Cops on horseback and post-Ferguson shudders

NOTE (added after writing but before posting): I talk about race and Ferguson and police brutality in this post, but if you’ve not been reading about these things already, then please: don’t read this. Read something else. My voice is not an important one here -I’m white, British, and have never been on the receiving end of structurally racist state violence. Go read what American people of colour have to say about Ferguson and other instances of racist police brutality – there’s a lot at The Root, Racialicious, and Colorlines; if you’re a Twitter person then look at #BlackLivesMatter, #ICantBreathe, #ThisMustStop. They’re the voices that need to be heard, over and above those of white people. But I’m adding my voice on here because – per these two articles about white allyship – silence can be oppressive too. White voices absolutely should not be central to this discourse, but they should be raised in support and solidarity. We should be angry. We should be upset. We should be viscerally horrified by, and ashamed to be benefiting from, a system that is shot through with such prejudice and violence. The post that follows is kind of rambling and written on less than five hours sleep; it is mostly about the internal landscape of me-the-white-narrator and as such is really really not something that should be at all centred in this discourse; but I’m posting it with this caveat because ultimately I think I’d rather say to the world “here are some of my feelings about the police and racist violence” than say nothing at all and be another silent white person awkwardly not posting about this at all. (POC: If I have still screwed up in so doing, please tell me and I will listen.)

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I saw three mounted police officers in a built-up area of London today, and my first feeling was one of terror for the people who lived in the neighbourhood.

This was kinda new to me. In the village where I grew up, police on horseback were not an uncommon sight – and indeed, there were generally quite a few people (civilians!) on horseback knocking around the village, so the sound of hoofbeats could just as well mean Farmer Jones or little Jemima’s riding lesson as it could mean Bobbies on Dobbin. (Bobbies. Tommies. Isn’t it funny how we’ve given cute friendly names to the perpetrators of state-sanctioned violence and murder? Names that make them sound like adorable little boys playing dress-up and starry-eyed over Glory and Honour and Serving Their Country?) So – clip-clop cops are things I do not find strange. But in the past few weeks there has been this… relentless dizzying focus on the police as agents of violence, in both broad structural ways and in bone-crunchingly immediate ways. (Mostly the American police, although seriously let’s not kid ourselves that the UK police are saintly – they may not make such liberal use of guns, but political demonstrators are still routinely met with violence, and I hope nobody’s forgotten about Jean Charles de Menezes.)

Ferguson is dominating my newsfeed right now, and on top of that there seems to be a new story every other day displaying the same pattern of police violence against black people going unpunished, unacknowledged, inadmissible. I’m told by American friends that this is the status quo – but the focus on Ferguson means that racist police violence is getting reported more often and disseminated more widely. White officers killing black members of the public with no fucking repercussions, even when they’re unarmed, even when they’re holding their hands above their heads, even when there are multiple witnesses, even when it’s caught on film, even when the coroner literally fucking rules it a homicide. So I see three white police officers clip-clopping about on their immense draft horses, and all I can think is: oh shit. This neighbourhood is somewhere a hell of a lot of economically-disadvantaged people of colour live, and there are mounted police riding around and talking on their radios. Something awful is about to kick off, someone is going to get their head smashed in by a truncheon, someone is going to have their child or partner or parent not come home tonight and not know what’s happened until they see their loved one’s face on the news alongside justifications about why they deserved to die. Shit. It’s going to happen, here, now, and I have no idea what to do or how to help when it does.

And that sense of dread – it’s nothing, compared to what so many people of colour are constantly forced to deal with. It was small, it was fleeting, and it was fear for the lives and safety of other people rather than for myself. It was a glimpse of a very mild version of something terrible that I can’t imagine the extent of. It was a single moment of my evening rather than a constant presence in my life. And I’m still shaken enough to vomit out a blog post about this. It’s not news to me, on an intellectual level, that the police frequently enact structural violence – racism, sexism, queerphobia – but I’ve never really felt it before, an instinctive shudder at the sight of hi-vis vests over dark uniforms, and glossy muscular horses that could run people down easy as breathing.

