Episode 21

Organza by Selina Rodrigues

 

Selina Rodrigues reads from ‘Organza’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

Ferocious by Selina Rodrigues

Ferocious book cover

Available from:

Ferocious is available from:

The publisher: Smokestack Books

Bookshop.org: UK

Amazon: UK 

 

Organza

by Selina Rodrigues

Two seasons ahead. Satin and feathers
shimmer in polythene sheets like wings
and rise to me through the invisible floors.

My skirt rustles. One mutters, one sings.
I pause and my fingers trace a stitch
dropped in Dhaka, a button lost in Beijing.

Crepe and tulle to slice and print.
Could you ever pause and be held
in velvet capes or upon the lace bibs.

This cuff for a breeze, this brim for clouds.
You sit in patterns as machines whirr,
for our want, in the bright-dark shop fronts.

Autumn-Winter, you work hot-fingered.
I search beautiful racks but nothing fits
I tell you cold-faced, in Spring-Summer.

You tend the moleskin and finely-chewed silk
that shine and glint in everyday streets.
Chiffon and brocade. Your art and will
are the cuts and stitches that invite my body.


 

Interview transcript

Mark: Selina, where did this poem come from?

Selina: Well, I think, Mark, no single source or place. It’s about clothes. It’s about the clothes-manufacturing industry. But I think it’s about the desire that’s wrapped up in clothes and what clothes say about us. So even people that may think, ‘I’m not that bothered about what I wear,’ our choices say something and mean something. And it’s also about the passages of time many labour between those that wear the clothes and those that manufacture them. And those people have very different life and work experiences. It’s also about my fact, so to speak.

I used to do quite a lot of shop work and spent time in dusty, airless basements, and, you know, days and weeks of stock rooms and stock takings. And I think when I was writing the poem, I had very much a bodily memory, it felt, of being in those places and a very clear picture in my mind’s eye about my experience doing shop work in clothes shops and some boutiques. Why they ever employed me in boutiques, I’m not sure, but there you go!

I worked temporarily for a well-known clothes outlet which had protocols for the standards in overseas factories, footage per machine per person, but I’m not sure then or now how much those requirements were monitored. And I think when I started some lines were emerging and I was very… as I say, I had these images in my mind.

I must say whenever I go to the hairdresser, I take a bit of work or poetry book, but I end up flicking through the fashion pages. And I was quite fascinated by some of the language and the description used by the fashion industry, which is in itself creative, both the creation, the design of clothes, but also the promotional language. So in the poem, I mentioned velvet capes, and lace bibs. So quite luscious, quite provoking language in some ways, but also phrases and images that can be quite sexualized or even infantile. I was very struck by ‘lace bibs’ as a word. And there’s delicious words that are delicious to say like ‘tulle’ and ‘brocade’.

And so I think it was all those areas and thoughts whirring in my mind that brought the poem together really. So it was derived from facts and imaginings. And one key fact that happened was the Rana Plaza catastrophe, which occurred in Dhaka in Bangladesh where a building collapsed and over 1,000 people died, including garment workers. In general, there’s many undocumented workers on ‘invisible floors’, another phrase I use in the poem, and these are floors that are built without planning permission.

So the Rana Plaza building was designed for offices and shops. And part of the reason for this catastrophe when the building collapsed – and this is not a rare occurrence. This happens, but this was one of the worst with so many people dead and injured – part of the reason was the building couldn’t bear the weight of the machinery and its vibrations on these invisible floors. So I refer in the poem as well to the machines whirring, but it’s within that particular incident of Rana Plaza, it was much more than it were a terrible situation. Many women working in the factory. Children that were in the nursery lost their lives through this. It has resulted in some changes in the fashion industry in terms of standards, but, of course, there’s still a lot more to be done.

So I wanted the poem to… I didn’t want. I wrote the poem in terms of exploring all of that. I didn’t know if it would come together in a poem. I thought, ‘Who am I to write this to try and recognize some of these areas of concern? Who am I to make a statement about that? Will this be one poem? Will it be a few?’, etc. ‘Organza’, the poem you’ve just heard is the result of all of that.

Mark: Yeah. Because this poem is… you know, it’s part of a whole collection, really, where one of the biggest themes is work and the workplace. And that’s quite unusual in poetry, isn’t it? I mean, Dana Gioia had a nice essay on business and poetry where he looked at some of the works and careers of some of the big 20th century poets. And he said, ‘Look, these were all people working in business’, he said, ‘but they never wrote about it’. And so, why do you think most poets most of the time ignore work?

