Poetry International Poetry International

Richard Scott

Richard Scott

Richard Scott

(United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, 1981)
Playful, precise and provocative, Richard Scott’s defiantly queer poetry celebrates and challenges. Scott was a member of the Aldeburgh 8, a Jerwood/Arvon Poetry Mentee and took part in a collaborative residency at Snape Maltings.

He has been awarded the Wasafiri New Writing Prize and the Poetry London Prize. His pamphlet Wound (Rialto) won the Michael Marks Poetry Award 2016, with the judges praising “a powerful new voice, unpredictable in its angles of attack, and ruthless in its pursuit of difficult questions about identity and desire.” His first full-length collection Soho (Faber) was published in 2018 and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize, the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Costa Book Awards. Urgent and uncompromising: “Scott's project is as political as it is personal” (A K Blakemore).
Richard Scott was born in London in 1981. He was previously “an unhappy opera singer”:

[…] after years of obsessing over texts, librettos and poetry that had been set to music, poetry seemed like an almost logical step! It became clear to me that when you took the music away, there was still a ‘music’ and a rhythm to the poem – and that fascinated me!
(Forward Arts Foundation)

Scott’s poetic loves include Walt Whitman and Paul Verlaine. Mark Doty is also a key inspiration: “I suddenly felt companionship and inspiration; that it might be possible to write openly about homosexual experience in poetry” (Wasafiri). For Scott, who grew up under Section 28 it is important: “to only write poems that are recognisably queer”(‘How I Did It’, Poetry School).

Like Whitman, Scott obsessively redrafts and edits, with long incubated thoughts finding their form, often over the course of years. We see imagery and ideas re-emerging, reframed, as if the poet were a composer reworking a theme. Scott repeatedly demonstrates formal control and explores the potential of queer aesthetics such as enjambment.

Scott published Wound in 2016. This searing dissection of sexuality attempts to “outwardly and visually confront […] shame rather than allowing it to fester unsaid” (‘How I Did It’'). The pamphlet opens with ‘Childhood’, a theme central to Scott’s work, which narrates a creepy encounter from which we might infer an incidence of sexual abuse. The “clown / in his caterpillar-green jump-suit” is vividly, almost tenderly recalled: “I counted the missing buttons on his coat, / the soup-stains on his ruff… ” As in so much of Scott’s work we are presented with complex ideas of consent, desire, innocence, experience and power. Likewise, in ‘Fishmonger’ we have an ambiguous tale of sex between the young speaker and an older man, yet the troubling subject is portrayed in dazzling imagery. This quality has been described by Bethany W Pope as “a beautifully queasy ambiguity.” Adult sexuality is no less complex and fraught. The lush and multiflorous desire in ‘Le Jardin Secret’ moves from the sweet and soft to the thorned and poisonous. The masochistic ‘The Butcher’s Apprentice’ revels in the hinterland between pleasure and violence. ‘Public Toilets in Regent’s Park’ depicts the grubbiness and gorgeousness of cottaging, naming the bacteria to be found in the lavatories, but also using bird imagery to describe the men.

Religion is another theme. In ‘Matins’ the speaker moves from church to anonymous encounters in a steamroom, the sacred and the sexual muddling in the mist. In ‘Trainee Priest at Rochuskapelle’ the title character is captivated by a statue of St Sebastian. The ordinand wants to fix the saint’s wounds but realises

he and his arrows are of the same body of Milanese oak.
There is no stop where either wound or weapon begin –
our devotion is a perpetual hurt.

This acceptance of wounds as a part of identity is echoed throughout the pamphlet. In ‘Reportage’ there is also identification between the modern martyr, a man murdered for his sexuality, and the western homosexual who lives in a seemingly safer and more tolerant society.

The intricate footwork of ‘Dancing Bear’ evokes a malign father figure. Scott is constantly aware of our expectations about authenticity and the accuracy of the lyric I – particularly for gay, female or BAME writers. ‘Permissions’ plays with the confessional mode (“I am always writing my pamphlet of abuse poems  collecting rapey verse”) but it turns on the audience member/reader: “please take your hand out of my trousers”. “My poem isn’t true but it is honest”, writes Scott (‘How I Did It’).

Soho (2018) begins with ‘Public Library, 1998’, a proem for the collection. A young reader discovers the queer subtexts hidden in the homogenous heterosexuality of the proscribed poetic canon while defacing library books. Like much of Scott’s work, this poem is riddled with double-entendres and it is also formally subversive; the ending of the unrhymed sonnet does not close as the traditional couplet would but opens out on an ellipsis, on possibility.

The first section, ‘Admission’, includes many of the poems from Wound (with some small edits, of course). It also contains ‘crocodile’, a poem of abuse, trauma and survival, which won the 2017 Poetry London Prize:

I have died already and somehow
survived hauled myself up from
the river mud to taste blue air
though I was not the same […]

In comparison the next poem, ‘plug’, is beautiful and tender. In ‘museum’ the speaker considers fellating a statue:

I want to kiss your
sites of amputation
so I do

That the thought transgresses, passing into action, is an interesting indication of Scott’s project – to push further – and, of course, a falsehood; the whole thing is a poem, is imagined. But imagination, radical empathy of this kind, can be powerful, as in the second section of the book, ‘Verlaine in Soho’, which presents us with love and desire in many forms.

“[A] firm obsession” and central to all of Scott’s writing, Gay Shame is “a critical reaction to the commercialisation and hetero-normative co-option of gay pride […] seeks to celebrate and acknowledge the dark beginnings of our sexuality in the hopes of educating us and helping us to know ourselves better”. The poems in the third part of Soho, ‘Shame’, look at the theory behind this, quoting Sedgwick, Freud, Bersani and Foucault, as well as queer poets. All these poem titles are the first lines in square brackets as if unnamed, a stylistic choice which seems to acknowledge the difficulty of expression as well as the determination to do so. Sex, and simply existing as a homosexual, is “still an act of protest”:

it’s all still a middle finger up flaming

rag stuffed into napalm revolution fuck-
ing anarchy we are still dangerous faggots

‘[even if you fuck me all vanilla in]’

These poems become increasingly self-reflexive: “shame on you faggot for bending whitman to your will co- / opting him into your self-help circle- / jerk” (‘[shame on you faggot for bending whitman to your will co-]’). But theory can only take you so far and “an italicised quote is no talisman / all this must be lived through a second puberty this burning”. Eventually, perhaps, there can be an emergence, “a fabulous transcendence”, “free from shame but made from shame”.

It is from such a position that the final section of the book, the long poem ‘Oh My Soho!’ is possible. An attempt at tracing a homosexual ancestry, it’s a departure for Scott. Stitching together queer history and personal memory, it’s a psychogeographic romp, delightedly juggling rhetoric and syntax. Taking in many key places within Soho, past and present, it has a great deal of drive and energy, bounding along: “Still there is more to queerness than just transhistorical // bum-fun.” But it is also by turns sombre, memorialising as well as celebrating: “Tyburn tree casts a lengthy phallic shadow over / Soho tonight”. And much of this hallowed turf is now “razed – rebranded”. There is criticism too of a move towards normativity: “We, too, are not immune to this shameful progress; us homos are no longer revolting!”

It’s this desire to do more than celebrate, to remember and to call to arms, to seek more than a constricted acceptance that marks Scott’s work out. He refuses to take the easy route, to hide scars or to pretend that desire is straightforward – and his poems are all the stronger for it.
© Emily Hasler
Wound (Rialto, 2016)
Soho (Faber, 2018)
Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Ludo Pieters Gastschrijver Fonds
Lira fonds
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère