Subject to Change: ‘Tender’ by Annie Hayter

Portrait of Annie
20 Jul 2018
3 min watch

For July’s poem, Annie Hayter reflects on the relationship between sexual abuse and denial, in the wake of recent revelations.

What inspired your poem this month? 

Abuse, in its many forms, and how it feeds on denial and privilege. How it permeates our families, societies, relationships. The choice of silence becomes brutal in its mundanity. This poem attempts to give voice to the trauma of disassociation, collecting proof, unlearning guilt, and the difficulty of piecing a narrative together in the face of this. All of this is painful.

Seeing eulogies in the news recently, I’ve noticed how after death, we sometimes idealise abusers, as if we cannot reconcile both their abusive behaviour and their capacity to be loving or artistic.

I wonder how often abusers read accounts of abuse, and cannot identify themselves as perpetrators- especially those who declare themselves to be liberal, feminist or sensitive. We must scrutinise these labels, lest they become masks.

Who do you think writes well on the subject of change?

I loved Jackie Kay and Sarah Waters as a teen- their novels queer the straight awakenings I had become so used to reading. They helped me to feel the change in myself. Lately, I’ve relished the words of Helen Oyeyemi and Jenni Fagan, both striking in their writings on adolescence.

As songwriters, Fiona Apple and FKA Twigs perform the power in vulnerability, if in very different offerings of softness, as well as strength. They recognise suffering as ordinary, something A.K. Blakemore articulates in her latest, radiant volume of poetry, Fondue. In her lyrics, Kelela also writes beautifully about consent and respect in modern romance- the importance of being open, kind and honest, no matter how casual an encounter.

Why do you think poetry is a good way to talk about change? 

Poetry offers an opening into other minds, a coming home to an unfamiliar place. Pared down to its purest form, it’s a vehicle for expression, and world-making. For me, a good poem voices something in a new, strange way that the reader/audience already knew, but couldn’t express, a shift in understanding. Soweto Kinch, in his combination of jazz, hip-hop and spoken word, is a master of such epiphanies- beyond the glib, or any false universalising.

There is an intimacy in reading, inhabiting the space between the eye and the page

In terms of making these discussions possible, it is educators like Jacob Sam-La Rose who make real change by enabling a multiplicity of voices. This richness is lacking in many creative spaces. Rachel Long is another exquisite poet, who, in her work as a facilitator, empowers other artists. As assistant tutor for Barbican Young Poets, and in her collective Octavia, for womxn of colour, she has established the space for a community who generate truly expansive writing.

How has poetry changed your life? 

As a child, I was lucky to read widely, so I’m always bound to return to books. There is an intimacy in reading, inhabiting the space between the eye and the page (or the ear). Sometimes, it seems like I’m feeling my way through images I’ve found. They become a language of reference, a patchwork to speak from. I remember watching Vahni Capildeo read, and longing for her clarity, craving the distillation of images and wit that she brings to everything she does.

Words can be a burden to carry around. There is a release in wringing them out. In the best performances, you catch a shine from audiences, a sense of affinity- this gives fresh life to my work. Performing poetry is freeing- a thrill in being heard and seen- a power in these moments. For some people, just being able to live and breathe and be, signifies change.

Tender

I reply in water                                              drunk
                                  these days a look is not enough
could I figure the softness
                                                of your mouth
as I was before                        you washed your hands in me
                   folding damp
the brine lick of skin
     twisting limbs
     this angel twisting
I only ever wanted to hold
 
holy-sick                                 the thought of halves makes me whimper
 
this is a fever                          a bitterness           
fresh as rocks                                                  it crumbles to vowels
 
these gaps                              breed worlds
I open to a breeze                                 that bedroom was too cold
                                             sinking
        
               I blame you                                               blame 
                                                you                        
                        I                     blame                            you
 
who else                                                                      have you touched
        denial is           a cool gift  passed down             between children    
        
lead eyed                    gaping                                      bright slip of
lids                       shut as mouths

if you placed me                        in water                         
                                                                           I unfold to nothing               
          
fathoming the ocean          in a breath                   
                                           part my hair to comb order       through the mind            
ghosts of the pulpit            mites                                          muttering scuttling 
                                                                                     
                                          they wore me like a cross           
                       
this legion of black cloth                                                fits like shadow                         
                                           a sea of gloved hands
beckoning                          in a twenty acre               stretch
I tug at                                balding skin                        between two hairs  
                                          
                                           between

two interstices        it sits                              
                               a hole for god to hide down                                                                              
                                                                               when the prayers get too loud 

this grief can never be fed. 

Watch more Subject to Change

Discover more performances from our Young Poets as they respond to our changing times through poetry