Blog, Comment, Politics

Relentless.com: life as a cog in Amazon’s e-tail machine

When Jeff Bezos was brainstorming names for his new venture in 1994, Relentless was the banner that came closest to making the cut. On sounding out his friends, Bezos was warned it sounded sinister, and Amazon was ultimately chosen to become the history-making name. But something about Relentless spoke to Bezos, so much so that he even registered a domain with it – type Relentless.com into a search bar today and you will still be redirected to Amazon’s website. I spent six months at Amazon’s Hemel Hempstead warehouse, and discovered the reality for the workers behind the trillion-dollar brand.

Mention Amazon to those who work at its warehouses, and cheap books, free delivery and the A-Z smile are unlikely to be what springs to mind. I worked for Amazon for six months in 2013. When someone mentions it to me, my mind flashes to the headlines from my time there: 60-hour weeks, backbreaking targets, swingeing redundancies, illness, depression. Relentless, the word lurking behind the consumer-facing infrastructure, is the reality for Amazon’s workers.

Like many who end up in an Amazon warehouse, the job dropped in my lap through an agency. Fresh out of an English degree, overdrawn, burnt out and unsure what I should be doing next, I had struggled to get a job. With nothing to show for my summer except a couple of ghastly interviews, I adjusted my ambitions and signed up with a recruiter hoping for some admin work.

I received a call from a company called Transline within a week. There was no interview, just a screening to attend where I would have to sign some forms and partake in a drugs test. I was told that if I’d smoked weed at any time in the last six months they would know and wouldn’t hire me. I had been looking for a job for three months at this point, and was ready to take anything I could get. Having spent the previous three years struggling to grapple with poetic metres and critical theory, I quite fancied the contrast – dumping the books to work at the coalface of the industry. A working class job. I had graduated exhausted and unsure of myself, worried I had become estranged from regular people; I immediately began to romanticise the idea. My dad worked in a factory. I hadn’t seen him in a while.

I was part of an intake of some 30 people on my first day. The induction was brisk. One of the line managers, a flat-voiced Polish woman, led us across the warehouse floor pointing out which of the machines could take our hands. The warehouse was a multiplex of greys – from ash to gunmetal, to graphite from dust. Vast rows of packing stations flanked conveyer belts of plastic yellow totes bundled with tat. As we passed the lines, the contraction and expansion of repeating geometric shapes, like Soviet-era futurist prints. One behind another, Amazonians at their stations with just their busy hands visible in the gap between desk and shelves. Concluding the tour, we were sat down in a conference room upstairs to watch a video, which in summary said that Amazon has a ‘customer obsession’ and that while it’s your right to join a union, it’s our preference that you don’t. Then we were put to work.

Amazon’s warehouses are called Fulfilment Centres, with no apparent appreciation for irony. Items start in arrivals, where they are unloaded in bulk and transported to The Cage, a vast mesh tower that catalogues Amazon’s products, where runners pick out orders and scan them into totes. The totes then make their way onto a conveyer belt that trundles them to the packers on the main floor, who then box up each order and pop them back onto another conveyer belt to slide down to departures. Every item, tote and box is barcoded and tracked through each stage of the process.

I was posted in packing. The bare bones of the job are this: your shift is a 10.5 hour day with three breaks throughout, two 15 minute breaks and one half hour. The rest of the day you stand at your workstation and pack. To start I was put on medium and small-sized single item orders: DVDs and CDs into cardboard wallets and boxes into bigger boxes. You have everything you need at your desk. A computer monitor, printer and scanner dictates what needs to be packed in what and prints the labels. Your station is stacked with a range of flat packed boxes; includes a tape, roller, knife. Sitting is prohibited unless you have a medical complaint; you will work faster if you have the full span of your waist and arms. Runners tend to your line with fresh boxes when you run out and divvy out totes of more items should the conveyor belt alongside you break down. You have no reason to leave your workstation.

The rhythm of this work is relentless. Every stage of the process has been optimised, cutting no slack, sparing zero downtime. In menial work it is often in the interstices between tasks that little acts of rebellion can be seized. Amazon knows better than to accommodate this. There is no respite to claim between decisions or transitions because the job is one-dimensional and singular. You pack. (Anything else, you can pack it in.)

Amazon was basically making us work extra hard to ‘make up’ for our statutory right to a rest.

Data is absolutely central to this efficiency. Amazon’s current iteration gathers information on virtually everything its workers do – from their pack rate to downtime – then pits them against each other on the basis of these metrics. The company is always looking for ways to gather more information – for example, Amazon recently acquired a patent for wrist-watching technology. The detailed profile Amazon keeps on its workers, coupled with a rank and yank philosophy that means only the exceptional survive, ensures that its workforce is continually evolving. One former employee called this culture purposeful Darwinism. 

