My poetry ‘book of the year’ in 2019 was Rachael Allen’s first collection, Kingdomland (Faber). As I wrote at the time, ‘every line felt fresh and sure, evoking the country of childhood nightmares with cinematic mystery and eerie music: “glass and salt my crooked pathway; impassable glass and salt”.’
Ever since, Allen has been a poet whose work I seek out. Over the same period, as an editor at Granta Books, she has published some of my favourite recent collections, including Will Harris’s RENDANG (2020) and Holly Pester’s Comic Timing (2021).
So I thought I’d start 2022 with two helpings of Allen’s sharp and refreshing opinions about poetry and publishing. The first is from an interview with Rory Waterman in the latest PN Review:
RW: How important is being Cornish to you, and is it important to your poetry? […]
RA: […] Cornish-ness is important to me in as much as my formative years were there, and my father’s side is Cornish as far back as we’re able to reach. I didn’t realise how special its rurality was, of course, until I’d left. I mean both its sublime beauty and the incredibly unique communities there. They are pirate-y to me in their anarchism. There is something renegade about Cornish people and life that I love, a kind of hardness and no-shit attitude that probably accompanies other coastal communities. The sea-weather gives you good coping mechanisms. I grew up around extraordinarily quick and funny people, who are close to the land, and to animals, and to the elemental parts of a life. When I think about Cornwall I do feel like it’s the land health and safety forgot, with kids throwing themselves off quarry walls into lakes and mopeding around moors etc (for fun). There’s a relationship with the ‘natural’ that doesn’t seek to romantically objectify, that mines and utilises it as humans are wont to do but not to an extent that resources are drained. I could talk about the poverty, which enshrouds it, but the brilliant, resilient people are what I’m wanting to talk about today.
I think the closest I come to looking to artists who had a lasting relationship and seemed to understand both the people and the landscape (at least to me) are two who aren’t Cornish, but found a home there, the poet W.S. Graham and the painter Karl Weschke. There’s a real jaunt in both of these artists’ work around the utter bleakness of Cornwall. I think that’s what I’m trying to get to here, when I talk about its extremes; it is a dark place with a dark humour, both politically and in terms of how weather-fucked it is, and these two artists processed this in a way that feels very true to its matter. Without sparing us its truth, but also with generative joy.
RW: What have you tried to bring to Granta as an editor? What is your ethos?
RA: I came to my work at Granta after publishing work with my own small press for years, so the ethos of community-based, well designed, almost art-object-adjacent publishing was definitely in the front of my mind as I was working on ideas for the list (and now we have a design that is type-led, with a Risograph feel). Content-wise, it’s probably easier to talk about the presses that I love in America which I feel are putting out erudite, unapologetically poetics-led books (that are also fun, funny, moving, bright, essential, etc.), that don’t seem to carry the weight of a kind of mannered Britishness I wanted to avoid. I love WAVE books, Ugly Duckling Presse, SoftSkull, Graywolf, Milkweed, Octopus books etc. They put out good & serious poetry untethered, or something. It’s hard to articulate, but I wanted to make room for work that experimented, in ways probably outside the British experimental tradition.
There’s a phrase I detest in poetry criticism (that I see a lot in UK reviews), and it’s when a poet or a poet’s work is deemed ‘the real thing’. It makes my skin crawl. The real thing to whom, and in whose canon? Who decides what’s ‘real’, and what does a poem have to be to be ‘real’? I think when I say mannered Britishness I probably mean middle-class English strictured-ness, academy-led value judgements and an unquestioning devotion to heritage. I want to work, and be with work, outside these things.
The second is from a pamphlet published by the PoetryxClass reading group, which transcribes an online panel discussion between Allen, Anthony Anaxagorou, Andrew McMillan and Momtaza Mehri in January 2021 (RW here is Ralf Webb, who chaired the session):
RW: I wonder if we could now focus a little bit on this tension between class and — working-class, lower-middle-class — poetry and an establishment poetry culture. Anyone can jump in.
RA: I think there’s an issue that probably links back to what I was talking about, this idea of selling something as accessible or not-difficult by a working-class writer. There’s some kind of feedback loop in establishment publishing that insists that certain writers be kept within a certain lane or a certain sellable market […] Most of these spaces aren’t focused on what could be, as Momtaza was saying, looking towards the horizon of alternative futures. Because they want to keep selling us the melancholy of now.
RW: Maybe to conclude we can just do a quick round robin on this one very short question, which is: ‘If people could list any books that fundamentally altered their perception of class and of revolution?’
RA: I don’t know if it is about class necessarily, but I think everything by Will Alexander, which I’m consuming and inhaling right now. It’s just totally revolutionary, cosmological, bombastic, all-encompassing, he’s the best poet writing in English to me right now. But he’s just changing the grey matter. Absolutely. Totally. Will Alexander. Everybody should be reading him in my opinion.
Allen’s enthusiasm and ambition for her authors is what has has made the Granta list such an exciting new development in UK poetry. The latest Granta Poetry title, published this week, is Will Alexander’s extraordinary Refractive Africa. I’ll try to say more about what it is doing to my grey matter soon.