I hung around and watched them for a while, worried. Eventually I asked an officer what was happening – apparently “there was an incident”, that’s all I got told. There were parents with children wanting to pat the nice horsies – and other adults hanging back, nervous. I hope like hell that nothing happened after I left.

I don’t know how to end this post in a coherent way. So I’ll just say I’m horrified by everything I’ve heard and seen about what’s been happening in and around Ferguson. The white-supremacist world we’ve built and maintained is toxic and violent and none of this bullshit is even slightly okay. I want us to keep waking up to it, to keep listening to those who know what it is like to live under its shadow, to understand even a fraction of the rage and fear and horror that this systemic brutality necessarily merits, and to join the fight against it.

Made-up words

*bzzt – bzzt – crackle*

We interrupt our scheduled radio silence to bring you this important broadcast –

ALL WORDS ARE MADE-UP WORDS. We did not find naturally-occurring words washed up on the beach. We did not crack open fruit and find words spelled out in glistening seeds. We did not hew words out of the living rock. Words are of human origin. WE MADE THEM UP.

Yes, some of them were made up by long slow processes of making noises at each other over thousands of years, while some were deliberately bolted together very recently out of existing words and roots and suffixes and prefixes, and others emerged from the bubbling stewpot of all the words in current usage. And yes, some words have been made up more recently than others. But if you’re discounting words like “genderqueer” and “cisgender” (and “sie/hir”, “intersectional”, “allistic”, and basically any words to come from marginalised groups), I sure hope you’re  discounting words like “smartphone” and “fracking” too.  They’re all as made up as each other. That’s what we DO – we make up new words when the words we have aren’t enough to describe the world around us, or the experiences we have. Language is constantly changing and evolving. Words reflect our reality, but they also set the terms of it. (Hey, didn’t I post an audio poem about precisely that?) Adapting language is not a trivial thing: it is powerfully legitimising. It is adding your truth to the terms which govern and delimit existence – it is expanding the category of the “real”.*

And fellow Anglophones, we really don’t have any excuse for this kind of prescriptivism – the Oxford English Dictionary, i.e. the foremost authority on the English language, adds hundreds of new words (or new usages of old ones) every damn year. If English had never changed then we’d all be reading Beowulf without a translation; and yet there’s always someone who seems to think that English-as-it-is-right-now is the pure, immutable, “correct” form and everything after this arbitrary cut-off point is Wrong. All it takes to see the absurdity is to imagine people tutting over Shakespeare for all the words he “made up”. And then imagine a few generations later: These kids today, with their barefaced assassination of our mother tongue! What remorseless savagery they show in besmirching our majestic language! (Yes, those are all Shakespeare.)

(This post brought to you by a friend’s request that I actually blog the things I rant about in conversation, and this thing in particular.)

* (I have a feeling “the terms which govern existence” is a phrase I’m quoting, but – aptly? – it seems to have fallen into my own idiolect enough that I’m not sure where it came from now, and Google is just presenting me with information about governments. Thanks, Google. Thoogle.)

Where I’m going with #refugepoetry next

The short version: I’m switching from sprint mode to marathon mode. I’ll keep writing postcard poetry (and taking prompts and donations) until I either hit 100 poems, or hit £1000, at which point I’ll declare victory in my own personal iteration of NaPoWriMo and send the money off to Refuge. Sponsor me and you’ll get either get a poem written to your prompt sent to you on a postcard, or you can claim an existing (unclaimed) poem written for this challenge and I’ll send you that. If you can’t spare the money, prompt me anyway – you won’t get the card, but you will probably get the poem posted online at some point.

