In 2019, I posted a poem titled Abolish the Police on social media once a week, every week. There are now 52 poems about police abolition. The first is here, and I think they work best when read in order, but feel free to disagree.
I believe in the abolition of police (and prisons, borders, psychiatry and every other carceral institution) and making a world without police happen now, with urgency. The poems began when I gave a talk about police abolition to a very middle class arts audience, who politely applauded; I couldn’t help thinking they hadn’t understood a word. As my writing “career” has developed, as the institutions have taken an interest, I’ve been shifted from a comfortable position of outsider radicalism to a position of having dangerous comfort offered to me. I don’t know how to maintain my politics in that space, or how to use the platform responsibly. I might need to leave it entirely. I wrote these poems to help me think through some of these problems.
The first I wrote was this one, about that very specific event. The violence of my own fantasy shocked me, and the theme of grappling with the reality of revolutionary violence became important to the project. This connects to I Want to Blow Up the Palace of Holyroodhouse, an art project about how art can be an alibi against terrorism legislation, a process like poetry which may make the art incapable of saying anything important. I do believe in revolution. I don’t know what I think about violence: it horrifies me, but every politics of non-violence I’ve encountered has also been violent and horrifying. I wrote into that horror, often.
These are also exercises in style. My two poetic comfort zones are the detached English lyric, concrete and procedural techniques. (These two are less contradictory than they often appear.) I am less comfortable with the lyric I, and I’m less comfortable with the more fragmented approaches of other contemporary poetries. So here I wrote with the I, if fantastically, and I used a free caesura in each line. I tried to push myself away from strict metre and the other clear techniques of sound that I tend to prefer, but more often than not they reasserted themselves. I tried to push myself away from the high lyric tone I find comfortable, and again strayed back over and over. I have no idea how successful any of this was! But I know it was valuable for me to write structured around an empty space.
Inevitably, as a result of the pace of writing, there’s a good deal of repetition between the poems. I return to the same themes repeatedly. Sometimes I ffelt stuck, week after week, not able to get to where I wanted to. I started out refusing to explicitly narrate my own experiences of police violence, or detail abstracted statistics and appropriated narratives. This made the trap stronger: I wonder if it’s what led to a tendency to being too meta, too obsessed with the role of poetry, too concerned with my own feeling and not concerned enough with the practicality of abolition. The separation of the poems from the articles and abolitionist argument I posted alongside them felt too deep. I will work on this in the rewriting. I read, in the final week of the year, Mercedes Eng’s Prison Industrial Complex Explodes, which does astonishing work of combining personal narrative with quite austere found text formalism, a strong lyric juxtaposition. It is more expansive, I think, than my own approach. I’m thinking also of the essay-poem work of Claudia Rankine and Vahni Capildeo, who make similar juxtapositions. These will be guides for a rerwriting.
Some of the poems took weeks to write, and some were written in the hour before I posted them. All need work. The discipline of writing regularly also means accepting flaws and failures, writing roughly; posting them publicly was about having a conversation, but does mean there’s work out there I’m not always happy with. At some point I will take these drafts offline as I prepare the book of the project. My social media is also on a timed delete. So if you want an archive of these drafts, please download them without asking.
Thank you for reading as I wrote. I’m grateful for every conversation about the poems and would like many more.
Abolition is not a fantasy, not a revolutionary indulgence, not a poem. There are, as many articles I posted explained, everyday abolitionists everywhere. Few people truly believe in police, or prison. Many of us see the absurdity. Many of us are working every day to make a world without police. I hope you will join us.