An interview with Wayne Holloway-Smith
Posted on: 20 June 2019 by Lewis Johnson in British Poetry and Class
The author of Alarum (Bloodaxe, 2017) and I CAN’T WAIT FOR THE WENDING speaks to Lewis Johnson.
Your debut collection, Alarum, explores violence as an aspect of working-class masculinity – specifically in the sequence ‘(Some Violence)’. What impact do you think violence has on working-class culture, and does it affect poetic practices?
‘(Some Violence)’ was the last thing that I put in Alarum, and I stuck it in brackets because I felt it was part of the architecture - or that it should be a secret fabric of the book - so I sort of didn’t want it to be spoken. I wrote it off the back of having just passed my viva, before which you have this period of time where the only thing you can think about is how you’re going to get through the roasting you’re going to get. All the other stuff you have to put to the back of your mind, but it kind of gets stuck there; all these thoughts, and ideas, and emotions, and bits of anger. ‘(Some Violence)’ was, in many ways, a response to symbolic violence. The idea that I was no longer working-class was a big thing for me. Part of my thesis was investigating that whole system of middle-class values which are set up to arbitrarily make certain things seem better, or of higher value, than other things. In that sense, I came up with, or, rather, developed upon, this idea of the body vs the mind; the body being working class, and therefore guttural - of less value than the practices of the mind, and the people that can think and create. A PhD, or the title Dr, links with the mind, so it seems to disqualify working class people from attaining it; if they do attain it then they immediately become middle-class. So part of my question was, does this mean that within this system of values working-class people are precluded the opportunity to be understood as valuable, because as soon as they acquire something seen as ‘of value, such as a PhD, they’re not working-class anymore? In that case, is being working-class always an inherently negative thing? That was what ‘(Some Violence)’ was initially trying to explore. The last section in that poem looks at that in more depth. It wasn’t necessarily attempting to be a poem written with a sense of linear progression, or a specific investigation in any one aspect of working-class masculinity, it was more taking snapshots and investigating those from a variety of angles.
There are, of course, other types of violence included. I have a friend who read my thesis, so I showed him this sequence; he said that it was good, but that I was also on the outside judging everyone else – that I wasn’t implicated. So I went through and added a couple of instances to make myself complicit. There’s a moment about making a kid do press-ups on his knuckles, and that really happened. Each moment has its own relatively complex instance of violence that is set against a variety of backdrops that you move through as a subject of society. A lot of people seem to have come out of reading this section of Alarum with the argument that I’m lamenting having killed my working class self – for me that was a kind of the joke. My friend once said that when I pass my viva I’d be Doctor Wayne, and then he burst out laughing because it inherently sounds funny. But when did we get to the point, and how, that Doctor and Wayne couldn’t sit next to each other without causing a humorous response? That was what I was trying to explore in the later parts of that sequence. But it was also important to look away from my own biography which was why I was trying to look to language – there’s this poem which talks about a guy called Mark Grist, who had a rap battle with a young lad; he was a teacher at the kid’s school. I don’t rate Grist, but I wasn’t really having a go at him like some people think I was. It was the system of language that enabled him to dominate in that context - and the fact that people allowed him to do it in that environment, almost unconsciously – which I wanted to examine. But I’m sort of not necessarily desperate to impart my own framework on those things; I’d be much more interested in what other people think.
You spoke about what it is to be working class, to go through education, to occupy a meritocracy, and then to no longer quite be working-class - to be Dr Wayne, to be ‘middle-class’. Do you feel that to be a working-class poet you’re displaced from your class?
I’m not actually sure how helpful class terms are, because when you say a ‘working-class poet’ we come to the subject of that poet from a particular framework – we have relatively clear assumptions, perhaps, of what that person will be writing about, or doing, or who that person is. I guess that you can own the title – and it sort or exists, people are using it, so it can’t just be denied – but part of my reasoning is when you think about working-class poets, or poets of colour, or queer poets, there are particular expectations placed around a poet’s subject matter if they fell into those demographics. Even up until recently, when Don Patterson understood himself as working-class, there were particular things working-class poets spoke about. And also race comes into it here. I spoke to a lad from a university in Belfast and he asked about this. We were talking about working-class poets and I was thinking that the people he was referencing, or the people who tend to get referenced, always seems to occupy white working-class nostalgia. If you think of Tony Harrison or whoever - great, those people did their thing; I’m not knocking them at all. But to go back to that now, when we’re in a society which is multicultural and should be pluralistic, we should be celebrating and apportioning equal value to people from all different backgrounds. It seems weird to only talk or think about class in the way we always have, when it really only conjures a white angry man. But I have my own concerns based upon my own particular experiences, and those will be the things that perhaps I’m thinking of.