The Amazon handbook boasts that it holds its employees to standards that are ‘unreasonably high‘. In my area, the target to meet was nominally 104 packages per hour. In truth it was more like 120 packages an hour, because the live rate on my monitor would be consistently below what Transline, my agency, recorded for me. Amazon has several temping agencies posted in-house on the warehouse floor, who ‘look after’ staff by coming round with a clipboard to tell you whether you’re meeting your targets. Presumably, Amazon likes to have even its recruiters compete with one another. Drop your pace and your agency will soon let you know.

After a month in the job I think I figured out what was bringing my numbers down. A day at Amazon consists of two 15 minute paid breaks and one 30 minute unpaid lunch break. Your workstation computer connects to Amazon’s product database when you scan items to dictate what kind of box is required, print the post label, and monitor your pack rate based on the number of items you scan per hour. There are different codes to log out for each kind of break, paid and unpaid. Whereas I initially thought the discrepancy between our computer and agency pack rates could be explained by Transline simply underrepresenting our numbers for their own ends, what actually happened was that logging out for the paid break on Amazon’s system left our pack rates recording, bringing our numbers down. Amazon was basically making us work extra hard to ‘make up’ for our statutory right to a rest. And at 104 packages an hour, you are already forced to work at a rapid pace – this in a process in which you must pick up a tote of items, pick your item, scan it to bring up the details, print its label, pick its correct packaging, assemble the box, put the item in with its receipt and fill it with dunnage so that nothing is loose, tape it closed, stick on its postal label, and then place it on the conveyor belt to travel to its next destination. At 120 items per hour you have roughly 30 seconds to do all this. (Transline, incidentally, went into administration not long after I left Amazon after it was revealed it had been supplying staff to Sports Direct’s warehouses that were getting paid less than the minimum wage.)

It will be no surprise if Amazon becomes the first business to fully automate. A company that resents even its workers’ basic right to a break will only find people a frustration to its aims. Amazonians that left their workstation to go to the bathroom would be promptly hounded by seniors. Stories abound of workers afraid to stop, pissing into bottles at their desk. Your tracker, after all, is recording. As such, everything you need to do must be done on your breaks, yet because of the size of the warehouse, and the fact that to get in and out of it you must go through airport-level security (belts off in a tray, metal detectors, pat downs by security guards), it tends to take 3-4 minutes to just make it back to the canteen. If you get a full five minutes to sit down you’ve done well.

If targets were not being met, he would make veiled threats. ‘If you’d rather be stacking shelves at Tesco…,’ he’d taunt, as if any sane person’s response to that kind of condescension isn’t ‘I fucking would.’

The suspicion with which Amazon regards its staff is reproduced at every level of the operation – from the frisking that accompanies every exit and entry from the warehouse, to the generally cold manner in which management address their inferiors. Joining in 2013, I couldn’t help but see a link between the disdain for its unskilled staff and the Conservative Party’s strivers vs. skivers rhetoric. It was as if you were expected to be grateful just to have been given a waged job, and work in full apprehension that, on a zero-hours contract, that privilege is not a right.

My area manager was a guy called Rich.* He was one of those short-fused people you occasionally meet in life whose disposition could shift like a switch, in a moment from chipper to downright menacing. He would greet me cheerily as Callum when he needed something, and I never dared correct him. In our morning briefings he would relay to us the statistics of the previous day, a rabble of some 40 or 50 staff circling him. If targets were not being met, he would make veiled threats. ‘If you’d rather be stacking shelves at Tesco…,’ he’d taunt, as if any sane person’s response to that kind of condescension isn’t ‘I fucking would.’ The idea that working at Tesco was a worse lot reeked of delusion. My guess was that he was a working class guy done good who had ended up becoming dogmatically invested in the cut and thrust he read as meritocracy. We all have our illusions.

In hindsight I wonder how I put up with it. I was one of 15,000 staff Amazon brings on each year to cater for Christmas. In off-season Amazonians work 40 hours a week split across four 10-hour days. During peak, Amazon makes 55 hours work a week compulsory. It encourages its employees to work the legal maximum of 60 – unless of course it completes its orders and then sends its surplus zero-hours staff home. Joining in the autumn, I was waking before dawn, hiving myself in a dim warehouse during daylight hours and returning home in the dark again. At the end of each day I would run a hot bath to sear away the day’s aggregate muck. I’d lower myself in, feeling my pores emptying, the oil and dust rising to the water’s surface to swirl like a storm seen from space. I’d inspect the damage: burst blood vessels in the backs of my knees, my finger tips greyed and eerily smooth, as if my finger prints had worn away. The dirt and sweat of the warehouse was exacerbating my eczema meaning I was suffering through recurring skin infections. The lack of daylight and off-time was making me depressed.

Yet every week that I avoided the chop was a small source of satisfaction. The turnover of staff is staggering. I’d estimate that 50% of the packers around me were either laid off or left every three weeks, to be supplanted by a whole new intake; the ability to hit Amazon’s targets is an aberration, not the norm. For this reason, the Fulfilment Centre is a difficult place to make friends. Familiar faces soon vanish without a trace. As a survivor of the churn, you are acutely aware of the precarity of your position, and internalise the competition. Amazon revels in its brutal culture because it banks on most people being stubborn enough to push back against those odds, even when success in Amazon’s terms is as trivial as keeping your job. Under this regime, workers ultimately have nowhere to turn but against one another – hoarding easier totes, nabbing the best stations. Staying ahead of the pack feels like a zero-sum game.

The obsessive culture of competition is driven into Amazon from head to toe. Looking back it’s clear to me that the management I despised were probably under the same pressure as us – so when it came to things like gaming our packing statistics this was borne out of competition with the other warehouses dotted around the UK. No one has it easy. An NYT exposé from head office revealed a toxic working culture even there, with reports of staff regularly crying at their desks. However, in this account the narrative is balanced by the thrill of being able to create, not to say the goldmine of Amazon stock. There is no such payoff for the blue collar Amazonian on a zero-hours contract.

I knew if I didn’t hit my numbers I would lose my job.

Starting in September at the beginning of peak season, I had seen the warehouse workforce treble in my time, up until a week into January, when Amazon began to make swingeing cutbacks to its temporary staff. I was stupidly proud that I had lasted so long. By this point I had moved from packing to picking, although not by choice. Picking is the worst job in the warehouse, and management knew it. When they learnt that picking was short-staffed, my area manager literally drew names out of a hat to decide who of us in packing was moved. I was gutted. I had worked so hard to make it this far and suddenly I was back to square one: on trial working up to new targets just to keep my job.

Picking is situated in The Cage, a dim, strip-lit mesh wire multi-story library of Amazon’s smaller products. Pickers take a trolley perched with two totes, and a scanner that displays item locations and a countdown for how long you’re expected to take on each one – one countdown for how long it should take you to walk there and one for how long the item should take to scan and stow, timed to within a second. The brutality of this job was exposed most effectively by Panorama, which secretly filmed an agent scurrying down these corridors to the incessant beep of his console. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to beat the timer without racing from location to location, like you are trapped in some Kafkaesque game of Supermarket Sweep. This surely contravenes health and safety rules, but with Amazon scything away its temporary staff at Christmas, I knew if I didn’t hit my numbers I would lose my job.

An FT article from 2013 asserted pickers could walk up to 15 miles a day. Other outlets claimed pickers could run the equivalent of a marathon over a shift. Yet even as I struggled to meet my targets, this wasn’t the worst part of the job for me. The Cage is filthy. Most boxes were coated in a film of muck, showering you with dust whenever you’d pull one from overhead. I left work each day with my hands blackened. This made my already bad eczema worse. I was virtually living on antibiotics because the infections I’d been getting had spread all over my body. My skin was so dried out it was cracking and weeping, so that it stung to move my joints. I would have slipped ointment into the warehouse with me but my hands got so dirty I couldn’t apply it. I tunneled through the shelves after item after item like a termite in its nest.

What else could I do? Due to Amazon’s three-strike rule on unscheduled time off, I was essentially forbidden from being sick. Although this rule has since been rescinded, the abnormal rate of poor health among the company’s employees persists. An FOI request by GMB recently discovered that 600 ambulances had been called out to Amazon’s UK Fulfilment Centres in just three years. Its Rugeley site saw 115 callouts alone, compared to just eight at a similar-sized Tesco warehouse over the same period. The GMB trade union has represented heavily pregnant staff who have been refused permission to briefly sit down during an 11-hour shift, seen staff who have started to develop musculoskeletal problems with the repetitive nature of the work. Nearly 90% of the Amazon workers GMB represents say they experience constant pain at work. A few years ago a temp died of heart failure in a warehouse in Virginia, raising questions about whether the company was pushing people too far. Mike Roth, Vice President of North American Operations, said Amazon’s metrics are safe, fair and attainable.

Amazon pushes up against the limits of, and thus exposes, what is acceptable within our current economic model.

