Verity Spott is an alumnus from the University of Sussex and a Brighton based poet about politics and social issues. Verity co-runs the event Horseplay in Brighton which is a poetry and performance event. They also work as a commissioning editor for the poetry press Contraband Books.
Words by Molly Openshaw
Verity explains that they got into writing when they were a teenager. However, moving to Brighton in 2006 is what sparked their love for poetry. After years of writing Verity is now an established writer and has written poems including We Will Bury You, a poem calling out against the Members of Parliament who voted against the proposed end of the cap on public sector pay and details their deaths explicitly.
“I wrote a lot of dreadful song lyrics as a teenager. I was lucky to have a really great English teacher at school who first sparked my interest in poetry. I started writing when I was feeling a little lost having newly arrived in Brighton in 2006. I wanted to share my poems with people so I started going to open mic nights, poetry events, anything I could find. It took me a few years to start writing things I’m now happy to call my poetry.”
Verity explains some of their influences and role models being other poets and writers. One of her role models includes Keston Sutherland, a lecturer at the University of Sussex who has recently released his book Scherzos Benjyosos in 2020.
“Seeing Keston Sutherland read at a Hammer & Tongue event in 2009 certainly changed the course of my writing. I’d never heard such a ferocious fucked up poetry reading. I’ve been in a dialogue with him and his work ever since. Other contemporaries such as William Rowe, Frances Kruk, Nat Raha and Sean Bonney have had a really important influence on my work. At the moment I’m obsessively reading the collected poems of Anna Mendelssohn which has just been published by Shearsman. I read quite anarchically. There are books I come back to and prod at. For ages, I carried around Julia Kristeva’s ‘Powers of Horror’. I’m currently obsessed with a set of prose poems written by the Chinese writer Lu Xun (1881 – 1936) collected as Wild Grass.”
Verity explains that some of their greatest achievements so far has been the organisation of Horseplay, which is a regular event at The Black Dove in Kemp Town. As well as this, Verity describes that they are proud of how poetry has become their occupation and that people read their work.
“I’m just really happy that people read my poems and that they find their way into people’s hands. I consider poetry to be my occupation. I take it seriously. I love it more than I can say. I feel very lucky to be surrounded by poets and conversations about poetry. When I was first trying to find my way I was desperate for the kinds of interactions I have now. I’ve also been running a poetry night called Horseplay for fifteen years. I’m really delighted it continues to exist and that it acts as a strange little enclave for those that attend.”
When looking at gender identity, Verity explains that they have conflicting ideas of gender and gender roles. Some of their publications have addressed the role of gender and the difficulties of not having a fixed black and white idea of gender identity. To Verity, writing has been a way of thinking deeper about gender roles and to work through these issues more.
“I’ve no fixed idea of what my gender identity is anymore. I feel I’ve untied lots of knots, but more appear. Gender baffles me. It feels like a system of perimeters and borders, constantly acting to contain non-stable subjects. I know that’s a vague answer, but I’ve never felt less sure and I find some freedom there. That’s not to say the categories aren’t there, and that for many there is not the option of movement or fluidity. That’s just how things seem to be for me at this moment. I began to write about gender in 2011. That work is collected in my book Prayers Manifestos Bravery (Pilot Press). This work helped me to think through some of the difficulties I found personally and in the world. I am very much aware (and am often made aware) that there is a lot of prejudice against individuals like myself in society. That manifests as a street-level threat, day to day disdain, structural inequality and the weird carnival that gets called “the trans debate”. I’m also aware that in the poetry world I operate in there are a bunch of folks across spectrums of destabilised gender, queerness etc doing really important work, and I am glad to be able to speak into that. There have been a few moments where people have tried to rope me into their events because they want to tick off some quota. I don’t like that. I’m not an example (and even less a good one!). Though I have written about these things I am not a writer who will make a career speaking about one subject. My gender expression is not my totality.”