I also don’t want to restrict myself to having to write about trains, or football, or womanising, or drinking, or industrial towns, or whatever it is ‘working-class’ poets write about. There’s not an established subject matter for middle-class poets, they just write whatever they want. I wanted to reserve the right to make poems about any subject matter. It just so happens that Alarum came off the back of my PhD research, and class was what I was thinking about at the time. Whereas my more recent project, I CAN’T WAIT FOR THE WENDING, is probably still working-class in subject matter but it’s much more about mental health. Lots of people seem to know my work and situate it within this class context, so it felt like I didn’t really need to address class as much - that it would still be part of unpacking working-class masculinity by talking about stuff like veganism, or mental health. We’ve got these arbitrarily apportioned values, and social practices that seem to be ascribed to certain people – of certain personalities, or characters – and I always think those type of things are kind of narrow and limiting. There’s a lot of poems that I’m writing that are going against that in some ways, so in Alarum I might have been testing the boundaries of masculinity, class, and violence – whereas in Wending I was thinking more about anxiety, relationships and consumption of animals. I want to breakdown the stereotypical and received understanding of what it is to be a heterosexual, white working-class male and the types of subject matter someone in that demographic might write about.
If there’s anything to navigate in terms of displacement, it’s this kind of gap where you’ve got one foot in two worlds. If I walk into a university I still feel out of depth, but when I go home all my friends are plumbers, or whatever, and then I feel like a ponce. It’s an odd feeling. But again I think part of where I’ve come to is that I’ve resolved to just sit in that uncertainty a little bit, and I think as we go on more and more people will be sitting in that uncertainty – and perhaps it will become less of an uncertain space to be, when more people occupy it. The things that I’ve read academically don’t seem to give me the vocabulary, or the language, through which to think about my particular displacement – but perhaps that’s what my poems are trying to do, to create my own vocabulary to navigate my understanding of where I’m up to. The best things that have happened to me are when people have emailed me, like someone actually took the time and emailed me out of the blue who had an eating disorder and talked about how they were a clinic in-patient and they’d been reading one of my poems. And certain people have said that just being able to read about someone having had a particularly difficult relationship with their dad, who’s now dead, that that’s gave them a vocabulary to think about their own situation.
You said that you’re not sure how helpful class is as a term – do you see that as a way of resisting the expectations placed around ‘working-class’ poets?
With Neil Astley from Bloodaxe it’s different, because he’s an open minded man – the first manuscript that I sent him had quite a lot of old poems that didn’t really address class at all – not explicitly, not even in terms of trying to resist it. It had this highfaluting language that was trying to be clever or funny – or trying prove itself, or whatever - so I knew that I wasn’t pigeonholed by someone like Neil. In fact, when I sent him the actual manuscript for Alarum – which was super different – he initially questioned it, like ‘hold on, this wasn’t what I was expecting’. Because he was like ‘well, I like some of those other poems, where have they gone?’ I knew I wasn’t being fetishised or marketed in any way. And I think that since then it’s been more reviewers, or Twitter, which have brought in the working-class thing a lot more. But also I guess I kind of did my own pigeonholing to a certain extent. I think that people are always looking for narratives as selling points. There are certain poets who’ve basically been writing one poem for their whole long career – and who needs to read the same poem over and over again? My main thing is to test the boundaries of how someone in my position can be understood, so I do that as honestly and as fresh as I can - to keep it interesting for myself, and to not keep repeating the same shit I’ve said before.
You reference Andrew Sayer’s work on shame in your thesis on working-class masculinity – quoting: ‘Class inequalities […] mean that […] shame is likely to be endemic to the class experience’. Shame will affect writers in many different ways, but do you think it’s exacerbated by class?