For all this, when I made it through Christmas I felt a pride I hadn’t experienced since school. As January trudged towards February, peak season operations were winding down and 40-hour weeks resumed. In the weeks since New Year, I had seen the warehouse workforce shrink by half. Management had even congratulated those of us who had made it. It looked like I might be on for a proper contract.

For so long I had been driven to work by the fear of losing it, I had forgotten how to let myself relax. In mid-January I put in a request for a day off in the last weekend of the month, meaning I had an actual weekend to myself for the first time in five months, three full days in succession. I’d been invited to Norwich by my friend Beth, who had got us tickets to see a band on tour over from the States, I can’t remember who. I can’t remember because I drank so much whisky before going out that I blacked out on the way to the venue and came to after only two songs, thinking the clapping meant the gig had finished and leaving again at only 9pm. Still, to see a friend again was a great relief (I had worked over Christmas and missed my mates’ celebrations for New Year). It felt like I had been in a dark place for a long time, but here was the reward for that sacrifice – a promise that things might be easier from now on.

I was made redundant that weekend, getting a call from my Transline rep as I made my way back from Norwich. Because I was on a zero-hours contract there was nothing I needed to do – I simply didn’t have to turn up to work in the morning and my P45 would be in the post. I crumpled into a corner in Liverpool Street station and cried.

~

In the five years since I worked there, Amazon’s market cap has increased by $800bn dollars. It has just posted a profit for the 13th straight quarter. Jeff Bezos is now the richest man in history. He is worth $150bn alone.

Amazon has grown so powerful with such reach that the legal scholar Frank Pasquale has described it as acquiring ‘functional sovereignty’. The company doesn’t just monopolise publishing but controls the primary platform for the entire industry; its Web Services division accounts for 44% of the world’s cloud computing capacity. The consequence of this is that smaller companies are forced to ride the rails of their biggest competitor to get to market, handing away valuable data. As such, while Amazon keeps prices low for consumers, it presses its dominance in other arenas. As Lina Khan has argued, while its business model keeps its users happy, the unchecked structural power it amasses becomes a concern for us as citizens, workers and entrepreneurs. In its singular ambition of becoming the world’s most powerful company, Amazon pushes up against the limits of, and thus exposes, what is acceptable within our current economic model.

Amazonians deserve a say on their work conditions, rather than having to wait for their employer to weigh in the PR value of their well-being.

The news today that Amazon has ‘listened to its critics’ and upped its minimum wage from £8 to £9.50 an hour is a massively welcome step, making a significant difference to the lives of tens of thousands of workers in the UK alone. Congratulations should go to the journalists who have exposed Amazon’s practices over the years and in particular to the GMB union for working to organise in Amazon’s warehouses in the face of fierce opposition. The hope is that with Amazon setting a precedent, more people can add their voices to the chorus of workers asking for a better deal.

However, it is important that wins like this, while rightly celebrated, are not allowed to stand as testament to a system that is working fine. For Amazon to now call for a higher minimum wage, having built its empire on a low one, is a self-interested move in that it raises the price of admission for other companies to compete. It was never in question that Amazon could afford to. Its wager is that soon enough the law will change anyway and it will pay its workers the minimum it can get away with once again. The company has notably not made any long-term commitments to adjust for inflation, by signing up to the Living Wage Foundation, for example. And it is important to bear in mind how exploitative the company remains in myriad other ways. Irrespective of today’s announcement, Amazon must be made to recognise unions as an absolute priority. Amazonians deserve a say on their work conditions, rather than having to wait for their employer to weigh in the PR value of their well-being.

In a sense, Amazon is only a tick in the ear of our dysfunctional economy. Yet, as it amasses more and more power, it also sets a grim precedent for many more workers should we not alter course. To supplement the hard work unions like GMB are doing, IPPR’s Prosperity and Justice report is a welcome contribution to the debate on how things could change. As well as proposing common sense policies such as greater support for unions and an extra boost to the wage of workers on zero-hours contracts, it also recognises the deeper issues – of monopolisation and unproductive accumulation – that mega-corporations like Amazon pose. Labour’s proposals to give workers shares so as to better influence how their workplace is run is another promising idea.

Naïve as I was when I joined Amazon, I assumed my duty was to accept the misery it had to offer. Five years on, I am still angry that the practices I witnessed there have not seen redress. While today’s announcement is an undoubtedly huge moment for thousands of people, there is still plenty else that needs to change at firms like Amazon. As more legions of packers are recruited ahead of Christmas and Black Friday, we should continue to think outside the box.

 

*name changed

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Articles and Reviews

My 2017 in Books

Having managed to actually stick to my resolution this year and get through 50 full length books (a lot of it poetry, admittedly), I thought I’d take the opportunity to produce some cheap #content for this blog and make a top 10 list. As it turns out, trying to say something interesting about books is actually quite difficult (particularly so when you read them a whole 11 months ago), and reviewers deserve lots of gratitude for doing something they surely do not get paid enough to do, but I digress.

