An interview with Rachael Allen
Posted on: 17 December 2019 by Lewis Johnson in British Poetry and Class
The author of Kingdomland (Faber) speaks to Lewis Johnson.
One of the major theme’s running throughout Kingdomland is the consumption of animals, which made me think of Carol J. Adam’s ‘The Sexual Politics of Meat’ and the social issues inherent to meat – such as class, and toxic masculinity. As a working-class vegan, was this something you wanted to explore?
Carol J. Adams means an extraordinary amount to me, though I haven’t mentioned her by name in the book. She’s someone whose work has been with me for years as a prominent animal rights campaigner and feminist. She’s committed to ensuring practical outcomes via the work she does with women’s shelters, etc., while also being able to intellectually contextualise this work. She created a hotline for abused women after studying at Yale, and her most famous book, The Sexual Politics of Meat, is a theoretical study on violence towards women and animals. This experience means she insists on her writing being communicable, and she’s always been my touchstone for thinking about animal and women’s rights. The poem in my book that I think deals explicitly with feeling guilty about being a vegan – because in the UK being a vegan in seen as quite a middle-class thing, is a poem called ‘Many Bird Roast’. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was nine, and I’ve been vegan now for four years. My family, when I turned vegetarian, didn’t understand where those ideas came from. I think within the relationship between meat eating and being working-class there’s definitely an expectation that if you’re refusing meat it isn’t part of the norm, and I think that comes from ideas around not wanting to seem poor.
One thing that used to confuse me about middle-class spaces is people always trying to talk about how poor they are, or were, and when I was growing up people were always trying to pretend they weren’t poor. In the working-class spaces I grew up in people are very transparent about money, everyone knows how much everyone has or doesn’t have. So when I got to Goldsmiths I wondered why everyone was pronouncing how poor they were - to me, it was shameful to talk like that. Now I see that this behaviour is about renouncing privilege for fear of seeming inauthentic. Nathalie Olah's Steal as Much as You Can has an incredible section on this, which I'll quote below:
'After all, an aristocrat's son wearing a tracksuit remains an aristocrat's son, while a wealthy footballer driving a Lamborghini that he has chosen to paint in camo will forever be excluded and derided by the establishment. In this unilateral agreement, the middle and upper classes are free to mine working-class culture for whatever purposes they like - freely switching between the signifiers of their class to whatever sportswear is approved by Hypebeast - while their working-class peers are ordered to conform to a narrow set of good taste principles defined by the establishment in order to be accepted and approved'.
And I think that in terms of veganism and class, perhaps the rejection of meat is some kind of rejection of the idea that you can afford it. I’m interested in the history of how humans interact with animals, and I think that how veganism is treated in the UK at the moment can be quite ignorant. There are people who criticise contemporary veganism on the assumption that it is a fad, or ‘cool’, despite the fact that abstaining from animal products has been practiced for thousands of years. I do find it bewildering how people who would otherwise see through a capitalist co-opting of a movement or lifestyle fail to see how that has happened with veganism. Or people will ask me where I get my protein from, or what do I even eat. I always think back to a section in The Sexual Politics of Meat when Adams talks about how disparaging veganism, or vegetarianism, is problematic – it infers that people in cultures which are vegetarian, or vegan, are intellectually inferior. Because a critique of veganism is based on the idea that someone may not be getting enough of something - protein, nutrients, etc. - and it infers that a vegan/vegetarian body or brain is substandard, implying that whole sub-continents of people who live on vegetarian or vegan diets are inferior. So those who make relatively throwaway comments about the veganism bandwagon are perhaps unconsciously propagating these more imperialist/racist beliefs. So there are intersections of racism built into some of the more common criticisms of vegetarianism and veganism, coming from questions of what we refuse and what we accept. I think veganism makes people turn a mirror on their own habits, which is why people who choose to eat animals perhaps feel attacked by someone else’s choice to not.
In ‘The Girls of Situations’ you explore issues of wealth (the lack of it), manual work, and feminist issues. Can you talk a little bit about this intersection?
I would really recommend Carolyn Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman on this – it’s about class, and women’s work, and I took a lot from the way she moved through and narrated personal stories at a remove. The first poem I wrote in that sequence was the poem about working in a delicatessen, going back to a man’s house and the man owning a tarantula, and I remember thinking that I wanted to represent some of the absurdities that I’ve experienced growing up; not to say growing up working-class is necessarily absurd in itself – growing up generally is. I actually feel uncomfortable about this set of poems now because I feel like I have worked to hide my background in certain spaces. My experience of my class was without a sense of pride and more the feeling that it was something to escape. I am still nervous about being found out to be an imposter in my life, and here I’ve written a sequence of poems that basically admits to my class. I feel very close to that part of the book, like I live in it. When I was younger my life was dominated by money – or a lack of it.
It’s not the life that most poets seem to have had.
Completely. I remember when I was at school a student from Cambridge came in on some kind of outreach programme and talked to a bunch of the ‘brightest’ students about how Cambridge tuition fees were actually the same price as those at other universities - how it was open for everyone, and basically encouraging us to apply. I was thirteen or fourteen years old and the whole time I was like, what the hell is Cambridge? It was something I had no knowledge of before that point. The outreach programme, or the student, was obviously so used to working with children from backgrounds that would usually apply to Oxbridge that they just assumed we would all know what Oxbridge was. I realise these comments on class are largely anecdotal, but I think they work to illustrate a ubiquitous kind of news piece, the kind that talks about how children from middle/upper-class backgrounds excel beyond working-class children, whether they’re clever or not. When I was young one of the greatest misconceptions I had was that all rich people were clever. I had this misconception because it seemed that everyone who went to university was posh, and because they went to university they were also clever; the two were bonded/mutually inclusive.
For this reason, when I left home I actively changed a number of things about myself so that I would come across as somebody who had a different background, and I don’t even know what background that would have been when I was working the voice I now have into myself. I’m also grateful to Helen Charman’s review which picked up on ‘The Girls of Situations’ sequence being about class because I didn’t think that people would see it – I didn’t think that it would be direct enough. I sometimes feel guilty because I feel I don’t tackle these things as directly, in as raw and as honest a way, as somebody like Wayne Holloway-Smith or Melissa Lee Houghton. I feel there’s still a level of performance when I’m writing these poems that I’m not necessarily sure is perhaps ethical – perhaps I’m hiding something. I’m not interested that much in conveying the exact details of a life, instead I use things from my own life alongside all the other things that we bring to poetry – like theatre, visual arts, story. But it is difficult with that sequence not to fall back on my own experiences; it’s just woven with some aesthetic fictions.
You became a Faber New Poet when you were twenty-five which is quite extraordinary, especially for someone who experienced the structural disadvantages of being working-class. How did you find the poetry scene?
I grew up with the idea that a certain kind of education was 'an escape'. I don’t really agree with this mind-set anymore and I’m trying to make peace with the communities I grew up in. I have become really averse to ideas around ‘success’ and ‘failure’, especially the way we treat these concepts in regard to children who are 16, 17, 18 years old. I think it’s incredibly damaging to have ‘success’ predicated by how well you do in school. I say this because I had a deep sense of inferiority when I got to Goldsmith’s and saw what I lacked against people who had middle-class backgrounds, or who had attended private/grammar schools. I felt like I had these huge gaps in my knowledge, and I didn’t do as well as I thought I would at university. I felt alienated during lectures and found my home when I started a small press and got involved with DIY art scenes. Imposter syndrome is a pretty universal feeling, but I feel like it can badly affect working-class kids. I talked to Wayne Holloway-Smith about this, and his PhD on class, and the paradox that arises from this kind of work is that you emerge with this armoury of words and concepts that working-class people, by and large, aren’t going to know about. We talk about it all the time, and the weird feeling of how you’ve jumped a class boundary – but then you also totally haven’t because you’re still always completely behind and poor. My Faber New Poets pamphlet came from the first half of a Masters that I had to quit because I couldn’t afford to continue it, even with the three jobs I was working, which I think speaks to your question. I see my work at Granta magazine as an education; I see it as a kind of Masters, I have learnt so much from being there. For transparency: I got my job there after an unpaid internship which I padded with a few other jobs living in pretty precarious circumstances in London, which I think again is a universal thing for most younger people now.
