Background of Materials for Building a City

Grundrisse of a pamphlet:

This collection is an attempt to open a way of thinking about whiteness inside poetry, or of placing poetry inside a pursuit of understanding what whiteness is. While researching race and contemporary poetry for a series of talks I gave at Goldsmiths and Leeds Art Gallery, I found myself surprised at the absence of thinking about race among white poets, while every Black poet I read during that stint was writing about race. I presented the idea of doing a more extended project on this to numerous well-known poets, but all the white ones reacted strongly against it. And somehow the project just slid away. Other things happened. There was rent to pay, and a billion stolen lives to be stolen back.

I ended up on a PhD program in Sweden, writing about race and poetry but through philosophy instead of through poetry itself.

I kept thinking about the impossible whiteness and poetry nexus. At first it was like trying to dance ballroom with one side of my body and salsa with the other. A binary broke into unfittingness. But then I read Rob Halpern, for one thing, and Sam Ladkin talking about poetry, and Amy De’Ath too, and, crucially, Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda. Then I realized that I didn’t have to bring two antagonistic institutional discourses together: the pre-existing social form of whiteness (which is, as Stefano Harney says, the opposite of community; the collapse of social life) and the hegemonic practice of poetry. Instead I just had to write about myself, about all the unbearable shit that I am and that I have and that I bear and that I do. And that’s what this collection is.

It’s about not being able to pay the rent, and about the preoccupation with the founding racism of the world and the secret but so, so unsecret violence it gives access to. And it’s about my old best mate, when we were teenagers, and it’s about all the things we destroyed, including a lot of ourselves, and about how we gradually understood race and racism as two people of different races who for a long time saw ourselves as almost the same person. It’s about how the city built us, how it made us real and opened up the structural possibility of our life inside a wound, inside a massive open hole that consumes everything we do for the sake of violent profit. And by “us” I don’t know who I mean. Maybe just me.

One thing that occurs for me, again and again while thinking about this, is asking, ‘Why is this poetry?’ Or, ‘Why a collection?’ In this life among power, in our lives subjected to power and performed within the strict borders of its purview, everything is about the foreclosure of an ethical practice of sharing. At every turn, in every move, we are foresworn from the possibility of sharing. Sharing is extracted from us for use as private property constantly. It is that violent limitation that causes, for me, the turn to poetry. I find this medium’s inherent rupture allows it access—that crucial access—to a space of thinking that is beyond criticism, beyond the institution of criticism and the deconstructive or whatever-fashionable-label models of critique that make profit for universities and their debt-production regimes. Poetry goes beyond that, from a place of aesthetics, where a kind of Kantian judgement is uncritically played, through criticism and its basically useless institution, and then all the way beyond it. That’s the capacity of the broken words and fugitive thoughts of poetry. At least that’s how it feels for me.

Like, Giorgio Agamben thinks of poetry as the act of creation through catachresis, or the formal disordering of form. In The Use of Bodies, he talks at length about how poetry has this strange way of existing strictly within the limitations of linguistic order, constructed around a set of presupposed sounds and rhythms deemed to be universally beautiful, and always elicited by prescribed moments of feeling: like Daniel Kane says, when any teenager goes through a break-up, they turn to poetry—never painting or dance or collage; and when any kid at school wants to take the piss out of you for feeling too much, for being too sentimental, they accuse you of writing poetry.

But at the same time, poetry’s regulating borders make it remain always slightly outside the speaker. Iambic pentameter doesn’t just appear in our mouths; rhymes take a while to find. The formality, or its resistance and refusal, is always external, which creates gaps and slippages between poetry and its user. Those strange elusions of expectation are what Fred Moten calls the manic depression of poetry: its frantic joy at discovering the fact that the poem’s creation was never singular or internal, that the poem was always already constituted in the external ground of the social, of a kind of inter- and intra-action of people and groups and their subtle sociolects of love and secret meaning. And that realization—the impossibility of the singularity and solitude of the poet—is also poetry’s depression.

There are no secrets here, on the page that can never quite be appropriated into me.

That weird space of manic and multitudinous joy is exactly what makes poetry so impossible for the appropriative and capturing logics of capital and the university. The university and its capitalist mechanisms of accumulation can only register the form of internal, individual space projected outwards; they can only see the illusion of some singular genius spreading out its ego on the world. Which is precisely what poetry cannot do.

Outside the university, in the beyond of the refusal, we’re all in this shit together, trying to regurgitate some lively calories from each other’s madness.

And that’s what I try to get at in Materials for Building a City. I try to move into that messed-up space after criticism, where the institution doesn’t go, that soggy bit at the back of the bar where no one wants to sit because it smells of vomit. Well, that’s also the place where the professors don’t sit, where the performance of debt is not the condition for being alive. So I try and go there, and reach a different way of thinking about whiteness, using some poetic references, like Anne Carson and her thinking on TV and all that weird and beautiful stuff she was up to at the turn of the millennium, and also attempting some version of contemporary satire, like maybe what Jasmine Gibson, A. K. Blakemore, Paul Beatty, Verity Spott, Melissa Lee-Houghton or Rowland Bagnall are up to. I hope it works.

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