A lot of these books did not actually come out in 2017, so this is expressly my 2017 in books. Nevertheless, much of what I read this year felt timely, especially since I chose a lot of it in response to news stories of the day. I read about ISIS in the weekend of the London attacks, Juliet Jacques’s memoir just as the press seemed to ramp up a smear campaign against the fabled ‘trans lobby’, In Defence of Housing in the wake of Grenfell.

In some things I haven’t done as well as I might. I could have read more narratives from outside my own culture, and I wanted at least half of the authors I read to be women, which I fell just short of. This I will make sure to do better on in 2018. I feel I should also try to read more classics and game-changing texts, and push myself beyond the authors and titles that naturally reach me on social media.

That being said, I think I have read a lot of good stuff this year. In a first full year entirely out of education it’s been fun being able to follow my nose, follow up on recommendations, and branch out into some new subjects. I hope you all had a good year yourselves.

The Full 50

Fiction (12)

Utopia by Thomas More
No one belongs here more than you by Miranda July
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Good Bones by Margaret Atwood
The Census-Taker by China Miéville
The Last Days in New Paris by China Miéville
How to be Both by Ali Smith
Tales of the Early World by Ted Hughes
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Drama (1)

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner

Non-Fiction (10)

The Village Against the World by Dan Hancox
The Rise of Islamic State by Patrick Cockburn
The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money: A Reader’s Guide by Geoff Mann
October by China Miéville
From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra
The Making of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr
The Production of Money by Ann Pettifor
In Defence of Housing by David Madden
Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman
Four Futures by Peter Frase

Essay, Interview & Memoir (7)

The Task of the Critic: Terry Eagleton in Dialogue by Matthew Beaumont
Against Everything by Mark Greif
Trans: A Memoir by Juliet Jacques
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit
How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Poetry (20)

The Harbour Beyond the Movie by Luke Kennard
Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry
Selected Poems by Mary Ruefle
The Gold Cell by Sharon Olds
Hip Logic by Terrance Hayes
Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Happiness by Jack Underwood
Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds
Tandem by Dalton Day
81 Austerities by Sam Riviere
POETRY Magazine January 2016 – the ecopoetry edition
Exit, Pursued by Dalton Day
Space, in Chains by Laura Kasischke
The Mystic and the Pig Thief by Fran Lock
Hard Love Province by Marilyn Chin
House of Lords and Commons by Ishion Hutchinson
Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi
A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause by Shawn Wen
Plainwater by Anne Carson

Needless to say, my choice for a top 10 is again only a list of the books I personally enjoyed most, for whatever reason that might be, and not a representation of what I think are the best of the 50, let alone a slight on the work excluded (except for The Vegetarian – I’m still annoyed I read that book to the end). In no particular order and without further ado:

My Top 10

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

It is hard to summarise a book as eclectic and expansive as Teju Cole’s first book of essays without trying to approach the qualities of the man himself. Cole makes a marvellous cicerone; a true cosmopolitan, he guides the reader through Lagos, Rio de Janeiro, across the US-Mexico border and back, indulging his wide interests in sections on literature, photography and travel. Cole seems able to write with a cool authority on whatever takes his interest. In reading this book I realise that I probably first came across him in 2012, when his essay ‘The White Savior Industrial Complex’ went viral. The piece is a quietly seething response to Kony 2012 (remember Kony?) and the vain and wrongheaded ideas it unearthed in the liberal American imagination. As he puts it, ‘The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality.’ As great as this piece still is, its wrangling is really a departure among essays where Cole can be found wandering, in both a literal and figurative sense. He is a flâneur, writing with a peculiar appreciation of place, even in essays where the nominal subject is a work of art or writer; he retraces James Baldwin’s journey to Leukerbad in Switzerland in ‘Black Body’, tries to recreate a René Burri photograph among the high-rises in ‘Shadows in São Paulo’. In his afterword Cole observes that ‘we write in the hope that what we have written will somehow outdistance us.’ The original meaning of essay is attempt, and appears to be a perfect match for Cole’s relaxed and searching intelligence.