As anyone watching my Twitter or the Tumblr for my #refugepoetry output will have noticed, I did not in fact produce 100 poems on the 15th OR raise £1000. But I’m actually alright with that – “shoot for the moon; even if you miss you’ll land among the stars” and all that. And honestly, I’m pleased with myself for prioritising the Life Stuff which came up – namely a trip to the doctor and some flat viewings arranged by my housemate-to-be – and not beating myself up for failing to meet my very ambitious target. Particularly since my achievements from that day included successfully finding somewhere new to live, and writing five poems – one of which I also turned into a rough recording, and two of which got gleefully shared around Twitter and Facebook by the recipients and their friends. Five long poems is perhaps not as numerically impressive as 100 long ones, but I’m really rather pleased with some of them – The Dragon Queen will definitely get an airing at future slams! I then wrote a further four poems on the 16th, but the 17th (and 18th so far) are been poem-free.

So, where next? I didn’t hit my target, but I want to continue raising money and writing poetry for people (particularly since I have a lot of prompts I’ve not yet honoured). I am really enjoying writing poetry to prompts. Sharing my work online like this – in text form on a blog, rather than as a recording on Soundcloud or text published in an online magazine – is quite out of my comfort zone, but I think that’s good for me. As above, I’m going to keep going with this – until I either hit 100 poems or £1000. I will try to post roughly one poem a day, even if I have to compose it on my phone while on the Tube or something, and I’ll also aim to have one or two days where I attempt another write-a-thon sprint towards the finish line.

If you’ve enjoyed the poetry I’ve produced so far, please do share it around and point people towards the fundraising page! The list below will be updated regularly with links to newly-added poems.

#1 Prompt: “eating ice-cream on a rainy day”
#2 Unprompted, first line: “i remember jane in the rich red room”
#3 Unprompted, first line: “Jesse was the kind of guy”
#4 Prompt: “Mer-rabbit?”
#5 Prompt: “unapologetic dragon or accidental femme fatale”
#6 Unprompted, exercise in misheard voice/text software, first line: “Middleton roses and whiskers on kittens”
#7 Unprompted, first line: “The fog flattens you”
#8: Unprompted, blackout poem, first line: “The moment the air is clear”
#9 … nothing yet!

100 poems in a day for Refuge – please donate!

THE SHORT VERSION: On the 15th of August 2014, I will be attempting to write 100 poems in a day, to raise money for Refuge. Sponsor me here. Domestic violence services are facing cuts and it’s vital that they can continue their work. I’m joining Claire Trévien, Tori Truslow, and Cat Conway in this endeavour – follow our team here! – and we’re aiming to raise over £2,500. So please, even if you can’t donate, consider signal-boosting this post in case someone else might?

I’ll be writing the poetry on postcards, which will be posted my shiny new Tumblr poetry-postcards so I can update frequently without burying everything on my main blog. Feel free to send me writing prompts! If you donate, I will make absolutely certain your prompt gets written – AND I’ll send you your choice of postcard by snail-mail.

THE LONGER VERSION: I’m taking a moment to remind you, dear readers, that the day after I come back from the Edinburgh Fringe, I will be attempting to write ONE HUNDRED POEMS. One hundred poems in a day. That’s the 15th. Which, as you probably know, is VERY SOON. And I’m doing it to raise money for Refuge, because they work they do in supporting victims/survivors of domestic violence is really important. So far I’ve hit £130, and I am immensely grateful to all the generous folk who have donated so far, but – but, but, but – I am aiming for £1000. 100 poems and 1000 pounds both seem impossibly distant, but you know I love a challenge to throw myself bodily against, so please, if you can spare the money, donate some. And if you can’t spare the money, then donate something else – a prompt, an ideal, a potential title, a picture you want a poem telling the story behind… anything. And I may well write about it.

If you want to make sure I write your prompt, throw me some money. If you want one of the postcard poems, throw me some money. Remember: if you like my poetry, this is your chance to have a poem written JUST FOR YOU. On a postcard. And then sent to your actual home through the actual post. It’ll be just like the Elizabethan era – poetry, ON DEMAND. Okay, I’ll be Shakespeare, you can be the Earl of Southampton or Sussex or something. Give me money and I’ll give you art. Possibly very caffeine-rich, sleep-deprived art. And then I’ll give said money to people who need it an awful lot more than me. Isn’t this basically the perfect deal? (Well, probably not, but hopefully it’s at least quite good.)

