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So Much for Radical Pedagogy: In Conversation with Helen Charman
The following interview first appeared in print in Salvage #9: That Hideous Strength, our Autumn/Winter 2020 issue, along with a selection of Helen Charman’s poems. Our back issues are available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including PDF versions of all issues, and all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here. They begin with the next print issue, and give instant access to all subscriber-exclusive content.
What happens when you cast out all complicit? ‘Everybody leaves.’ Helen Charman writes poems with the rhythm of one-two knockout blows. Take the empty container of your boss’s favourite dirty joke and fill it with the most damning lines from the employment tribunal, photocopy it on your way out of the office, distribute copies at the protest, on the bus ride home let your child draw a picture on the back – do all this and you might just have a Charman poem. ‘Where do I put myself if public life’s destroyed?’ she asks, and for a brief moment it’s possible to see a world in which the answer is not: another shit flat.
If Berthold Lubetkin taught us that nothing is too good for ordinary people in housing, Charman shows us that ordinary life is the source of all that is good in poetry. Salvage’s poetry editor, Caitlín Doherty, spoke to her in September 2020, via the internet.
Caitlín Doherty: Your latest pamphlet, In the Pleasure Dairy, has just been published by Sad Press in Bristol. It’s your fourth in quite a short period, since Support, Support was published in 2018. Do you think there have been changes in your writing practice and style then?
Helen Charman: I was so new to writing poems when I wrote Support, Support. I didn’t write any poetry until I started my PhD in 2016, even as a teenager I never knew about any of those ‘young poet’ initiatives. My taste changed so much, and quite late on in my time at university. At the start of my Masters I switched my dissertation from one on Ted Hughes to one on Denise Riley, and that move really changed everything, my whole life. I mean, my life was formed by what I was reading, and so then using writers like Riley and Andrea Brady to discuss trauma opened up a very different set of texts and styles to me.
That’s a significant jump to have made in terms of style, critical thought and, I would say, quality. I remember how transformative it was to suddenly find poets like Brady and Riley, who do have a political voice, but don’t sacrifice language to its expression.
Their work also alerted me to the fact that there was a poetry scene happening around me, in Cambridge where I lived. I had spent years there but had never engaged with it, or gone to any of the readings that I saw advertised in my department. I went away to New Zealand, where my mum is from, for a year after graduating. I couldn’t find enough work and didn’t really make many friends there, so I ended up being very solitary. So what I started to do was to go to the Wellington Central Library and they have this amazing collection of American and British poetry. I just read and read, I didn’t write anything, but I became obsessed with reading people like Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, Wendy Mulford, Andrea Brady, Denise Riley, Anna Mendelsson – she, in particular, blew my mind, Peter Manson too.
I remember being absolutely shocked and delighted by a reading of Manson’s when I hadn’t read much contemporary poetry, he was just this fiery synaptic explosion of nerves.
Exactly. Just that thing of being like, ‘I didn’t know this was allowed!’ I didn’t know you could do this, you could read and write like this. And from New Zealand, I knew I was moving to London and realised I could start going to readings. I was very excited to be in this world in some way, but still didn’t have a sense that I wanted to write, I really had no urge to do that. But then I started my PhD, and I was working on Victorian fiction, and I was reading lots of economic texts – Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, Adam Smith… and suddenly it was as if the poetry I’d been reading the year before had done its work, or was working on those texts too. And through these different types of reading I came to a point where I realised I had thoughts and experiences I wanted to communicate by writing a poem.
Animating Daddy Poem is the difficult nature of your relationship with the institution of the university, and the idea of pedagogy. It’s there in Support, Support too, as if the writing is a way of digesting the texts that you’re both reading and teaching. Was poetry a way of navigating these topics at a personal level, of situating yourself within the university?
It was definitely a way of digesting, yes, but it also gave me the confidence to approach questions of ‘radical pedagogy’ without fearing I would get the answer wrong. You can’t get it wrong in a poem. I had felt so embarrassed throughout my entire experience at university, just embarrassment and shame, even when I was having fun! It took me a very long time to feel anything apart from that. Reading Denise Riley, then, was like seeing someone turn that shame into an intellectual power. She’s saying ‘I’m embarrassed, and so should everyone be, everyone engaged in this strange pursuit in this strange institution’. I dealt with this, and I would hazard a guess that we have this in common, by becoming the funny, quick, insincere person, never being the earnest one in the room who assumed they had a right to be there. So I would undercut everything with jokes, constantly, to prove I wasn’t comfortable, I wasn’t taking myself seriously.