Four Futures by Peter Frase

You might notice that I’ve read quite a few books on the increasingly du jour topic of Universal Basic Income and Automation this year. These books frequently read like manifestos, but manifestos that envision something much more ambiguous and technocratic in the fine print (UBI does of course have proponents among Silicon Valley billionaires such as Elon Musk, as well as the left). Peter Frase’s book is different because it explores this future in a paradigm that injects politics, and specifically class struggle, back into the picture. His book is split, as you might expect, into four chapters: two on Environmental Apocalypse, two on Full Automation, one of each where the working class succeeds and the other where it does not. These are Communism, Socialism, Rentism and Exterminism. The book has a very good introduction that expounds the debate while touching on other interesting topics such as the potential of science fiction. Perhaps surprisingly, Frase’s speculative work ultimately has a more convincing take on where our society could be heading than the more pollyannaish post-capitalism bros (Paul Mason, Rutger Bregman, Nick Srnicek, etc.) for the fact that its visions appreciate that UBI and automation are not political solutions themselves so much as possibilities within a political context where so little has yet been won.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

Already canonised as a key text of fourth-wave feminism, I read this book in response to #MeToo and the wider shit show surrounding the Harvey Weinstein story. This book was exactly what I needed to read, methodically separating the strands of some of the knottier myths about rape and violence against women with the hard facts where necessary, wit and brio elsewhere. Solnit makes short shrift of every incarnation of male whataboutery, and I found myself using her arguments to dispatch opponents when it came to our own Westminster scandal. It is rhetorically muscular stuff and served me, personally, to read something so clear-sighted. The only disappointment is that what is great about this book often ends up detracting from 2017’s The Mother of All Questions, in that Solnit rehashes a lot of her best anecdotes, statistics and arguments. Some of the essays in TMoAQ read like an overlong dance remix of a song you’d really loved, but I suppose this serves as further testimony to the power of the first.

Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry

Emily Berry’s latest book is about the death of her mother. It is a very different book to her debut; at surface a light and playful collection, the poems in Dear Boy offered an assortment of characters and scenes only obliquely linked by private struggles with mental health. Whereas the voices in Dear Boy revealed their anxieties in spite of themselves, Stranger, Baby addresses the author’s depression head on. Although the poems can be arch, still performances of a kind, in Stranger, Baby this appears as a reaction to professionalised care as well as a satirisation of her tendencies as a writer. There are lines to be drawn between the performative and ineffable dimensions of her suffering. Unlike some of her contemporaries, Berry does not feign to express any elemental nature of grief, eschewing that in favour of writing that is more personal – that interrogates, refines, missteps, resolves and shows its working. Some of the fragments of text in the later pieces in particular could have been cut straight out of a journal. As such, the book validates all of the silliest and most unspeakable thoughts dredged up by the grieving process – poems with snot up their wrists, written full caps and all. Of course, I can’t really pretend to comprehend the kind of pain Berry is writing about. At times the poetry in Stranger, Baby is so emotionally acute it feels like a four-dimensional object, like I only glimpse angles of it as it passes through my three-dimensional world. It is messy, but the collection charts a process from beginning to end that is ultimately hopeful. It’s a deeply humane and affecting book.

A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause by Shawn Wen

I bought this from indie press Sarabande Books on a whim. Rarely do I get round to reading, let alone enjoying, these impulse buys, which will usually gather height on my windowsill like some sort of ramshackle totem to my skittish good intentions, but in this case I made the effort and was pleasantly surprised. A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause is a crossbreed of essay and poetry on the life and work of pioneering mime artist Marcel Marceau. At a lean 120 pages, the book is a quick and satisfying read, leading the reader through Marceau’s life story in a series of vignettes written in lapidary prose. The most interesting aspect of this book, as you might expect, are the descriptions of Marceau’s performances, which are made vivid in Wen’s words. In her review, Thalia Field notes how ‘Wen holds an uncanny mirror between the mime’s non-verbal brilliance and the pleasures of the text.’ I think there is something in this. A greater feel for language and more original turns of phrase could have elevated this for me, but it turned out to be well worth a punt.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Unexpectedly gripping; I practically inhaled it between boxing day and New Year. The story centres on a menage a quatre involving students Frances and Bobbi, and wealthy, 30-something couple Nick and Melissa. Frances and Bobbi are ex-girlfriends turned best friends and something of a double-act, making waves as a duo in Dublin’s spoken word scene. The older and more established writer Melissa publishes a profile on them both, and in turn they are introduced to her enigmatic husband Nick. Bobbi is drawn to Melissa; Frances quickly strikes up an affair with Nick. What stands out is how well the author understands her characters; the book is packed with razor-sharp social observation as it charts the burgeoning relationships between them. The balance between first-person interiority and plot is pitch-perfect, and the three-dimensional detail in each of the character arcs impressive (I thought the group dynamics when all four friends go away on holiday together were particularly well-observed). I am not the biggest novel reader, but I found it unusual to feel so involved with a whole cast of characters at once, rather than the concerns of a sole protagonist. To have this in a novel in which each of the relationships are so tightly wound with one another really heightens the drama. The romance is realistic and touching, and it is genuinely exciting, as it is in a new relationship, to witness the characters get to know each another over the course of the book. This is helped in no small part by Rooney’s talent for dialogue. I now eagerly await the commission of a BBC adaptation with lots of lens flare and Saoirse Ronan as the lead (budget permitting).