Thank you so much reading – please pass this on if you can!

Mermaids, poetry, Nine Worlds, and the Edinburgh Fringe

Other Voices will be on at the Banshee Labyrinth, Niddry St, 14:50 - 15:40 every day except Wednesdays. (Image from the Other Voices website.)

Other Voices will be on at the Banshee Labyrinth, Niddry St, 14:50 – 15:40 every day except Wednesdays. (Image from the Other Voices website.)

Hello, dear readers! Once again, doing all the things has left me with little time to blog about the things – so here is a quick flying update on what’s coming up in the next week!

Edinburgh Fringe Festival: this year I’m joining the cast of five-star poetry show Other Voices, and I am excited beyond belief about this. I’ll be sharing the cabaret stage with a number of very talented spoken word performers – catch me at The Banshee Labyrinth at 2:50pm on the 10th, 12th, and 14th. Expect queer-feminist rage, mythology and fairytales as you’ve never seen them before, and a dash of wit and witchery. I’m also hoping to make it to various open mics while I’m there!

Nine Worlds Geekfest: I’m not at Nine Worlds myself this year, but my work will be! (I hope you like mermaids. If you don’t like mermaids, what are you even here for? :p ) After The Mermaid’s Wish was listed as a source material for the Nine Worlds Game Jam, I wasn’t sure what could top that in terms of artistic collaboration/cross-pollination – but Eithin is giving it a go! Jewellery based on my poem ‘Washed Up’ (yes, that’s another take on The Little Mermaid) will be available from the Eithin stall at the convention, 9am-5pm on Saturday, and costing £15 per piece. Seeing my poem cut up and turned into jewellery feels really interesting – I like the way that it focuses the attention on certain juxtapositions of words that perhaps are less obvious in the complete poem. I’m absolutely in love with the use of colour and texture (images of a type of seaweed mentioned in the poem), and frankly thrilled at the idea of people wearing something I’ve had a part in making.

'Washed Up' jewellery, available from Eithin at Nine Worlds. (Image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/ravenmagic/14657327498/in/photostream/ )

‘Washed Up’ jewellery, available from Eithin at Nine Worlds. (Image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/ravenmagic/14657327498/in/photostream/ )

#RefugePoetry 100-poem Challenge: on August 15th I’ll be joining poet Claire Trévien and a number of others for a day of high-intensity creativity, to raise money for domestic violence support service Refuge. The 15th is the day after I get back from Edinburgh, so I plan to spend the day in a  caffeine-fuelled haze of writing! Can I write 100 poems in one day? No idea, but it’ll be fun finding out! I’ll be taking inspiration from postcards, random word generators, and prompts from whoever wishes to give them – including YOU. If you’d like to make sure I write something for your prompt, you can sponsor me here – but you’re welcome to prompt without sponsoring, sponsor without prompting, or indeed do neither (though I’d love it if you did). Our team page is here; you can read more about how Refuge is under threat here. I’ll be posting the results online!

(A note about the fundraising: transphobia/transmisogyny is endemic in some women-only services, and is backed up by a loophole in the 2010 Equality Act that allows women’s crisis services to discriminate against trans women. To the best of my knowledge, Refuge does not exclude trans women from their services. I telephoned them on Monday and the person I spoke to said it was her understanding that trans women were welcome as staff and as service-users, and offered to check through their Equality & Diversity policy and confirm this. I have not heard back since; if it does transpire that Refuge operate a transmisogynist policy then I would welcome guidance from trans women on what to do next.)

That’s all for now – thank you for reading!

A statement pendant made from the first three lines of 'Washed Up'. I love this so much - hope it finds a good home at Nine Worlds! Image by Eithin.

A statement pendant made from the first three lines of ‘Washed Up’. I love this so much – hope it finds a good home at Nine Worlds! Image by Eithin.

