Launch speech by
One of the most important things a poet, or indeed any artist, can do for an audience – particularly in these difficult times – is to convey the complexities of what it feels like to be a human being alive in the world today. Ali Whitelock’s work does this, with both candour and brio. I was therefore delighted to be asked to launch her second collection. The launch was to have taken place at Better Read Than Dead on 19 March 2020, but fell victim – as have so many arts events – to the necessary precautions around the coronavirus. Fortunately, the internet enables us to hold a launch without having to wash our hands thoroughly (though please do that anyway), don gloves, cough into our elbows or maintain a 1.5-metre distance from each other – so I welcome you to the virtual launch of Ali Whitelock’s the lactic acid in the calves of your despair.
Ali is a woman after my own heart in a particular way, namely that she tends to the straight-down-the-line and the sweary, being ever willing to call a spade a spade, when she is not calling it a fucking shovel. Yes, this is a content warning. But be assured that the swearing is not gratuitous, but rather a considered use of a potent and necessary element of the vernacular.
Something you’ll notice straight away, if you turn to the contents page, is that Ali has a gift for intriguing and memorable poem titles. The first poem in the book is called ‘in the silence of the custard’. This title has its own delicious absurdity, and is perfect for the poem, but it also, fittingly, carries a slight resonance of The Silence of the Lambs. There is also ‘the dandruff in the dry scalp of your longing’, ‘mr sausage’, ‘when your father dies of nothing’ and ‘a poem walked into a bar’. These titles are small siren songs, luring you into the poems themselves.
While Ali’s poems are informed by the energy of the spoken word, they are never simply transcriptions of the vernacular. Felicitous choices have been made as to wording, as well as rhythm, line breaks and other elements of form. The poems offer, in addition to their own intrinsic rewards, insight, entertainment and not a small measure of consolation. They contain many wonderful descriptions, like this one, from ‘kmart sells out of cheap fans made in China’, depicting lying in bed on a scorching night: