Poets in Vogue
The following poems were commissioned by the National Poetry Library and the Centre for New and International Writing in 2023 for the exhibition ‘Poets in Vogue’, curated by Centre member Dr Sophie Oliver (with Dr Sarah Parker, Loughborough) and on display at the Poetry Library from 17 February to 10 September 2023.
Photo credit: Pete Woodward
Self-Portrait as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Others
I smooth down my skirt, toss my hair. My buckles rattle with each step
Like little bayonets. They’re called knife pleats for a reason.
The blue wool of a Jaeger dress is better than twenty dinners with an idiot.
Bring me the head of Cristóbal Balenciaga! It’s a hoot
To sneak cigarettes in some Boston dive, pretend I’m a divorcée.
The curl in a bouffant will always betray you. What’s the point
Of living like a cartoon nun when you can pose for the camera
In a shantung sheath? My hair is dark as a drawn-on eyebrow.
I lay my fingers on the plate like a fan. I’ve been waiting all my life
To be noticed, crossing and uncrossing my legs. (How the high heel
Of summer presses at our throats.) It’s a blast to guzzle
Martinis with the ‘girls’, pretend I’m thin as a polyester dress.
A string of pearls round my neck like an artificial promise:
The harsh taste of gin like an unrequited laugh.
Quilt Poem: Teenage Kicks
after Gwendolyn Brooks and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
we make ourselves dizzy on fumes & fruit cocktails think of plants
how they are visible to each other take pics of the best looks for the record
if there are flowers, flowers the flounce on a hem
we try everything on each body has its pose a dress that almost resembles a vine
pointy boot or platform shoe our arena of possibilities: the mall
between some image a blur
stretch turtleneck or ruched skirt the brave stockings in hell a radio playing our songs
we shrink into school, then expand: formal chrysanthemum
our hair as big as a neon sign
we anticipate a message (actually talking, on the phone) secret spill
how our jokes line up in permanent rotation the made up games
our treasury of gestures all the sparklings
we have everything but control like trees, we adhere to silence
then out the door skating at night on empty streets our looping paths
the rhinestone traces left behind we who were
Sources of quoted material in italics, in order of appearance:
Brooks, ‘Winnie’; Cha, ‘audience distant relative’; Brooks, ‘Young Afrikans’; Brooks, ‘ “Still Do I Keep My Look, My Identity...” ’; Cha, Dictée; Cha, Dictée; Brooks, ‘a song in the front yard’; Brooks, ‘The Third Sermon on The Warpland’; Brooks, ‘The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith’; Brooks, ‘kitchenette building’; Cha, Secret Spill (film title); Brooks, ‘The Life of Lincoln West’; Brooks, ‘The Life of Lincoln West’; Cha, Dictée; Brooks, ‘the rites for Cousin Vit’; Brooks, ‘The Blackstone Rangers’
I would like to be the last person on Earth
Vivienne Westwood, a cento
The garment should say: ‘I am this’
A story of itself
It’s just so creative to put a sentence together
Greet me by ‘how lovely you are’ rather than ‘I like your hat’
I haven’t thought properly about dying
But if I were to write anything on my tombstone
It would be ‘The only revolution is culture’
Every time I speak to someone, I assume they understand
How easy it would have been not to lead this life
I could have been a schoolteacher
What you are given for free should not be owned
Love affairs go a long way to helping life pass you by
Behave according to the clothes
Forget yourself and you will become who you are
I am the centre of my look, like Chanel was
Punk was kids having a great time, but for what? I don’t know
If I go into a room and see Pamela Anderson looking incredible
I’m going to be delighted
The sun makes my skin itch when I’m on a bicycle
A nude is never really naked
I know exactly what I would like my legacy to be
Form is always becoming something else
I design for a world that doesn’t exist, you know, one like this but better
Catwalk report: Edith Sitwell X Stevie Smith
They walked out like good children at a party.
Elegantly sculpted statues, in buttercup-coloured
togas, flaxen and sincere in their isolation.
A song for rhythm, then the models flowed cool
and fluent as a river. Cropped navy trousers,
delicate trills of pearls at the hem. Dew on grass.
Elegance. Pavement-grey dresses with stiff
lacy trims, perfect and hard as a grievance
in the mind of a lonely, sensitive poet.
Short, clotted-cream shifts fresh and loose
as cloud. The haunted magic of posy-
and goblin-print swing dresses. No faltering.
Aurora-green, coral, olive, gold, white!
The girls danced the catwalk sharp and fantastic,
like exquisite creatures with bee stings.
To end, strangeness beyond criticism. Expressions
painted savagely, the mythological fire of passion-
smudged eyes reminded me of Gaultier if Gaultier
had declared a war on weakness. It was a victory.
Not only of inspiration, or technique. This
was the genius of rain on a marvellous glasshouse.
The hot pink tweed cut my heart with a knife.