poem ‘Kaddish’, which opens with ‘The world blew up in my mouth’ and goes on with ‘dark blood magic’ and ‘twisted cosmology’ and ‘manic limbo’ and violence and bodies and violence against bodies (the raced body, the renter’s body). The thing is, your own poetry doesn’t exist alone. I keep remembering poets I’ve been reading as I make my own poems. These practices cannot be disentangled from each other. I write as a poet, as someone interested in realms of Marxist feminism, historical materialism, conditions of labour and gender that shape our lives. My reading and writing are explicitly collective, my poetics a slippage of ‘I’ and ‘we’, a poetics of citation and work, of subverting the oikos.

The poets I read over and over are ghosts in my poems. I write towards their collective body of works.

I get obsessed with things. When I became enamoured by cephalopods and molluscs they started appearing in my poems. This began with my reading The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, which introduced me to the complexities of octopuses and turned my attention to how alien-like octopuses are. While we as a society often go to lengths to anthropomorphise the animals we encounter (remember the kangaroo who was thought to be grieving for its sickly mate, but who turned out to be attempting coitus?), Montgomery notices that the intelligence these cephalopods possess is unearthly and far from human (although she too falls into the trap of anthropomorphising these creatures by going in search of the creature’s ‘soul’ and characterising the various octopuses she meets in ways that bring their personalities to life). Amia Srinivasan notes that ‘[t]he octopus threatens boundaries’, which goes some way to explaining its amorphous appeal for me. I am no longer obsessed with these animals with the same intensity as back then, but I enjoy thinking about them often. (There are molluscs on the cover of my poetry book. The Mollusk is also the name of an album by Ween that I listened to a lot in my early twenties. Inked on my left forearm is a woman in a ball gown riding a giant snail.)

When I write poetry I’m not making a conscious sense of the world around me, but rather responding to it in ways that I’m not always able to comprehend – these responses can latch on to objects and animals. I wonder sometimes if the octopus held appeal for me because it offered me a way to conceptualise intelligence and curiosity in a way that seemed ‘pure’. By zeroing in on the wonder of their existence, their home in the depths of the ocean might, albeit briefly, appear unmoored from the unbearable state of the world. This sense of the world as unbearable has given rise to another, more crucial obsession – anticapitalism.

Poetry is my antidote for living under capitalism, one way to dabble in reading political economy and Marxist feminism. Even if poetry for me is emphatically not work, writing it sometimes take on the qualities of work: guilt at not producing enough; or the frustration of missing out on awards (and the welcome cash spike it brings). It takes on the qualities of work when writers are exploited, for example, or when writers’ access to publication and material benefits are determined by structures of class and white supremacy and patriarchy. And how poetry and so-called progressive corners of the arts are never immune to these structures.

In the past few years I’ve been researching Marxist feminism and poetics as part of a Masters of Fine Arts. Trying to knit together labour, care, poetry, gender, love, social reproduction; thinking about how these things inform each other. The refrain I keep returning to when I am thinking and writing is how capitalism conditions us; how it shapes our experience of survival vis-à-vis our various genders and classes and proximity to whiteness. My practice has transformed as needed, from exploratory and subconscious to purposeful and clarifying – it has moved in the liminal spaces of writing as a solitary practice (early-morning writing sessions, the clarity thoughts and words take on after prolonged periods alone) and poetry as a communal mode of being (our friendships, physical and digital circuits of publications, gathering in public for poetry readings, chapbook collaborations). And though finishing a four-year poetry research project might have potentially ‘ruined’ these subjects for me, I still find joy in re-reading Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters – a collection that has been republished multiple times over the decades that reinforces the enduring relevance of anticapitalist poetry by showing us how such poetry’s ability to respond to capitalism over time is as malleable and adaptable as capitalism itself.

Poetry and labour and social reproduction are inseparable. I write around and against doing laundry; draining lentils from a tin to add to rocket leaves, olive oil and salt to take to work; changing the bed sheets; feeding my cat. Others write around caring for children or family members or feeding their whole household.

One day I’d like to be the kind of poet who never gets asked about my day job. Ideally it will be because we have abolished wage labour.

Works Cited
Roberto Bolano, The Savage Detectives, tr. Natasha Wimmer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Girroux, 2007)
Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Poetic Artifice, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1978; this edition published in Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2016, ed. Gareth Farmer.
Jasmine Gibson, Don’t Let Them See Me Like This (Brooklyn: Nightboat Books, 2018)
Lara Glenum, Maximum Gaga (Notre Dame: Action Books, 2009)
Sy Montgomery, The Soul of An Octopus (New York: Atria Books, 2015)
William Morris, Useful Work vs. Useless Toil (Sydney: The Judd Publishing Co., 1919)
Fred Moten, ‘barbara lee [the poetics of political form]’ in B Jenkins (Durham: University Press, 2010)
Peter Riley, ‘Poetry Notes’, Fortnightly Review, 4 May 2014.
Amia Srinivasan, ‘The Sucker, The Sucker!’, London Review of Books, vol. 3, no. 17, 7 September 2017.
Wendy Trevino, Cruel Fiction (Oakland: Commune Editions, Oakland, 2018)

This Writers at Work essay has been funded by Creative Victoria. This stage of the series has also been funded by Arts Queensland and Arts Tasmania.