From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

In From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra offers an alternative history of the East, focusing on three lesser known but highly influential thinkers – Rabindranath Tagore, Jamal-al-din-al Afghani and Liang Qichao – as they try to come to terms with the imposition of Western modernity in their thousand years old cultures. I have huge respect for Mishra: well-known for his piece taking Niall Ferguson’s ‘Civilisation: The West and the Rest’ to pieces in the LRB in 2011, From the Ruins of Empire can be read as a fully-footnoted fightback against the kind of self-satisfied supremacism peddled by the Fergusons, Starkeys and Scrutons of the world. Mishra reveals their understanding of history as not merely small-minded, but destined to become an artefact of catastrophic hubris to some future generation, if not our own. Beginning the book with a defeat for the West at Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905, Mishra compiles a panorama of responses from future leaders including Mahatma Gandhi, Mustafa Kemal, Jawaharlal Nehru, Mao Zedong, who as young men receive news of this first defeat for the West as a dawning of previously unthinkable possibilities. By standing both the anointed heroes and villains of the West’s narrative shoulder to shoulder in witness of this instigating event, Mishra’s prologue faithfully foreshadows the rest of his book’s work: a history that is morally complex, its judgements not preordained. Throughout the book, Mishra remains sensitive to the specificities of each country’s struggle while also managing to finally draw out the wider themes and consequences in his brilliant conclusion ‘Asia Remade’. It’s a really great piece of work, extensively researched and entertainingly told, and part of an education process for me that is long overdue and ongoing. This is the book I outright learnt the most from this year.

No one belongs here more than you by Miranda July

Titled like a @sosadtoday tweet, No one belongs here more than you might at first glance, if you are anything like me, raise your suspicions. In a way these stories are everything you might expect: vignettes for the emotionally immature and perennially lovelorn. But beneath their surface quirkiness, I think there is insight here – about loneliness and fantasy, love vs. dependency. July’s stories seem to find a sweet spot between feeling light without being lightweight. She also has a happy knack for finding a metaphor that will put you on your backside. I dare say her voice will irk some, but I enjoyed this book a lot.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

I read my first Ocean Vuong poem in the May 2015 issue of Poetry Magazine. Sometimes a poem just sort of stops you in your tracks. I read it once, then read it a few more times, scrutinising the lines on the page as if I were lost and trying to place myself on a map. Titled ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’, it begins: ‘Young enough to believe nothing / will change them, they step, hand-in-hand, / into the bomb crater.’ It’s a pretty audacious poem. Imagining his parents as young people, images of sex, violence and life juxtapose and crescendo euphorically, and finally conclude with what seems to be Vuong’s own conception. Set to the backdrop of post-war Vietnam, the poem confers a narrative to his and his family’s existence that is at once irony and miracle: life dropped from the lips of war’s bloody maw. However this strikes you, the poem is indubitably stunning. A glance at Night Sky’s contents pages might prompt you to raise an eyebrow: ‘Ode to Masturbation’, one poem called ‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’. But if this is you, listen to him actually read it. Vuong’s is a bitter and vulnerable voice, exploring what it is to be caught between places, what to discard and what to hold onto from his lost life in Saigon. Reading Vuong’s work for the first time reminded me how bloody exciting poetry can be. It’s the kind of writing where the approximation of language to feeling and thought is so close as to make its pleasures immediate. Reading him again in 2017, after winning the Forward Prize and innumerable other awards, that sensation has not dimmed.

Plainwater by Anne Carson

As a classicist, Carson has described her interest in ancient Greek poetry as like going back to ‘the dawn of language.’ In Plainwater Carson recreates that feeling with language made new, unburdened, selcouth. Beginning with translations of verse by Greek poet Mimnermos, Plainwater sojourns on subjects as diverse as phenomenology, renaissance art, Christian pilgrims, and ends in the realm of personal essay. Carson is a writer of capacious learning, with a talent for finding just the anecdote to make the ideas she explores get up on their feet and walk. My favourite essay in the book is ‘Just for the Thrill: An Essay on the Difference Between Women and Men’. Carson documents a fling with an Ancient Chinese scholar (which she reveals is her first relationship with a man) in which she imagines herself as the concubine to his Emperor. It is a deeply meditative piece which weaves the account of a road trip with him with ruminations on anthropology, Chinese proverbs, stunning landscape writing, and memories of her father. The writing is sublime; layered, riddling, often dreamlike in its intensity. By strokes Carson is able to shift from teasing meaning out from arcane aperçus to a prose style that is almost elemental. ‘Water Margins: An Essay on Swimming by My Brother’, the piece that ends the book, is special in that it operates almost exclusively in the latter mode. The essay animated in me a kind of joy I had forgotten I knew how to feel. This was the most moving reading experience I had this year. It’s an astonishing book.