Selina: That’s a very interesting question. And it would be what I hope to do with this collection of work poems, is to be able to do more exploration of those types of questions. Interestingly to me, at least, when I started writing these poems, it almost wasn’t intentional to write about work. It was just what came out, came through my thought processes.

When I started workshopping the poems, I did get some reactions of, ‘Why are you writing about work?’ And I think the collection, again not intentionally, but this is what came through in the poems, is about some jobs that are not considered glamorous. They can be quite invisible. So shop workers, you go into a shop, you’re thinking about clothes, presumably, not necessarily the conditions for staff or who the staff are, it’s about people working in call centres, in distribution centres.

And people did question the value, I suppose, of writing about some of those jobs and occupations, about the threats of worklessness, of unemployment, about your core job changing, and that feeling of no longer being valid or valuable or having anything to offer. But I suppose to me, and again, this wasn’t intentional. It was perhaps what I’d absorbed in my own employment, is that everything… if you are in work, it takes up so much of your life and energy and your headspace. And so much goes on in work apart from the day-to-day production, sex, relationships, power, considerations of food, sharing biscuits, bringing in birthday cakes. And there is a dynamic and there is an energy in all of that.

So obviously, different poets will be motivated by different things in their life or that they observe, or that they feel are very crucial, or they are angry about, and want to speak about or feel about something. And for me, this was work. I’ve done many of the jobs that I write about either on a temporary or a more long-term basis. I’ve been through about five restructures in my employment. It’s always a very difficult time for people.

But it wasn’t only about those more concrete issues. It is about the relationships and the dynamics that go on within work. So within the collection, there’s a poem that refers to astrology. There’s a poem that refers to… basically, I can’t remember the term, but it’s where sexualized images are passed around on the internet. There’s a poem about attraction, about loss, etc. So when I was writing them, they might have started off in a physical location of somebody’s employment, but we’re all complete beings with different selves and different selves that we bring out in different locations and areas and they just started coming into the poems as well.

Mark: Yeah. Well, that certainly chimes with my experience of reading the collection because you’ve… I guess, you know, maybe one reason why poets don’t write about the workplace, is because the workplace and the systems of the workplace feel inherently antipoetic. They feel synthetic and inauthentic. But what I get in this poem and others in the collection is almost like the interface or the point of overlap or friction between the inauthentic system or the coldness of the system, and the authentic, the real, the human lives that are being lived in and through this space.

Selina: Yeah. Absolutely. And I suppose that it’s partly my own frustration. So it is bringing myself, my own experiences into the poems in the collection. But I was very conscious as well that many people… there’s been a lot considered and written about this, about the creative spirit, whether that’s intrinsic to the human race. And I was very conscious that many people don’t have the capacity, the resources, the confidence to be creative.

So particularly, when I was writing specifically about offices, I felt that sometimes the reaction was. ‘Why is this a valid subject for poetry?’. Which is fine. Maybe other poets had been more humorous about office locations. Certainly, in television, there’s some famous situational comedies, etc., about offices, about factories, etc., but I had a very salient lesson personally that I was working on a project that was about IT and systems and I’m not an IT and systems person.

And I went to a conference and I sat there and I was thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is not me. What am I doing here amongst these people?’ And one of the speakers was actually talking… if I can go into a little bit of detail, she was talking about information management system for the prison service. And then at the end of her presentation, she quoted William Blake. And she said, ‘Whenever I feel frustrated that we want this system in place to make the whole service work more efficiently, I think of William Blake’. And I’ve never found the quote. So if anybody has it, I’d be so grateful, about bringing some kind of order into chaos.

And it was such a lesson to me that people, this might be their day job, but we’ve all got so many thought processes and references in our minds that there is just such scope for exploration and creativity in so many different locations. And as you can see, I often come back in my own thinking and when I was putting the collection together, that person, I couldn’t find her after the seminar to just go thank her and give her a hug if she’d let me at that time. But it was really wonderful for me to be sitting there and then hear William Blake quoted in that way.

Mark: Wonderful. And if any listeners can identify the quotation, we would love to hear from you, please. That would be great.

Selina: Absolutely. Yeah. I’d be grateful. I’ve got a big William Blake collection and I keep flicking through it. Yeah.

Mark: Great. So coming back to ‘Organza’, specifically. So, first of all, for people like me who had to look up the word ‘organza’ – what is it?

Selina: Oh, it’s a very fine kind of netting. And it’s… What I was really interested in. It’s very lightweight and flimsy. It was previously produced from silk and now it’s mainly produced from polyester, which is more of an artificial material. And that was also interesting for me. It was originally produced along the silk road when it was produced from silk. And the word itself is thought to derive either from Turkistan or to have been translated or used in French. And then it comes to us in the UK or the English-speaking world as ‘organza’.