 

Dispatches from Misandry-Prime, planet of the false rape accusations

So, today I found myself reading a comment thread attached to this article (clean link) about the rape allegations against Ben Sullivan, current President of the Oxford Union. It seems that there are people out there who not only believe that anyone accused of rape should be automatically granted anonymity, but who believe that if that if the accused is not convicted of rape, the accuser should go to prison instead, and take the sentence the accused would have received. You know, for their vicious attempts to ruin the accused’s career.

Seriously? What the fuck? What fucking planet are you on?

In fact, let’s talk about that planet. Let’s name it Misandry-Prime, because – according to some of the commenters on that thread – any policy other than the aforementioned arrangement – is “a prime example of misandry”. On Misandry-Prime, where such a policy makes sense, I propose that the following must all be true:

– On Misandry-Prime, nobody ever watches the films of Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, or Charlie Chaplin, because allegations of rape have permanently tarnished their careers. In fact, every single one of the following people can’t show their faces in public again, because of how dramatically their careers went down the toilet at the first indication that they might have sexually assaulted someone: Al Gore, Jimmie Page, R. Kelly,  John Travolta,  Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, Mike Tyson, Jerry Seinfeld, Dominique Strauss-Kahn… and if you add in accusations of domestic violence, let’s not forget Michael Fassbender, Charles Saatchi, Mel Gibson, and Sean Penn. Not a single one of them are still household names. All of those men – their careers were completely ruined the second someone came forward about being assaulted by them, regardless of whether the jury found in their favour or not, or even whether the case made it to court! Not a single person spoke up for them!

– On Misandry-Prime, whenever someone comes forward about a person who sexually assaulted them, they are instantly and automatically believed. There is no groundswell of support for the accused – no, not even for Ched Evans or Julian Assange – and there are definitely no aggressive smear campaigns against the accuser.

– On Misandry-Prime, rape accusations are magic! They alone have the ability to ruin someone’s reputation, and they will do it instantly, in the time it takes to click your fingers, the moment anyone suggests that rape might have occurred. Nobody has ever had their reputation ruined by allegations of murder, or theft, or drug abuse – on Misandry-Prime, it is rape accusations and rape accusations alone that can do this. Since rape is the only criminal allegation that could possibly damage someone’s career, rape trials are the only ones that need to take place in complete secrecy!

– On Misandry-Prime, real rape victims come forward in the sure knowledge that they would be believed and supported – and even though rape trials are all entirely secret, they have a psychic ability to sense when someone who assaulted them is on trial, which means they can still add their own evidence to the trial!

– On Misandry-Prime, the media circus that surrounds rape allegations is ~*~super-exciting and fun~*~! It doesn’t involve having every aspect of your body, personal life, sexual history, moral character, etc, constantly publicly scrutinised with the aim of determining whether you were “asking for it” or if you were sufficiently attractive for someone to bother raping, and there’s never any kind of smear campaign designed to make you out to be a crazy, irrational, slutty, ugly, attention-seeker who had sex and then changed their mind afterwards! Nope, it’s just a fun way for a bored party girl to get onto a lot of chat shows, get the attention she craves, and wreak dramatic revenge on a man who she probably just doesn’t like because he rejected her or something.

– On Misandry-Prime, the juries ALWAYS get it right. It’s just logic, you guys – if the jury couldn’t prove the defendant did it, then obviously the defendant didn’t do it! This means that it’s standard legal practice, if the prosecution fails to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime in question, that the plaintiff always subsequently gets arrested for perjury and sentenced to whatever punishment was waiting to be lined up for the defendant.  This is why people who can’t prove that someone mugged them or burgled them end up in jail half the time! And this is why, on Misandry-Prime, there needs to stop being an exception for rape!

So, on Misandry-Prime, perhaps this ass-backwards idea makes some kind of sense. But since we don’t fucking live there, let’s stop with this bullshit, alright?

