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Fully Automated Radical Pessimism

Some of my favorite books to teach are dystopian, like George Orwell’s 1984, M.T Anderson’s Feed, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. All of these books inform my work, but especially Station Eleven. In the book, Mandel asks the question: what would survive in the end of the world? Shakespeare is one of these things. I love that: story would survive, poetry would survive, and so would love, in some capacity.

Never, ever did I ever think I’d write dystopian poems, forget about a book of them. Simply put, I had no choice. I couldn’t help it. They just poured out of me when writing my chapbook, Straight Away the Emptied World and spilled into my full-length collection, The Barbarous Century. I’d like to say I’m done with dystopian-themed poetry, but until something is different, I won’t be. All the poems I’m still writing stem from this place. They are darker even, more political, more angry and more engaged with hope and resistance. I am writing from a place of despair, for an imagined future, a better, lighter future, and a step away from the violence and hatred I see around me. In my resistance, are my words. In my resistance is both an escape and an embrace. Literature helps us escape the turmoil, but it also helps us to embrace it.

What I love about any dystopian writing is the element of hope that fights through. One poem that I especially love, which is Maggie Smith’s ‘Good Bones’ and her notion of ‘how to make the world more beautiful’,  and ‘how to step away from the darkness’. I also love her ‘At Your Age I wore a Darkness’ for its same sense of urgency; I hope participants on my upcoming course will discover their own ways to write a future worth living. It is my hope that this course will help you use what tears you down to propel you forward in your writing. I feel that the only way to fight something is with words and with spirit, and what better purpose can poetry serve?

A popular new wave of of broadly ‘dystopian’ shows like HBO’s Game of Thrones and Westworld have been huge sources of inspiration for me. In Game of Thrones, I saw so much damage and destruction in a world deeply reminiscent of our past. But what draws me to GoT most isn’t the violence or gore, but the goodness in the characters I love, in familys like the Starks. That goodness inspired me to write Game of Thrones inspired poetry (something I never thought I’d do). I fell in love with Ned Stark and the sort of father, husband and man, he was trying to be. This poem, came of that cherishing.

Similarly, futuristic shows like HBO’s Westworld also inspire my writing. It is a future not so distant, but still so full of barbarism. It is sad to think humans might not learn from their mistakes. In Westworld, I use such characters as Dolores, Maeve and Bernard to speak to the struggle I often feel as a woman in the 21st century. In Dolores 1, the speaker is dealing with the tyranny of Ford, Dolores’ creator, and sees her struggle alongside that of her own. I often find that a persona poem, or a poem inspired by allusion, can allow us to write about a topic we might not normally write about.

Most the poems that we will study on Fully Automated Radical Pessimism will be contemporary and will inform our writing assignments, but some might be inspired by the past, as the peril of the imagined future isn’t necessarily a new topic; in fact, it has a long pedigree. For example, Shelley, also wrote on this topic in his ‘Sonnet (‘Lift not the painted veil’), as did Yeats in ‘The Second Coming‘.

All in all, we all view these dark days differently. Some see ‘the darkest dark’ and some see the dark as just ‘poorly lit.’ And ultimately no one age is ‘better’ than another. In sharing these poems, we’ll develop our own radical approach to using poetry to hold onto the good that is still left, somewhere. I hope our poems will aim to shape a brighter tomorrow.

Write after and against the new dystopian with Leah Umansky on her new online course, Fully Automated Radical Pessimism. Book online or ring us on 0208 582 1679.

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John Keogh