There’s a poem, ‘Street Life’, by Alan Jenkins, that has niggled away at me for the last fifteen years or so. In it the narrator discusses his relationship with a prostitute who lives in the flat above him. The speaker explores various aspects of knowing in his encounters with this unnamed woman. The first meeting of minds revolves around self-recognition: ‘We are alike, we share / the same sad, comical fear of being caught / together on our corner’. Their second understanding is negotiated through care and deception, the way she ‘makes something up when I ask her how she got the bruise / that cascades down her cheek’. The third encounter (a memory) plays on different interpretations of that idea of knowing: put bluntly, the time he ‘paid her twenty quid and pushed it up her, dry and tight’.
You could read this trajectory in the poem as a critique of masculinity, laying bare the fragile binary between protection and exploitation. On a more mechanical level, the poem ‘works’ (is memorable) through that description of perfunctory sex as the final line (the punchline) of the work. In a way, Jenkins is turning a trick here too. Illuminating the subtext of such a technique has the writer whispering to the reader: ‘Yes, my speaker screwed this woman one time but I am screwing with your expectations too, the way in which you expect this poem to progress.’ Whether you admire or not this kind of narratorial gambit is up to you.
Perhaps this poet’s approach might be put in perspective if we compare his poem to another work that dwells on hypocrisy, lust and self-deception: Thom Gunn’s poem ‘Sweet Things’. Like Jenkins, Gunn uses ‘mirroring’ perspectives to draw out his narrator’s concerns. The poem initially focuses on the speaker’s relationship with Don, a young man with Down’s syndrome, who habitually befriends him on the street for money so he can ‘buy sweet things, one after another’. The narrator reflects on why he has never given Don a cent:
I wonder why not, and as I
walk on alone I realise
it’s because his unripened mind
never recognizes me, me
for myself, he only says hi
for what he can get [.]
Someway down the street, our protagonist meets ‘John, no Chuck / …a scrubbed cowboy, Tom Sawyer / grown up.’ They begin talking: ‘“It’s a long time / since we got together,” says John. / Chuck, that is.’ The invitation is immediately taken up: ‘“How about now?” I say / knowing the answer. My boy / I could eat you whole.’ Through juxtaposition, Gunn provides an artful balance between the spurned Don and this narrator’s own desire for ‘sweet things’. Our casual shopper is just the same as Don: self-centred, pleasure-seeking, entirely looking after himself.
I’ve always admired this moral calibration in Gunn’s writing, that he (or his persona) never puts himself above the people he writes about. Those marginalised or troublesome individuals, the street life he encounters, are always treated with respect, understood, listened to. Because he advocates this open door policy, he can directly or by extension assimilate varieties of ‘otherness’ into his worldview. Thus power relationships are never quite straightforward in Gunn’s poetic universe.
I spent most of my early twenties writing about Thom Gunn. I eventually met him in San Francisco, an experience I write about in my new collection, Skin (see my poem ‘An Invitation’). For a writer who professed to like ‘loud music, bars, and boisterous men’, it was quite an eye-opener for a straight, Catholic boy from Quorn, Leicestershire. But I am grateful that I spent such a long time in Gunn’s company. From early on I was preoccupied with the idea of writing about ‘difficult men’, an orbit that eventually led me to work with prisoners as a writer-in-residence in a high security prison. Over the past twenty years I have returned to consider the binds of masculinity through various wider thematic perspectives. Three of the main poems or sequences in this collection hinge on the idea of two men talking, debating, and/or arguing with each other. In ‘Sentences’ my narrator is a teacher working in prison who befriends a drug-dealing poet on the Remand Wing. There are times in the poem where they both need each other, but for very different reasons. The hierarchies embedded in prison culture and its tough moral currency leave both men feeling pressurised by their marginal status. What is the right thing to say and do in such extreme circumstances? In ‘Death and the Gallant’ the two men, Brown and an old man, use the biblical paintings and religious objects that they have set out to destroy to conduct a guarded, then more overt, theological debate. In the final long poem of the collection, ‘Every Time We Met’, Gregory (the writer) and Ed (the academic) joust with each other about success, rivalries, legacy. But underneath the brittle social patter lies a more insidious version of oneupmanship.
As a corrective to, or as a means of arguing against these particular models of controlling masculinity, I also wanted to consider nurturing, loving behaviour in Skin. In two of the main sequences of poems, ‘Miniatures’ and ‘Jigs and Reels’, I reflect on family connections and my own experiences of becoming a father. Philip Larkin says that one of the reasons that he wrote was to ‘preserve’ experiences so that his readership could ‘feel what [he] felt.’ There is certainly a sense of capturing significant moments in the pieces that engage with my young children. In one poem I wrote about how my oldest son’s ears came to ‘unfold’ (a kink in the cartilage of each ear straightened out when he was about six months old): I’m sure I would have forgotten this detail if I hadn’t written it down. I have in my hands, when I read Skin, a trove of memories, tangible, potent, ever-present, that are also moving away from me at the speed of light.
‘Jigs and Reels’, by the way it couples poems, and in its emphasis on a storytelling and lyric drive, sends a strong nod in the direction of folk songs that get twinned together to form ‘sets’ of tunes. That’s something I think writers can miss out on – the collaborative nature of making art. Musicians sitting in a circle improvising and/or playing learnt melodies doesn’t have its own corresponding experience in bookish culture. I have been fortunate over the past ten years to work with a number of writers and artists on public art, commissions and projects in galleries. Some of my most ambitious work has come from cooperative practice and I wanted to give a flavour of this in the collection. Thus I have included haiku, tanka and a couple of longer works that emerged directly from creative relationships.
In a book that returns to representing different aspects of the arts (through writers, painters, musicians) and often concentrates on homosocial power relationships, it seems appropriate that one of the last voices you hear in the book is that of Leigh in ‘Every Time We Met’, an artist, who contextualises her own work in terms of building and making objects of aesthetic beauty, moving away from the more destructive impulses that dominated the early part of her career. It is important that Leigh is allowed the space and time to give her own point of view here. The counter or contrary voice is something I have always tried to find room for. Increasingly, narrative (through debate and dialogue) holds my attention as a writer. If Skin has taught me anything, it is to think in terms of listening to a variety of voices rather than just voicing a steadfast opinion: that there is much to made from polyphony as a way of exploring the world we inhabit and try to make sense of.