On a day likeliest to have been a Friday, probably in spring 2009, and certainly at precisely 11:11am, I was sitting on a toilet in a cubicle on the ground-floor men’s room of a communal office block in a converted bus factory off the northern end of the Caledonian Road in London.
I was at that moment distracted from my second-hand copy of Joan Smith’s 1989 essay collection “Misogynies” – which I’d picked up in Oxfam Books & Music Kentish Town the day before, after my habitual trip to Earth Natural Foods to pick up a hummus, avocado and sun-dried tomato sandwich for lunch – by the sudden realization that there was a sizeable smear of dried human excrement on the ceiling above me.
That moment of distraction was the genesis of my new poetry collection.
I know that’s not what you want to hear; but I’ve always believed that the truth is important. And, unlike Keats, I’ve yet to be convinced that truth is necessarily synonymous with beauty. That smear of excrement on the ceiling of the men’s room that morning wasn’t beautiful. But it was the truth, or at least a truth. A truth about civilization, and about masculinity. I wasn’t exactly surprised to see excrement on the ceiling above me that morning. And neither was I angry. But I was disappointed.
I don’t want to plagiarise lines from the poems in my new book – three of which address this moment with varying degrees of specificity, and thirty of which can be very loosely traced back to the experience of noticing that particular smear of excrement on that particular morning. But I feel that if I’m to write a blog-post about my new book, which I seem to be doing, I need to go into a bit more detail about the journey.
There had been other smears. Indeed, there were smears every morning by that time, which was when I tended to enter the room for the first time since the office had been unlocked in the morning. Usually the smears of excrement were on or around the toilet bowl or the connecting seat. Often they were on the walls, or the toilet-roll holders, or the cisterns; and sometimes they were on the doors (usually, but not always, the insides). But I do recall noticing for the first time (but not the last time) that somebody – some human male – had managed, while wiping the excrement from his befouled anus, to get some of it on the ceiling. And I think this was the first time I really, truly began to believe that there was in fact something very wrong with men. That is to say, some disconnect between the expectations of male humans in our society and the reality of the amalgamated natural phenomena of male bodies necessarily existing in a physical sense while simultaneously being bound with the cultural baggage of masculinity which our society confers upon them.
Something was making men malfunction. Joan Smith’s book, and others like it which I read over the following months and years, provided some theories and clues. But I never did learn exactly why human excrement ended up on the ceiling of the men’s room in a communal office building in North London in 2009 – that morning, and many times thereafter with semi-regularity. And I don’t know if I ever will.
And it is the unknown, and the unknowable, which often inspires acts of creativity – certainly my own acts of creativity. When I was trying to find out the precise date that I first wrote a poem about this experience, which I know was called “In the Men’s Room”, I came across an old tweet I posted linking to a defunct blog onto which I used to post the first drafts of my poems – at the time having no particular plans to print or publish them:
But a bit of digging proved that by this time I had in fact met my wife, and left London, and was living in Poole in Dorset. Archive.org’s Wayback Machine took a snapshot of that old blog in 2011, which seems to confirm that I wrote the poem based on that experience (and, I now recall, later, similar experiences in the toilets of the gym I briefly attended in Poole) in early November of that year. So it clearly took me a while to process my harrowing experience into rhyming couplets.
In 2015 I published my own super-short-run history pamphlet about my own poetry career (which is much longer than it has any right to be, due to all the complaining) ostensibly as a foil for my second volume, which was loosely themed around history. Ironically, this source briefly led me to the false conclusion that I had discounted the poem “In the Men’s Room” from the intended future collection of the same name on quality grounds:
Metadata is fallible. At least, mine seems to be. I find in an old forgotten blog-post I wrote on this website, which features an earlier version of the above colour-coded list of poems, that the above list was drawn-up at about the same time (probably weeks before) I wrote my first toilet-themed poem; not in 2011. That blog-post indicates that seven and a half years ago I had already decided that “the third collection [would be] about the loaded and duplicitous concept of nature, and what is natural”; but the many third-volume poems I’ve jettisoned since then, or written for inclusion and declared to be wonderful only to subsequently abandon, bear testimony to the difficulty in both nailing down a true theme to marry to the title I was so set on, and in remaining true to that spirit of curiosity and morbid fascination that descended upon me while I sat on the toilet beneath the excrement-smeared ceiling that morning in London in 2009.
“In the Men’s Room” never became a book about feminism, as I briefly intended it to be. It never even arrived at the point of having anything especially interesting to say about gender, as for years spent watching second- and third-generation feminists destroying each other on the internet I had hoped it would. But, as the poems vacillated between the overlapping topics of environmental destruction, homo sapiens’ invasiveness, and the enduring human propensity for species-exceptionalism, I found that the old topics remained beneath the surface; and, I think, that the emerging story being told by the bricks and mortar of the new and old poems (respectively) had truth at its core, and raised important questions about the human condition; which latter practice has always been my primary artistic intent. It inevitably ended up being a book more about masculinity than feminism, and more about men as a sex class than gender in general. Whether it’s any good is of course moot. But I am, finally, very pleased with it, and excited at the prospect of drawing a line under it as a creative enterprise.
Having promised or threatened to be publishing this bloody thing numerous times, and with numerous contradictory explanations, since at least 2016, and arguably since 2010, I can finally confirm that I mean to follow through on that.
“In the Men’s Room” will be available for sale on this website in February 2021, and it looks forward to meeting you.
A Velky, 2021.