Can you maybe talk a little more about navigating London as a young, working-class writer/publisher?
I have many uncomfortable conversations with friends about how they’re able to stay in London and the vast majority of them help; it’s the magic trick of British publishing, ninety-percent of which is based in London. In my professional life in publishing, I hear people constantly talk about their mortgages. I will often ask, ‘How did you manage to do that?’ and it would be ‘twenty grand from my parents, fifty grand from my parents, a hundred grand from my parents’. There’s a real oversight in conversations - or maybe not an oversight, but it’s definitely a conversation which gets neglected - about the invisible ease of having a safety net. It is simply more possible to manage your life as an artist, or writer, or academic, or editor, if you have invisible money and basically everybody I know – there are very few exceptions in poetry and literature – has this. There’s an incredible – but largely invisible – class issue in publishing and it’s because of the very basic problem that it’s an enormous struggle to live on an entry-level wage in London. Talking about this makes people uncomfortable. It’s very complicated because I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable or guilty, but I think the conversations that we need to have will make people feel that way. I also feel like the spoils of the middle-class are fetishised by certain literary communities. When the ‘Bougie London Literary Woman’ Twitter account came around, I loved it and didn’t realise how much I needed it because it was one of the first things I’d seen that critiqued publishing’s (at least for my generation) inherent class bias. It’s exhausting as well, and I say this as someone who’s completing a funded PhD, who works at a literary magazine, who’s had a book of poems published – I’m not a mum with two kids working two jobs.
And the London bubble is kind of extraordinary. There’s an absolute lack of consideration for what might be happening not only in the poorest neighbourhoods in London, but also outside of it. I hate the vacuum effect London has on the rest of the country, especially when people tell me they could never imagine leaving the capital. It’s (almost always) an indication of how people perceive class, and where they position themselves in regards to it, against how they consider people who are unable to afford to live in one of the world’s most expensive cities (essentially as failures). It’s also hugely unimaginative, to me. And it’s very subjective as well. People can be like ‘Oh I’m poor, I’ve just paid my rent. I can’t really go out, but I’ll have a grand and a half coming in next month’. There’s a real difference between life-long difficulty with money – like you’ve always lived poor – and being broke. Being broke at the end of the month but having a safety net. I try to think less about it now is because I saw how money dominated my community when I was young – the language of my childhood was sacrifice. I have also been resistant to talking about class for a very long time as I felt like it shouldn’t be anything special that someone from my background is able to gain a PhD, or work in publishing, or have books out. I’m sadly realising that this is a rarity. Which makes me want to talk about it.
Finally, are there any contemporary working-class poets who you really love reading?
I feel incredibly close to Anthony Anaxagorou’s After the Formalities. That book – its poetics and craft and treatment of people – changed the way I think about poetry and the world. I felt an immediate affinity with his poems, I can taste and smell all these familiar situations in his collection, but as soon as I sense them they are blurred somehow, they exist at a remove, as if in a bell jar, considered and philosophised on, and then there’s this interesting relationship as to why this treatment of class is occurring. How necessary is this distance? I have also felt very close to poems by Fran Lock, Melissa Lee Houghton, AK Blakemore, Wayne Holloway-Smith and Bobby Parker. But my favourite working-class writer and someone I always look to is Ann Quin. She stayed incredibly true to experimentation, which is something I think also needs consideration when thinking about working class writers and the risks we feel we are allowed to take. She took such risks with her work.