I asked Verity about their thoughts on the role of white straight males in the canon of literature and how, as an English Literature student, a lot of the authors we study fit this quota and sometimes it seems that women are weaved in only to tick boxes. I asked whether Verity believes that we can solve this issue and how it affects students.
“I think about this a lot. It can be quite an uncomfortable topic. I think with any kind of canon it is important to see it for what it is: Why is it there? How was it established? To the exclusion of what/who? Let me say, though, that I am not going gun for destroying any canons. I think there is much more hope for different kinds of worlds in facing the realities of history and dismantling their many parts rather than chucking everything in the bin. When I studied at Sussex I felt I was exposed to broader canons than I had been previously, that’s not to say that there isn’t a hell of a lot of work to be done, but I found myself reading black radical literature, took seminars on queer writing and read the work of a great many poets I’d never heard of. I think this should be pretty basic stuff, and it isn’t in many places. There’s also loads more work to do. Writers get into conversations with other writers across history. I feel that far too many people follow the easy grooves and well-worn paths. I want to keep challenging my own emergent canons and would encourage others to do so. I’d also say be ready to question and challenge curriculums. Institutions are filled with arbitration and power structures that need to be bitten at, uprooted, turned upside down and shaken to see what might fall out. I find the idea of ‘diversifying’ a bit lacklustre too. It feels like it shares too much space with the language of workplace quotas. I don’t want to be reading a poet on a course because they are there to fill a quota. There are many incredible underrepresented writers and I want to be reading their work because it is incredible and because the person presenting it to me (presuming an institutional setting) is passionately engaged with it. These things need to be deeply worked at not patched up with liberal sticking plasters. I feel as though issues around gender run all through society and we have to be sharp to them. That said Horseplay is regularly attended by people across different spectrums of gender and I can think of some magnificent performances that have celebrated, attacked and deconstructed issues around gender in all kinds of ways.”
Having lived in Brighton for a while Verity describes how it is a liberal place but there are still ways in which Brighton can become more diverse. Having lived in Brighton since 2006 and studying at the University of Sussex, Verity explains how this influences their writing.
“Brighton is a very liberal place. I question its diversity. It is a very white place. I know people of colour who have moved away because of this. I see the city as a diverse place in some ways but not in others. It has an incredible history with regard to LGBTQ+ culture. There are a great many cultural enclaves, but I think it is sometimes unconscious of some of the holes in its diversity. Things a lot of people don’t think about that often. Through working as a support worker and carer I became aware of how much of a nightmare this city, its venues, its shops and many of its public places can be for disabled folks. You often don’t see it until you’re shown it in some way, then suddenly you notice all these pointless little steps on shop doorsteps, venues in basements and upstairs – the venue we run Horseplay in is a basement. We get that space for free. I’ve looked into accessible spaces. They are few and far between and many of them cost an awful lot. Brighton may be very culturally accepting in some ways, but there are still stories of pretty constant antisemitism. I’ve had to put up with nasty shit in the street. Many of my queer friends have. I love Brighton but I feel we can’t be complacent about these things. With regard to my own writing, I would say that living here has certainly affected it, as one’s habitation and local culture invariably does. I’ve not lived anywhere else as an adult. I am really lucky to be surrounded by people I love and to have cultures to work within that allow for certain freedoms with regard to things such as gender expression. As I said, I love Brighton, and though there are some problems as detailed above there are some rich and important cultural histories going on here, bubbling under various surfaces. I do wish the council would ban the ukulele.”
As it is International Women’s Day on the 8th of March, Verity explains that they plan to celebrate this is the only way possible in lockdown.
“I’ll be teaching on IWD, and I’ll be teaching on some women poets from the black arts movement of Chicago – Carolyn M Rodgers and Angela Jackson. Celebrating anything feels difficult at the moment. The first thing that jumps to mind is drinking an enormous glass of rum and blasting out some Alice Coltrane. Let’s go with that.”