Alice Nutter – I believe of Chumbawamba fame – asserts in the foreword to Paul Hawkins’ Place Waste Dissent that, it ‘is a book that takes the aesthetics of poetry as seriously as the occupation and protests that inspired its writing.’ The collection situates itself amongst the residents, the protesters and the housing occupiers – if these are not the same people – of the M11 link road protests of the early 1990s. In Hawkins’ work, words fight for space – and on occasion lose – against the images of police officers, residents, stilt walkers and emptied streets, which form each page’s backdrop. That is not to say Hawkins’ poetry does not ‘drive’ Place Waste Dissent, but that the poems, like those Hawkins writes of, must contest for their own space.
It is impossible to talk about Place Waste Dissent without reference to its striking aesthetic, and credit must be given to Influx Press’ confidence in publishing a book that marries such a cacophony of images with an experimental poetic form. Hawkin’s words are cut-out and arranged overlaying images, that both reflect and challenge the poems’ text, transforming each page into a collage that requires a reader willing to grapple with it. No space is spared, with a thick black border holding on to the work that each page contains. Unlike fiction, poetry is often said to occupy space, but here the poems ‘contend’ with space. The black border negates the space that usually surrounds a poem, almost as a stand against those outside forces intent on co-opting the space for themselves.
Nothing in this book is standardised. Hawkins’ use of a multitude of voices and fonts through the work means that the reader is often unsure where one voice, and indeed poem, starts and where it, if it did, end. This is not to its detriment. In ‘This Ain’t no Garden Party’, Hawkins’ writes that ‘the houses were emptied / onto the street / private becomes public / sculptures, masks, cartoon, collage:’. Although this poem is about tenants being evicted, it speaks to many of the issues that the book raises: how we view and are viewed; state force; the boundaries between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’; community; what it is that constitutes a poem. Hawkins’ is making his ‘private’, ‘public’, through the publication of this book and the personal images – most of which were taken by other protesters – and the inclusion of letters and utterances of his elderly, ‘morning sherry / and 40 Lambert and Butler a day’, neighbour Dolly Watson.
The centrepiece of the collection is the longer ‘Flea’, a poem that examines Hawkins’ drug and alcohol problems and a chance meeting with a young girl who dies towards the poem’s end. Although over 40 pages long, the poem passes in an instant, and yet has an intensity that through its clipped lines forces the poem forward to its devastatingly anticipated conclusion:
Without the visual of Hawkins’ work, the quotation above does not do the poem justice. ‘Flea’ manages to combine the experimentalism of the rest of the collection with an emotional impact that is occasionally marginalised by the book’s aesthetic which can overwhelm it.
This review has not spoken to a great number of poems in Place Waste Dissent, that is simply because this book, more than any I have read in a long time, is a collection. It truly works as a whole: poems bleed into one another, characters disappear and reappear later in the collection, images reflect and haunt other images. This book recreates and re-presents the culture and time which it is reflecting upon, and it is an ‘archive’ that delightfully overwhelms with sound and image. This book is important.
Review by Mike James.
Mike is a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London, researching trade union representation in contemporary poetry. He is also a poet, teacher and ex-comedian. He has lived and worked in South Korea, Egypt, Kazakhstan and Germany. None of these things inform his work.