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Poems, Published Work

Living Alone: An Experiment

Lonely the loquacious rain; lonely spring-
loaded; lonely faking a yawn and curling

its arm around you. Lonely in the morning
trying to put socks on toes with loose nails.

The fridge-raider, lonely. Lonely over-
thinks it; lonely the pickpocket in

fingerless gloves, a lovely hand on your leg.
Lonely forgetting to call lonely back.

Lonely ticking friendship on dating sites
and meaning it; lonely assiduously

taking notes. Lonely at the party,
mind kept running outside, driver screaming

‘go!’; the front-page splash, mics pistoling you
on your doorstep, begging for a quote. Lonely

the cut-out sprung in a house of horrors
as a prank. Lonely smashing its head

over and over into a mirror
in its last-ditch attempt to vanish.

Incidentally, you may want to check out this as well, where all the other Barbican Young Poets’ work was published 2013-14.

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Blog, Events

Momentum: Translations

It’s been an amazing few days working with the Barbican Young Poets at this year’s Weekender. We were commissioned to write responses to United Visual Artist’s exhibition, Momentum, and have spent the Weekender performing this work inside this space and working with the public to produce even more poetic responses, which I think will eventually be collated/curated here. The act of summoning an audience in this space, playing off its aura as spoken word syncs with the blip & flicker of lights, was special. My first extended experience of facilitating poetry with the general public (some precocious child-poets in particular) has been hugely invigorating. While it’s around, definitely go experience Momentum if you can.

Momentum

Apart from that, I’ll take a moment to mention that the Barbican Young Poets scheme is coming to an end for the year, so that means the showcase is just around the corner (Facebook event here), and the seventh installation of Burn After Reading is back on Friday at the Gallery Cafe, where I’ll be reading as well.

That’ll do for now! Cheers.

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Poems

Bend Sinister

And that’s where I came in:
the initial switcharoo, transplanting
coal for teddy in the sleeping boy’s arms,
then a whole circus of tricks.
I had to learn quickly; how to diffuse
daddy in the phone with a click,
the daily pick-up, edicts to counter intuition
like ‘titles aren’t in blood but earned’
and all those doing words like ‘fathering’
that you don’t hear much – a frisbee’s
deft trick of itself. We’d got away
to Sutton-on-Sea, and here, disc in hand,
I transfigured; would whip the air
like cream, lay an eclipse
across the loungers. The kid
would lift the lid on my secrets,
but hock it, and it would skid off the axis,
capsize and freewheel to the sand.
I knew better, caressed it, knew its tilt
and loll, its reluctance to rush and slid it
lush onto a crest of air, traced
its lazing zip-line trajectory
until I got so good that I could ram it
chin up into the sun and have it
hurtle back to my open palm.
Once I had learned the reverse fling
I could dive, predict its physic, pluck it
ripe from its course with a snappy puppet hand
and loose it back before I hit the sand.
I returned to my brother
an Olympian, and taught him
all I knew about this counter-intuition
and the art of letting go.

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Blog, Events

Burn After Reading ft. Inua Ellams and Dorothy Lehane

Dear little blog, I don’t mean to neglect you, and forgive me this most perfunctory of flying visits. But! I have an exciting gig coming up Tuesday next week on the 27th at The Gallery Cafe in Bethnal Green, performing my first 10 minute set supporting the likes of Dorothy Lehane (revered Barbican alumna who I am yet to meet), Inua Ellams, and some of my favourite young poets. This is a big deal for me, and certainly noteworthy, hence this, the note.

At the moment I am doing a lot of writing trying to put together a good quality manuscript and I will commit to jazzing up the blog with some of the results. Please bear with me! In the meantime, please see the facebook page for the event below!

https://www.facebook.com/events/531511900254512/

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Barbican Poets' Showcase 27/03/13
© Sarah Ainslie

The showcase at the Barbican was incredible.

I have two poems in the anthology – The Invention of Snow, and Ptolemy, which I read at the showcase. You can view a .pdf of the whole anthology here: http://bit.ly/12Gn0ZK

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Barbican Poets’ Showcase 27/03/13

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