Ignoring Alicia by Catherine Ayres

Read all about it!
Man has fifteen kids from twenty mothers!
Man achieves world record number of appearances on the Jeremy Kyle show: “My arm looks like a heroin addicts with all the DNA tests I’ve had,” he says proudly!!
Single mum pops out a kid every six months for the benefits and lives in a mansion on the hill !!!
Man asked to explain how he can you feed ten pit bulls when he can’t feed his own family!!!!

mansion for scroungersOkay, so the above are a bit surreal, but given the way in which the ‘free press’ is able to demonise people on benefits and more recently asylum seekers, I don’t think it is that far-fetched. I honestly wrote, ‘the mansion on the hill’ before I read the Sunday Express headline, “Mansions for Scroungers”; and there are plenty more of these types of ‘stories’ meant to turn working class people against each other, hence the prevalence of the term, ‘hard working family’ – no politician worth their weakness would use a term such as class anymore.

catherine ayres picThis was one of the reasons I started Proletarian Poetry and it has been reinforced when reading Catherine Ayres, sharp and angry poem ‘Ignoring Alicia’. I had no idea of Catherine’s intention with the poem when accepting it, but it stayed with me (which is usually the sign of a good poem). I talked about it with my wife, and it made her think of White Dee from the fly-on-the wall documentary Benefits Street, about a street in Birmingham where a number of people (not the whole street as the media claimed) were on benefits.

The language (and I don’t just mean the swearing) that Catherine uses is both evocative and visceral and takes on, and inverts the prescriptive nature of what the media and politicians think ‘these people’ should do. “If I were you/I’d be a piss-take/a walk of shame down this quiet street/a What the fuck? in an empty afternoon.” And Catherine continues, “I’d have swollen eyes/a flick knife fringe” until at the end, the ‘waste’ that she “used to be/rollercoasters round the bend/saluting the woman/who’s pretending not to look.” Whether my interpretation relates to Catherine’s intention or not, doesn’t really matter; poetry is meant to evoke a range of responses, which is antithetical to a media that is unrelenting in its attack on vulnerable people often crossing the border into discrimination; for example take this final headline from the serial offender the Daily Express had, “Now asylum if you’re gay.” Catherine’s poem made me angry, but in a good way.

Here Catherine explains her thinking behind the poem. “This poem is about how it’s easy to ignore the causes of antisocial behaviour and yet be judgemental and self-righteous about the effects. I know Alicia (not her real name). Many of the lines in the poem are based on what people have said about her, worked into an indignant frenzy by the tabloids and ‘reality’ TV. I teach a lot of kids who might grow into Alicias; poverty is an insidious monster that follows children into adulthood and grows more powerful as the years go on. The last lines of this poem wonder what it would be like if Alicia became one of the curtain-twitchers. I don’t have any answers but I refuse to ignore her.”

Catherine Ayres is a teacher who lives in Northumberland.  Her poems have appeared in a number of print and online magazines, including Ink, Sweat and Tears and The Moth. She recently came third in the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine. Some of her poems will be published in pamphlet form by Black Light Engine Room later this year.

Ignoring Alicia

If I were you
I’d be a piss-take
a walk of shame down this quiet street
a What the fuck? in an empty afternoon.

If I were you
I’d have swollen mouth eyes
a flick-knife fringe
a temper as tight as a rubber band ball.

If I were you
I’d hold court in my backyard
rail against a shadow
on my doorstep throne,
the street light fawning over me.

If I were you
I’d be a dragon
wear a dress like scaled skin
crawl through smashed glass at midnight
let the copper cut his eyeballs
on the sharp edge of my arse.

If I were you
I’d get a job
pick the last of the scabs off a clean life
flutter my blinds like a pang
when what I used to be
rollercoasters round the bend
saluting the woman
who’s pretending not to look.

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