Why this blog keeps going quiet

It’s rare for me to post an entry here without editing it several times – and when I do, I usually end up regretting it, feeling like I’ve short-changed my readers or failed to express myself as clearly or as eloquently as I could have done. Writing this now, and posting it now, is something of an experiment – or perhaps a plunge, into the deep end of a rather ominous-looking pool.

Although openness (and the vulnerability that goes with it) is something I look for in the writing of others – and indeed, strive for in my own work when it comes to poetry and fiction – it’s hard to divorce my writing on this blog from a need to appear ‘professional’. Calm, composed, collected, in control of my life. After all, that’s what this blog is for – it’s not like pseudonymous blogs I’ve previously had, it’s an Official Outpost for Information About Hel Gurney (Writer, Activist, Poet, Et Cetera). It’s probably the first thing someone finds when they google my name, and the idea that my innermost thoughts will just be sitting around waiting to be read by anyone with an internet connection is… well, terrifying.

Ironically, there’s a half-written blog post about moving away from the illusion of perfect professionalism and towards a more organic, conversational, open, vulnerable mode of communication on this blog – but, y’know, I haven’t finished drafting and redrafting and redrafting it to make it express that idea perfectly, so on the pile it stays. (Perhaps even more ironically, was titled Towards Ugliness.)

But this is ridiculous. I’m a writer. I write not because I want to construct a perfect mechanical self to impress everyone around me with my sparkling wordplay, a perfect untarnished statue-self which will outlast the ages and stand in testament to my sharp wit and incisive mind. (I mean, that would be kind of cool, if deeply weird, but that’s not the point.) I write for the same reason I read – because the flawed, messy, struggling, imperfect human that I am wants to find a connection with other flawed, messy, struggling, imperfect humans. Those connections are one of the things that can make reading so magical, and I feel the other side of that magic whenever someone tells me that my writing – a poem, an essay, a story – has captured something for them, taken a feeling they’ve had and just… articulated it. This Alan Bennett quote has been doing the rounds among my Facebook friends recently, and it sums it up so well:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.

So. The openness and vulnerability that is vital to most of my other writing – well, I’ve not been doing so well at bringing it here. For the most part, I gloss over the hard times, skim over the crushing lows, and most of the time when I have to make a decision between posting something that’s imperfect but mostly-finished and slipping back onto the pile for further editing in the ill-defined future… well, obviously, I go with the latter, which is why my blog is curiously empty even though my Facebook is full of multi-paragraph status updates that look for all the world like short blog entries. There’s something about the highly public nature of a public blog – as opposed to the semi-public self-curated spaces people can build on social media – that makes writing on here so intimidating. The feeling of this being a permanent record – because the internet never forgets, in the age of the wayback machine – and the scariness of doing growing and learning in public, in setting down opinions I may change or struggles I may never overcome. But it’s important. Connecting with people is important. Bringing down the walls, finding your community, giving and receiving both support and challenges. It’s why I do what I do, which is why I need to do it more here.

Like most of the other times I’ve written something emotional on here, there’s a catalyst for this post. This time it’s not a bereavement or a pressing need to come out. It’s just… a cumulative sense that I’m strangling myself with perfectionism. I have so many half-written essays I want to post on here – so many things I’ve tried to articulate, and maybe got 80 or 90% of the way through – and it kept coming down to this: feeling too afraid to put something out there in case Something Nebulously Terrible happens. (Something nebulously terrible but probably involving flame-wars in the comments.) And then I was sent a link to a post by Meg Barker, and this message really jumped out at me:

When we withdraw and erect all these barriers we end up in more pain ourselves. We’re also more likely to hurt other people as we bump against them in all that armour, bruising them and encouraging them put up their own defences to avoid getting hurt.

The alternative is gradually softening instead of hardening: opening up instead of closing down.

So. This is me clawing a hole in the barriers. Writing something and letting it be imperfect. Saying that things are hard, rather than that they were hard but I’m okay now. I hope I’ll be posting something here again soon.

[Extra note: I then procrastinated by trying to find the link to a really good post I read years ago about the links between perfectionism and procrastination! I’ll put it here if/when I find it.]