This month’s selection of poetry is by Madelaine Kinsella – a writer whose work is an unapologetic celebration of freewheeling Scouse vernacular.
My first experiences of poetry were in senior school. We had to look at poets like P.B Shelley, and Thomas Hardy for the GCSE exam, and I went to quite a rough school, so you can imagine how exhilarating that was. No one really had a clue what was happening in any of the poems, even when our teacher dissected it with copy and paste annotations. I think that turns a lot of people off from poetry, being forced to read the ‘great’ writers of centuries past, and being penalised for not enjoying it or ‘getting’ it.
The turning point moment for me with poetry was reading Medusa by Carol Ann Duffy in the same classroom. I remember the mood in the class when students could understand the action of the poem at first glance, and enjoy it. Having the Scallies on the backrow, rocking on their chairs saying “ar that’s mad tha”. That’s what poetry should be. It was accessible and engaging. We all had opinions on it. It felt like a poem for us. That’s always stuck with me that.
I started writing my own poetry when I was about 14. I always wanted to be a musician or kind of singer/songwriter, so I predominantly wrote my own songs to the three guitar chords I knew at the time. I used to gig in The Brink of Parr Street because I was under 18 and it was a dry bar, so they’d let me play. I went to LJMU to study my undergraduate in Creative Writing, thinking I’d become the Scouse Joni Mitchell, but instead I found poetry was the medium I wanted to express my voice through. It became the prominent voice. My tutors at uni were such passionate writers, and very encouraging. They nurtured that voice. I couldn’t have asked for better mentors.
My poetic voice definitely has a thick accent. Scouse is a key poetic of mine. Language is such a powerful tool, and while we’re encouraged constantly to be expanding and improving our language, we as Scousers, are sitting on an intense spectrum of invented language, one we have complete ownership of.
This city is the greatest portrait sitter, I think. It’s full of vibrancy and semi-mythic characters. You only have to walk through the streets and look up for inspiration. Whether you’re gazing up at listed buildings or graffiti saying ‘ye ma’s a grass’, there’s so much to unearth. You could never be bored as a writer in this city.
My poetry is for Liverpool. I use dialect and slang in my work unapologetically, quite like Larkin would use Latin. If I, as a reader, have to look up the definitions of ‘dulce’ and ‘mirabilis’ when reading classic literature, then I don’t think it should be a problem for someone to look up ‘jarg’ or ‘arfaced’ within my work. I think more needs to be done for accessibility in the poetry and literature world, so using regional specific, working-class vernacular is important to me. It’s also what comes natural to me, and it’s important for writing to be genuine.
My work stinks of pride for Liverpool, but this isn’t to say I want my work to be limited or exclusive to a region. Not at all. I would like for my work to be universally engaging, no matter who you are or your knowledge of Liverpool. I’m doing my MA in writing now at MMU and although none of my workshop group are Scousers, they are the most encouraging of my poetry, always telling me to ‘Scouse it up more’. I admire how words in other languages present themselves on the page, or how these words sit in our mouths. I want Scousers to recognise their own tongues in my work, but simultaneously, I want people to enjoy and savour this staccato, fuzzy tapas that is the Scouse accent.
At birth I sobbed.
The metal rod, steaming red
branded my tongue, bruised me with flaw,
etched cackles onto my taste buds.
My tongue burns every night. Muscle memory.
In the day she is senseless and sharp.
Asbestos mouth. My vowels wide as waiiide.
Tiny rusted hooks pull my lips taut.
The branding tool scolds us all with accent.
Steel alloy, Celtic and Lancashire.
The midwives keep it in the storage cupboard
between nappies and starched blankets.
I carry this city in my mouth.
Gargle her, spit her out, cough
her up and scrape her off the cobbles.
cradle her in my tongue curls.
I bring her tv fuzz on every sentence
until each day ends. She is grateful,
and to thank me, she burns.
She burns in the back my throat.
START-RITE MARY JANES
Patent leather. Worn buckle from
weekdays, creasing across her foot arch.
Pretty little things without grip.
Frictionless dolly shoes.
She doesn’t go against the grain.
So well behaved she slips on ice
and doesn’t even cry.
Knees like rotting cherries.
Little girls have to learn risk.
To fall and scrape their limbs,
judging the hardness of the earth
for themselves. As innocence decays
they must find the ground
before it claims them first.
To refocus their minds on rescue
and wait for comfort as if it were coming.
A substance that soils this city.
The state of us girls,
to have dert on our tongues
and no soap to wash it out.
In science I look down my blouse
waiting to become a woman.
To be validated by touch
like the lab rats we dissected.
This makes a girl a dert,
a slut. for wanting, panting.
A woman needs convincing
coercing, reasonable force.
Boarded up homes mark derty streets.
This is my home. I am the dert,
where women before me have settled,
like dust mounting the tv stand.
And from the dert, I will rise.
It’s crazy, scary stuff.
But we only see 20% of it.
Perfect freedom to exploit. identity
politics with a brand-new savage twist.
The same fashion as U.S. prison wear.
Perfect irony in the social media age.
The chunky dad trainer that trend invented;
I feel I want to own it.
The gap between rich and poor,
or whatever you want to call it.
They know what trouble looks like.
In the streets stuff. In the dark places.
Like a bunch of posh kids dressed to riot
with luxury streetwear as their alliance.
Adapted from Sarah Mower’s review of Vetements Fall 2019 Menswear show and in interview with fashion designer Demna Gvasalia.
This is the word of the city. Thanks be to her. Graffiti sprawled on this derelict building. It’s their cathedral. They worship in tag. Aerosol scripture. They gather here often. At the street cathedral. Claimed as one of their own. Three phrases appropriate the building. A Scally incantation. Father. Son. Holy Spirit. BRASS. SIX TIMES. CREED.
BRASS -Something the city is as bold as. Another word for a prostitute. Derogatory. If you want to be. Brass Knuckles. The fabric of saxophones. She had the brass neck to come up in here. Arfaced. Confident. Arrogant. Women enjoying life like men might do. The audacity. The brass neck.
SIX TIMES -How many times a city’s team has won the Champions League at the time of this graffiti. This tag must be fresh. New-born. Nine months. Perhaps premature. They know what unity looks like. Resilience as natural as score boards. The apostles will update the mural when they do it again. They yearn to. Adamant it will need the maintenance.
CREED -Scent of the city. Between sea water. Car fumes. Polly. Two hundred quid aftershave. Jarg versions. Blouse replicas. They all prove popular. Women of the city have learned to sniff the scent out like police dogs at Creamfields. Bitches and their senses. Refuse entry to men who smell like toilette. They want potent. Full proof parfum. Creed. A rhapsody the arl queens chant before bread and wine. The sensation of mass. Something like that.
Street cathedral. The red brick relic that’s survived all the wars thrown at her. She stands and will stand. Covered in tags. In graffiti. Street cathedral. Claimed by the city that loves her. Claimed as one of their own.