Well your poems are very, very funny too. And in a way that has that same sense of brutal, caustic, cynicism that you describe using as a student. There are so many examples but I particularly love the section in Daddy Poem that goes:
[A gunshot sounds]
[A door slams]
So much for radical pedagogy!
Which I defy anyone to read or hear and not burst out laughing. But that resort to humour, I find, is a way of showing that we’ve studied this very serious academic language, we’ve absorbed its terms of reference, but we don’t feel at home in it, don’t own it enough to deploy it sincerely. The wit is a way of trying to show that you are clever enough to be here, even as you doubt it yourself.
Particularly with Daddy Poem, I was writing through my anger at those twinned institutions of the academy and of poetry, or poetry publishing. My anger at seeing people get away with it. Many of the people I knew at university who claimed that they were radical pedagogues were rapists. They were men who were getting away with it, they still are. I was so angry when I was writing it, I was so incandescently full of rage that the only possible thing to do with it was to show how completely fucking ridiculous it is. The whole charade then becomes so ridiculous as to be, actually, hilarious.
Similarly, I came late to writing poetry, having thought it was just quite embarrassing for most of my teenage years, but then at university I encountered ‘radical pedagogues’, who encouraged me. They were much older men, who were excited by my work and brought me and a friend into the latest iteration of a thing we later found out was the ‘Cambridge School’, and it’s unnerving but mostly exhilarating, as a young, dislocated, anxious student, to be told that you should join the club, even if you are the only women in the room. And that set us up to feel that we were different from other women around us, but not for reasons such as class or educational background, but because we had been selected as special by men. It’s hard to balance a respect and deep love for a lot of the work of that school, while also recognising the discomfort it caused not just us, but many poets. I have tried to remain engaged with that writing, that body of work, while disregarding how some of its later adherents taught me to feel about myself and my writing. I wonder what your experiences were with that scene, did you encounter it?
I never did, which I suppose I’m grateful for, it’s hard to say. I spent lots of time doing theatre, hanging out with friends, trying to lose my virginity – which felt like a very masculine endeavour, trying to fuck! I felt like someone from American Pie. I didn’t know that group existed, I didn’t know who figures like [J.H.] Prynne were, no one showed that to me and I didn’t know it was there. For so many reasons, my experiences as a student felt very belated. I hadn’t been there in time for the height of the student movement. I was extremely political, but party political, so I just didn’t know what was going on and was so unsure in so many ways. The way I found out about the Cambridge School was through reading Andrea Brady, reading Mutability, which she prefixes by saying how much of a departure it is from the rest of her work, with presses like Barque. She calls the work she did in that vein a ‘poetics of secrecy and difficulty’. So I looked these presses and people up, and realised how close I was to it all. It was such a class thing, I couldn’t admit to not knowing about anything, so I didn’t find things.
Yes, it’s stifling, that pressure to have to present yourself as a pre-formed intellectual subject when you’ve arrived at the university to try and get on with that formation.
I think Sam Solomon’s book, Lyric Pedagogy and Marxist Feminism: Social Reproduction and the Institutions of Poetry, is so good at trying to tease out the connections between radical poetry and the university, it gets to the heart of it in a very good way. It’s hard, because the university is such a site of possibility, but it fails us. Not just because of horrific marketisation and the way it has become a site of border enforcement – I was never taught how to teach, but I was made to do Prevent training, for instance. But because if you’re a certain kind of person it’s the least best way of opening your mind, because you’re so busy batting away these perceived assaults all the time from posh people and rich people and clever people and attractive people. I would have been so surprised, in those younger years, to know that poetry existed in that environment, there seemed so little that was poetic about it.
In the Pleasure Dairy does manage to poeticise class violence though. It does that through expressing an extreme physical vulnerability, through metaphors and symbols of maternity, and the openness of a reproductive body. But then it shows you how that vulnerability is trampled over, by capitalism, it shows you what gets done to those bodies. As in the section:
In the dream, I have had a baby and the baby is asleep on my chest. The baby is asleep on my chest and in the dream I have had a baby.
In the dream I am in my uniform and the customer is here again, I tell him he’s missed breakfast orders by fifteen minutes he grabs me by my collar, pulls my face close, says [redacted]. He wears a Ralph Lauren gilet.