It’s now a lot of the producers… a lot of organza apparently is produced in China. And again, I was really interested in the journey of some of these materials and where they originated, where they are now produced. So India, as we know, was a big garment industry producer, India and Bangladesh. A lot of cotton came from India that in Indian independence, that was a really key issue for Mahatma Gandhi because he was saying, ‘Cotton from Lancashire is being imported into India and we are cotton-producing industry’.

And, of course, it’s now what might be seen as the newer markets, although they’ve been operational for many years in China. I reference Beijing, for example, Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. So, again, it’s this very personal aspect that we have of the clothes we wear and that we choose to wear. But these connections that they enable us to think about if we wish to about sometimes… I really did touch my clothes and think, ‘This stitching has been done and created for me thousands of miles away. This button has been touched by somebody thousands of miles away to produce this for me’. And also, in some situations, clothes that they would never wear, that culturally wouldn’t be worn in Bangladesh, or Ho Chi Minh, etc.

So I’m not saying I can speak for those people. Of course, I can’t. And there’s many sociologists and activists enabling those people’s words and their own creativity to be heard. So it was somewhat about my imaginings. But again, as I say, the journey of some of those materials, the origins, where they would’ve been originally produced, how the words came into our language, really I found quite fascinating and very, very, very live for me.

Mark: ‘Live’ is a good word, isn’t it? Because it is, I mean, clothing, you don’t get a lot more intimate than that. And it is such an intimate thing that is connecting these two people. But on the other hand, they are so distant in so many other ways. I think it’s quite an unsettling paradox in the poem that these people are in one sense so close but so far away.

Selina: Yes. And I think I didn’t want to resolve any… Oh, I couldn’t resolve anything in the poem. And so, there is some phrasing within the poem, ‘I tell you, cold faced’, ‘you work hot fingered’. ‘You work hot fingered’ is actually quite objectifying a phrase. It puts people at a distance. It maybe is a bit of a generalization. What do I know about how they work? And so I wanted to… Or perhaps it wasn’t even conscious. That’s how the poem emerged in terms of those undercurrents of emotion. But I think as well with the ending, I couldn’t really resolve anything. Nothing can be resolved in this poem. It can explore. I suppose, that’s the main aspect for the poem for me, it’s an exploration, but I couldn’t really resolve anything. I could only describe and explore those different dynamics, really.

And I once read this poem at a reading and somebody came up to me afterwards and said, ‘Oh, my goodness, it’s so difficult, isn’t it?’. About buying. You know, when we are consumers, and we’re very much consumers in Europe and North America, etc. And it did… you know, it makes me reflect on a lot of things. Probably about a third of my wardrobe and accessories is from secondhand shops. It used to make me laugh that people then started calling secondhand items vintage. I really didn’t know what they meant for a while. And I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, a “Choose Life” t-shirt from the eighties is now considered vintage because it’s so descriptive of the time that it was produced and fashionable’.

So all of those interrelations, I think, are threaded through the poem. And in terms of the form, it’s in a form called terza rima, which is three-line verses with a rhyme scheme that repeats and then extends through the poem. Again, that wasn’t intentional, but I knew about that particular form of writing a poem and that’s what the lines fell into. And when I came upon that form of those three-line verses with rhymes within it, that helped me propel the poem forward.

Mark: Yeah. I mean, it’s a beautiful form and it’s wonderfully intricate and interlinked and it’s always got that propulsion for it. And obviously, for poetry lovers, terza rima will always be associated with Dante and his Divine Comedy. Were there any associations or connotations with Dante for you in this?

Selina: Not with Dante, but I did read about the form. As I was writing it, I did read about it. I’m not so wedded to forms to think it’s got to be absolutely accurate in terms of meter syllables, etc., etc., rhyme schemes, but I did read bits of Dante if you don’t mind me describing Dante in bits! Obviously, a wonderful poet… in order to understand what he did. I also, you know, one very famous one which I saw actually on the underground, on the Poems on the Underground yesterday by sheer coincidence is Shelley, ‘Ode To the West Wind’. Derek Walcott’s Omeros – well, it is written in terza rima, but in a very loose form. And I listened to the recordings of Derek Walcott, and that music and the lyricism and the propelling… the back and forth of the form, I think obviously… I mean, they’re far finer poets and more accomplished than I am, but just listening to that. Terza rima does have a certain form, but because of that musicality in it, I think it gives space and a kind of lyric to it as well.