There are numerous occasions, like when you walk into certain arenas and you feel ashamed that you don’t know a literary reference - or you’ve never read a certain person, or you don’t know a place that someone’s just said. Or, like, someone talks convincingly about a piece of art and you don’t even recognise the name of that piece. There are all sorts of things, but I think that when I write poems I can reclaim – or I can fight back – and contest that space. So there’s something about writing a poem, exploring the fact that you don’t actually understand that language – or that you do feel out of place. By saying it in a poem, which is now quite likely to be published, it turns that situation on its head. It highlights that when you expose that system of values, or that symbolic violence for what it is, you’re not the one that feels ashamed anymore – even if in the poem you are ashamed. Having written a poem, it somehow lessens the extent to which you have to be ashamed. Personally I find it quite a liberating experience to be able to write about that sort of stuff, and for it to maybe have a good shot at getting seen when lots of people’s ideas around shame - or around those values - might be challenged.
But I’m also confessing how out of my depth that I am - or how ashamed I am, or how inferior I feel. There are still moments when I get caught out - or when I mispronounce a word, or the name of an author. In the uncertainty which I mentioned earlier is the dynamic that perhaps is the most fruitful for me at the moment. That’s the space, or the moment, that maybe produces the more interesting poems that I write - for me, anyway. I don’t know whether they’re interesting to anyone else. I found Sayer well useful, he just perfectly encapsulated the thing that I wanted to argue – and to prove in some sense, or give voice to, or help materialise, the idea that there is a thing in place which keeps certain people in check. I do feel that there are certain people who whenever I meet them I come away feeling like shit, and I don’t know why, because they haven’t actually said anything bad. But the conversation topic’s which they’ve brought up seem explicitly, and pointedly, to put me in my place – because I didn’t go to Oxford, or whatever. That seems to be an attack. Being known in certain friendship groups as the published poet… lots of people I know went to bigger universities, and studied English thinking that they were going to be a public author, but now they’re barristers or whatever but they’ve still got that desire. Sometimes I catch the whiff of an opinion, like ‘who the fuck are you to be the one that’s got a book of poems out’.
When I left Swindon I also had a proper Swindon accent, but I definitely made a conscious effort to reduce it. I was chatting to a bunch of students from Liverpool John Moores when I was there last time and they were talking about accent, and how they feel disqualified from certain social spaces - particularly certain jobs - based upon the expectations of their accent, and what they’re going to be like because of that accent. It is quite interesting. Even when I’d altered the way that I sound I always had to police myself to make sure that I pronounced words the right way. I’ve decided I’m not going to do that shit anymore - I’m happy to pronounce words in ways that don’t sound particularly well spoken. I’ve slipped much further back into a particular way of speaking - even if the west-country tilt to my voice isn’t there anymore.
With the shame which can be attached to navigating these formal, predominantly middle-class spaces, do you think there are alternate ways of accessing poetry?
I wonder whether there are ways of educating people which don’t require traditional routes; part of me feels like I sold out going through academia. Anthony Anaxagorou founded this press called Out-Spoken, and they run poetry masterclasses every month which are only twenty quid to attend; some people even go to every single one. Given that those classes are run by different people, from varied backgrounds, it means that the participants get access to some really interesting poets – perhaps who they wouldn’t even know beforehand. And that’s from one small publisher. Imagine if there were other publishers around the country doing it – and maybe there are, that’d be great - so people from Liverpool, or wherever, didn’t have to go to London because there was a local press offering a similar opportunity. That would be cool. And then there are other initiatives taking place – like the Roundhouse Poetry Collective, and the Barbican Young Poets.
Finally, are there any other working-class poets you enjoy reading? Do you feel as if poetry’s at a point where more diverse narratives are emerging?
I definitely feel like more diverse narratives have been emerging over the last few years. These poets have always been there, but now they’re being given the attention that they deserve. I love Rachael Allen, Anthony Anaxagorou – whose forthcoming collection is incredible - and Raymond Antrobus is great. There are too many to mention them all.
Wayne Holloway-Smith was born in Wiltshire and lives in London. He received his PhD in English and Creative Writing from Brunel University, in 2015, on working-class masculinity. His first full-length collection, Alarum, was published by Bloodaxe books in 2017. The book was selected as a Poetry Book Society Wildcard Choice for winter 2017, was shortlisted for the Roehampton Poetry Prize in 2017, and the Seamus Heaney Centre Poetry Prize for First Full Collection in 2018. He has since released a pamphlet, entitled I CAN’T WAIT FOR THE WENDING, and his second collection is forthcoming from Bloodaxe.