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Niall McDevitt on his recent anti-Tory poetry collection Porterloo

NIALL MCDEVITT explains why he was impelled to write his anti-Tory collection Porterloo

PORTERLOO is a direct response to the dreaded return of the Conservatives to power — their modus operandi, their malice, their ideology and their sociopathy.

Contemplating the prospect of 10 or 15 years of conservatism to come I considered emigrating but instead I decided to stay put and write about it.

Seeing veteran Afro-American poet Amiri Baraka — recently deceased — at London’s South Bank Centre in 2010 reading a political haiku called Low Coup blew me away.

I began writing an anti- Conservative haiku called Fucku. It was impossible not to feel personally targeted by the Tories, so poetry became a magical way of deflecting their attack. Though I was just one of millions of victims, it felt good to be working with feelings that so many people were going through.

The book is much more detailed and time specific than my previous work. During the Labour administration I was aware of poets who were writing anti-Labour, anti-Blair poems. My own political stuff dealt more generally with themes such as power or empire.

With Porterloo I launched into the nitty gritty, the gory details, allowing any “universality” to look after itself. It also became an exclusively political book. Heathcote Williams had often talked of “insurgent poetry” so I asked him if he would write a preface with that title. It is one of only two books published by International Times, the other being Williams’s Royal Babylon.

Porterloo is named after the disgraced ex-leader of Westminster Council, Dame Shirley Porter. It also puns on Peterloo, Waterloo and portaloo — the latter for me a symbol of resistance and self-sufficiency, the portable toilets of Occupy London being an example.

Though perhaps less topical to focus on Porter, the reason is that the policies that led to her fall are now back in vogue — gerrymandering, asset-stripping and social cleansing. If she can be criminalised, so can her successors.

I want my book to be read as an attack on conservatism past, present and future. Among the snapshots of Tent City, the student riots, the Heygate Estate and Charlie Gilmour in prison there are allusions to classical conservatism and to the nightmare of Thatcherism. Margaret Thatcher herself is also the subject of a “strained elegy.”

Its structure, like that of my previous book, takes after what I think is the greatest poem in the English language, William Blake’s epic Jerusalem. It is divided into four parts and I try to experiment with styles, forms, languages and shapes as much as possible in order to refute the claim that political poetry is not artistic.

Politically, Porterloo is much inspired by Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit Of The Millennium and sees modern developments as part of ageold social struggles, Occupy being another flowering of the free spirit or the Ranters but which also sees that “mystical anarchism” is still with us. Incredibly, poet Alan Morrison compares my book to Sam Riviere’s 81 Austerities, arguing that the latter book is a cynical marketing ploy by Faber and Faber but that Porterloo is an authentic political book that does what it says on the tin.

As an Irish poet living in England, this generous reception to my work has made me feel more at home here — that I am part of a community agitating for change.

In the future, I’ve got a book of essays in the offing called English Poets and, having recently seen the great Glaswegian poet Tom Leonard in action, I’m working on a series called Tyburn Graffiti in which I imagine the public hanging of hoary old institutions such as the Monarchy, Downing Street, MI6, BAE Systems and so on.

Porterloo is available at Housman’s, News From Nowhere and other good bookshops.

Well Versed is edited by Jody Porter.
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