Frock & Bitters
(The Frock Enquiry, Susie Campbell)
I’ve been meaning to draw attention to Susie Campbell’s work for a long time now, and can think of no better reason than that her Frock Enquiry has recently been made available online: http://buff.ly/2eDNm5s
For anyone not fortunate enough to grab themselves a copy when it first appeared last year, Campbell’s fierce and necessary pamphlet was published by Annexe and edited by Claire Trévien. This publication was a beautiful thing, with a piece of vintage sewing pattern sewn into each limited-edition copy. But this addition was not a mere act of aesthetic whimsy. Frock Enquiry was an interrogation of early 20th Century women’s sweated-labour, drawing on archival reports from sources such as the Women’s Industrial Council and the London College of Fashion. As such, these thin slips of paper with their re-contextualised instructions to cut and fold and pleat, take on a whole other dimension when viewed alongside Campbell’s poetry.
As a friend, I know Susie Campbell to be an active protester, and a voice for people who have been marginalised, and it is this kind of zeal that she brings to bear in her work. She explores the neglected voices of history, whether lost in the archives of asylums or in the sweatshops and kitchens of Victorian England, yet always with an eye on the gendered inequalities that continue to persist in labour throughout the world. As the poet Jenny Lewis says – ‘It’s good to see a pamphlet being used, again, as a vehicle of protest.’
Her key tools are terror, humour and compassion, but Campbell has a particular interest in prose poetry and the experimental, and she employs a variety of verse strategies to create the profoundly effective, associative texture that is the hallmark of her work. Whether it be collage; found; tabulation; prose; or, regular lineation there is a taut logic to each poem, one that allows the sometimes bizarre, and the frequently tough, to persuade rather than overwhelm. I am reminded of Oulipo, where the reader is pulled by normal syntax through a counter-intuitive text, the cognitive dissonance never achieving full sway such that the reader does not get thrown out of the space. Talking of which, there’s a kind of magnetic, responsible mischief about how Susie holds the space in performance – I recommend catching her live.
I’d also like to recommend Susie’s pamphlet The Bitters (published by Dancing Girl Press). Named for the historic use of strychnine-based nerve tonics, this pamphlet explores the dangerous overlap prevalent in the late 19th/20th Century between definitions of femininity and mental illness. The long sequence ‘Casebook’, which opens the pamphlet, is a devastating critique inspired by Campbell’s investigation into the records of the hospital that treated her own grandmother. The work in this small collection has a dark and brutal tenderness, that I found by turns profoundly sad and blade sticking. It is also visceral, funny and righteous, and is informed by the likes of Stein, Woolf, Mullen, Rankine, and Sophie Robinson. Other pieces that stood out for me were the brilliantly grotesque ‘Soft Porn’, which seemed reminiscent of Martha Rosler’s film, Semiotics of the Kitchen; and, ‘advice for the bride’ with its ghastly infibulation narrative stitched out of recipes and advice for weddings.
To finish, Susie Campbell’s work is urgent, necessary and wonderful. It would be hard to reduce it to single lines so I’ll simply quote her tiny poem ‘Lilac’, in its entirety –
I saw a lilac in the shadow is a cat is no other thing is not a rough. Is no shadow a lilac. What is the fear of being sent back.