The Next Big Thing

Olumide Popoola invited me to take part in this ever-expanding project, The Next Big Thing; she was invited by Seni Seniviratne. You can read Olumide’s Q&A about her upcoming play Also by Mail, and at the bottom of this post, there are links to the four writers who I’ve invited to take part… and can’t wait to read their answers next Weds 19th Dec!

Rather than talk about a solo-authored poetry collection, though, here are my thoughts about 2012’s “big things” in my poetry life, three anthologies sprung from similar purposes: Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot (with Mark Burnhope and Sarah Crewe); Binders Full of Women (with Sarah Crewe); and Fit to Work: Poets against ATOS (with Mark Burnhope and Daniel Sluman, forthcoming in 2013).

Where did the idea come from for the book?

All three of them come from the same impulse: “Make it as political as hell, and make it irrevocably beautiful.” – Toni Morrison (with thanks to Michelle McGrane for finding and sharing the phrase). 

But they started on Facebook. Or rather, “Facebook,” as shorthand for a site of national and transnational conversations with poets, writers, artists and activists, some of whom I’ve only met digitally. Conversations can become both intimate exchanges and outward actions through the organising and outreach tools of social media: that’s what happened in each case. 

With Catechism, for example, there was a post with a link about how to send letters to Pussy Riot. I shared it, musing that it would be effective and exciting to send poems – and a couple of dozen people responded positively, so we approached English PEN. Having worked with Sarah on Catechism, and being delighted at the existence and excellence of feminist poetry, we jumped on Mitt Romney’s gaffe to create a political anthology to be published on US election day. Fit to Work is Mark Burnhope’s idea: I’m thrilled that he asked me to be a co-editor, to continue our working relationship and keep expanding the reach and power of activist poetry. 

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry – with a twist. I like Joan Retallack’s term “poethics,” actually, rather than activist poetry.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

A film version of the process of making an anthology would be really boring: lots and lots of sending emails and proof-reading commas! But with Catechism and Binders, we’re lucky to have some absolutely brilliant performers involved, who made videos, or were filmed reading at various venues. So I feel like there is a movie rendition already! You can find the Catechism videos via English PEN’s website (YouTube channel coming soon...)

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot is a communion of the visual and lyrical; rhymed, satirical and experimental poetry in tribute to political prisoners of conscience, Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich, and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. 

Binders Full of Women: 22 forthright poems by female-, trans- intersex & gender-neutral poets. With glitter glue.

Fit to Work: Poets Against ATOS: The poets in this book are fit for purpose. In their own ways, with their own voices, with protest poems, personal narratives and a range of disability-poetics approaches, they wish to speak into the chaos and call for an end to the government’s war on the disabled.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Catechism took a month from the initial call-out for poems to e-publication. Binders took two weeks from call-out to stationery purchasing! Fit to Work will take about three months, as it’s a bigger project.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Pussy Riot. All the women who refuse to stay in binders. 73 deaths a week this year in relation to ATOS assessments. But also all activists and individuals who have faced censure, censorship, imprisonment or violence because of their identity, work or words.

Vladimir Putin, Mitt Romney and Atos stand as “negative” inspirations, aspects of the world we’d like to change. But the positive examples of those who have gone before us (many of whom are cited in poems in Catechism, from Anna Akhmatova to CeCe MacDonald) are why we write. 

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Catechism is available as an ebook, by pay-what-you-will donation, or print-on-demand hard copy from All proceeds will be split between English PEN’s Writers at Risk programme and Pussy Riot’s legal defense fund. The book also includes stencils for making your own balaclava and protest sign!

Binders is available in a limited edition of hand-collaged chapbooks, with all proceeds to be split between Rape Crisis UK and the Michael Causer Foundation. You can read more about the charities we’ve chosen on Peony Moon, and you can also see Binders LIVE! on 17th Jan 2013 at Toynbee Studios, London.

Fit to Work is still in process so YOU can get involved, if you're a poet who identifies as disabled or an ally. Email me for more details.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Catechism was published in collaboration with English PEN. Binders is a hand-made, hand-distributed publication. And Fit to Work… current plans are for an ebook but are still in process!

My four writers for next Wednesday are:

Sandra Alland

Carrie Etter

Amy Key

Melissa Lee-Houghton