There’s a remarkable and jarring switch in those lines between the psychic space taken up by nurturing, by care, by love, and the space taken up by the toll of labour, and its power to dispossess you of yourself, of your own experiences – the dreamer has her own dream redacted. It’s a very brilliant and confident piece of writing, clearly informed by Brady and Riley, but made your own. The use of the prose poem form is also, in itself a tiny ‘fuck you’, because you’re claiming not only that this content and this type of dreaming is suitable for poetry, but that the poem doesn’t have to be versified in a traditional way either. Often with your work there’s just so much contained within very short bites of image or sound or drama. It makes sense that you read for so long before starting to write, because each moment is so full and distilled to its essence, it feels like you’ve been waiting for a long time to write it. But I want to move on and ask you to talk about maternity and the role it plays in your work, what’s behind that interest? Usually these are themes picked up by women after they have had children, but this work has come first for you.
Yes absolutely, but first, I want to take back my joke about poetry being embarrassing. Because what you were saying has made me remember that coming to writing was, actually, the most exciting and liberating thing I have done. I always think about [the poet and academic] Amy De’Ath in this context, the way she’ll say – on Twitter or wherever – that reading difficult things is fundamentally important, and that it is for everyone.
Right, and that there is no code, you don’t need a great, classical education to read theory and ‘difficult’ modern poetry, but you do need to be able to read slowly and patiently, and to reread many times with care and an openness to fluctuations in meaning. The problem is that most people are denied the space and the time and the energy to read like that. If that weren’t true, poetry would be more accessible, it wouldn’t have to be an exclusive pursuit.
Yeah, also the difference between the cultural programming that is available for free, even on TV, there’s just so much less now than there used to be. We know all this, but I think it’s just worth saying and reminding ourselves of what we’ve lost.
Exactly. The energy and time that that precarity takes up is very important too. If you have to move house, or reapply for work every few months, where is the moment to sit with your thoughts, to think through difficult literature. You don’t have it. The more people are pushed into this form of life, the more remote and inaccessible these modes of expression, this ‘poetics of difficulty’, become. We’ve lost a battle in terms of access to the university, yes, but also increasingly in terms of a non-academic life that can allow for that kind of thinking. I actually think we lost that battle quite a while ago, with the end of an educational movement linked to workers’ movements and unions, and the idea of non-instrumental learning. This label of exclusivity plays into a really miserable culture wars framing as well, of poetry as the reserve of a particular elite rather than a democratic mode of expression.
Right, and that’s what I got from the PhD, I got time. I got funding which meant I had time, so I used my time to read and write, and now writing a book will give me the same too. Because that’s what that money is, it’s to pay my rent, to stop me having to spend all my time working jobs that are badly paid and still trying to do the same amount of reading and writing. I’ve been reading lately about Bob Cobbing, and his work in the 1970s to unionise poets and to campaign for more state support, free printing resources, and to increase access whilst arguing that poetry is work that should be paid. But now, the poetry establishment in the UK is just a joke, I mean judges of extremely financially valuable prizes are actual members of the aristocracy, or Spectator journalists, and Amber Rudd gets invited to the ceremony. And the way these competitions are marketed now is always with a demand for poets to justify themselves; it’s Jeremy Paxman on the sidelines asking what these poets are going on about. There’s this idea, coming usually from these privately-educated journalists, that complicated or mixed feelings are something that ‘normal’ people never experience, as if everyone else’s thoughts were just binary.
The assumption is that ‘normal people’ are always completely emotionally legible to themselves and only snobby poets have ambiguous ideas. And those poets need to justify anything they say that’s perceived as difficult because they may at some point have been in receipt of a tiny trickle of Arts Council funding, which makes them directly accountable to a faceless taxpayer. Normal British poems for normal British people!
There’s this Basil Bunting poem I always think of here called ‘What the Chairman told Tom’, where the speaker says to a poet ‘How could I look a bus conductor / in the face / if I paid you twelve pounds?’. To which the answer is obviously pay poets and bus conductors. But, to answer your question about maternity, I don’t feel that I’m pre-maternal experience at all. I’m so obsessed with the experience of being a child and the experience of having a mother. I recently watched Chantal Akerman’s strange romcom, A Couch in New York, it’s so gas. I loved it. The relationship she [Akerman] has with psychoanalysis is so interesting. There’s this line in it where Juliette Binoche’s character says, ‘the worst thing about mothers is that they get sick and old and then they die.’ That is also how I feel. My PhD was about maternity, and my work in general is about arguing that the maternal is something that conceptually structures everything, though we don’t realise it. I see maternity everywhere, and not just in terms of the discrete use of individual metaphors of gestation or birth, which are very common. I don’t know what it would be like to be equally interested in fathers, so I guess it’s personal in that sense. But it relates to everything, because if you’re writing about maternity you’re writing about social reproduction. Although it is very important to separate those two things – maternal work is different from maternal-esque socially reproductive work, but you are still writing about cleaning and cooking and minimum wage hospitality work and you’re writing about the production of milk.
That view of maternity, as the grounding dynamic and central generative force in everyone’s life, shines a light on why temporary signifiers of domesticity pop up again and again in your work. Throughout there’s a longing for items like fridges, or permanent homes, or a payable rent, which is a kind of mothering of oneself, to provide those things for yourself. There’s so much difficulty for so many at the moment, in trying to lead a life that in itself is not necessarily that materially ambitious, but that has free time outside of employment, time you can choose how to spend. There’s also such difficulty in finding a domestic stability which isn’t dependent on, say, your romantic relationships.
It’s interesting because when you think about the mundane trappings of trapped-ness as they existed for a previous generation, those things are wildly inaccessible for so many today. The idea that you would get married and then you would buy a house and then have kids, and the narrowness of those expectations was rightfully a feminist focal point as much as the ongoing existence of precarious work. But so many people can’t have those things anymore, yet the narrative of home ownership still has such precedence in the public consciousness. It’s so hard to know what it is I might want, because my wants are so materially constrained.
This is a point Denise Riley makes so well in an essay on the importance of housing to marxist-feminist politics. That this lack of choice risks making us all social conservatives, as we long for these signifiers of stability regardless of our ideological or political commitment to a form of communal life. People don’t actually have that much choice. That’s the great irony, I think, in phrases like ‘pro-choice’ as it relates to maternity – there is no abstract choice around becoming or not becoming a mother, when the conditions for motherhood are so economically determined. To try and address reproductive rights without addressing the economic situation for the general population is just ridiculous. That used to be the prerogative of a certain kind of kitchen-sink literature, but those experiences have just proliferated under neoliberalism. A dignified working-class life now seems fantastical.
The demonisation of that life, too, even in our childhoods under New Labour with the assault on teen pregnancies. I remember the girls in my school who had children young and managed, often after a very long wait, to get a council flat, and how they were spoken of as if they were the scammers of the century. It’s interesting because I don’t know how I feel about having children, even though I’ve thought about it a lot. But I can’t work out how I feel about the financial commitment of children, it’s such a horrifying, all-consuming prospect. It would really consume everything, because I would then have to make sure I was making enough money to care for those children.
Again, there’s an issue of time here, specifically reproductive time. Giving up certain kinds of stable work because it makes you unhappy is not a position available to people who can and want to go through pregnancy and childbirth, once they reach a certain age. I am often struck, when reading biographies or profiles of male writers and intellectuals I admire, by the kind of life it would be possible to have if one felt less constrained by biological time.
What’s happened to academia is really relevant here. The kind of jobs that give you a permanent salary, access to a library, a role as a teacher, even if you actually manage to get them now, will likely also make you exhausted and miserable. The only thing that makes me feel in a hurry is that idea that there is a certain cut-off point at which, if I haven’t made a decision, that decision is made for me. It adds an extra layer of ‘ghost stress’ on to what is already a stressful situation of just trying to pay my rent.
Do you think there’s still space for resistance, in all this? Can we find a way to live and write and care communally, even now?
I don’t know if I can answer that question at a broad level – or at least it would take a long time – but I think in poetry specifically, yes, which you can see in small presses and reading series, which are doing the work of keeping something alive. Although this doesn’t offer a solution to how people can afford to live and write – I suppose that’s the uneasy relationship that has always existed between poetry and the mainstream.
Salvage also asked Helen Charman to recommend five books of poetry for our readers. Her choices were Marxism for Infants by Denise Riley, Ban en Banlieu by Bhanu Kapil, Whip-hot & Grippy by Heather Phillipson , Of Sirens, Body & Faultlines by Nat Raha, and In Me, The Juncture by Nisha Ramayya.
Helen Charman is based in Glasgow. Her latest pamphlet, In the Pleasure Dairy, is forthcoming from Sad Press, and her second, Daddy Poem (SPAM), was shortlisted for the 2019 Ivan Juritz Prize for Creative Experiment. Her first book, Mother State, a political history of motherhood in the UK, is forthcoming in 2022 from Allen Lane (Penguin). She has a PhD in Victorian Literature and teaches at Camberwell College of Arts, the University of Glasgow, and Glasgow School of Art.