If I can just briefly quote the poet and editor, Linda France, much more knowledgeable than me, she described terza rima saying, ‘Its intricacy and unfolding suggests mystery of the unknown and that the meaning of the poem weaves itself between the lines’. I’m not saying my poem achieves all of that, but the rhyme and the repetition of rhyming sounds perhaps enabled me to suggest a link between the different personas in the poem, even those that are miles apart. And the attitude of the wearer of the clothes towards their person creating the clothes, it’s not always an effect or sympathetic attitude. And I guess the three-line verses just gave me space to explore that. If I’d put it in four-line verses, for example, it might have felt a bit too much of a block and that each verse had to have a conclusion. So working with that particular form, again perhaps not consciously, but maybe gave me the space to explore these interconnections and these different themes.

Mark: Because it usually doesn’t conclude, does it? I mean, in Dante, he gets to the end of the canto and there’s that single line on its own, and then it’s almost like… quite often, it’s like a cliffhanger for the next canto, so it’s ‘to be continued…’, which feels appropriate to the theme here.

I mean, it’s interesting you talk about propulsion. I often think of terza rima as like a propeller blade with three… you know, the three rhymes being like three blades that keep spinning and keeping the poem moving forward. And in terms of the way you handled it, I think you’ve struck a really nice balance here, because on the one hand you’ve got Dante and Shelley who really stick very strictly to the metre and they’ve got full rhymes, which obviously is really hard for Shelley to do, harder in English than is in Italian. And T.S. Eliot said, you know, he was just so in awe that Shelley had managed to do this.

But the Walcott I think is another great example because it’s obviously much looser, his handling of it, but obviously a similar sense of momentum. I really like that fact that yours, it’s kind of in between the two. You know, there are some lines and some rhymes that are quite full and strong and regular, but a lot of it is quite conversational and you’ve got lots of half-rhymes and consonants and assonance and it’s… which makes out, you know, for instance when you’ve got a full rhyme like, ‘wings,’ and then, ‘one mutters, one sings,’ that line sings even more by the contrast.

Selina: Yes. I was reflecting on this when I was thinking about talking to you today. So it’s really interesting to me that you’ve raised it as well. And I like rhyme. I do use rhyme in poems, but I often use half-rhyme. So it’s not immediately obvious, perhaps. And sometimes I write a poem and then I think, ‘Oh, my goodness, this emerging in rhyme’. So it’s not obvious to me as I’m writing it.

And just to explain, the terza rima rhyme scheme, it’s quite hard to explain without the poem in front of us as we’re talking, so to speak, but it’s ABA, BCB, CDC. So in my poem, the rhymes are these half-rhymes sometimes. So there’s an echo of a rhyme without it being, as Mark has just said, ‘sings’ and ‘Beijing,’ which is a full rhyme. In my poem, in the first few verses, it’s ‘feathers’, ‘wings’, ‘flaws’, ‘sings’, ‘stitch’, ‘Beijing’, ‘print’, ‘held’, ‘bibs’. I like the suggestive quality of half-rhymes. I think it can draw a reader in, and perhaps a reluctant reader. I think as children we’re often sharing poems that have full rhyme because it’s so much fun and it’s so much fun even if they’re a bit nonsensical. And, of course, nonsense verse is a great thing as well, a great poetic invention.

So full rhyme is great. I quite like using half-rhyme because of the suggestive quality and because of that echoing and because it doesn’t necessarily always block the poem or what you are going to do next because I suppose in a way you’ve given yourself a bit of freedom to use half-rhyme. And it is obviously phenomenal when people can use full rhyme in form. And sometimes again, I will read poems and then come to the end and then it’s not until the fourth time I read it, I think, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is in rhyme’. I didn’t even realize because I was so absorbed by the words and the meaning and then the rhyme was almost doing its job in the background to take you through the poem, to give you a structure if you’re new to that poem or you’re new to poetry. That gives you perhaps some reassurance and some confidence that you’re getting somewhere with the poem. So I find rhyme and how it’s used fascinating.

Mark: And I think maybe the half-rhyme is really quite appropriate to your subject here because, you know, it’s about silks and satin and feathers and chiffon, these things that kind of… they’re see-through or translucent and they… You’ve got that wonderful line, ‘They glisten in polythene sheets like wings’. So it’s a slightly indefinite substance that you are writing about. That’s the theme. And it feels like if you had, you know, full-rounded rhymes, that wouldn’t quite fit that quality.

Selina: Yes. That’s a really interesting comment, Mark, because when I was looking into some of these materials, I realized without knowing the background or the craft within creating the materials, some of them, the whole point for things like organza and chiffon is for it to be quite lightweight and flimsy and to have quite a loose weave.

Now, I don’t understand all the technicalities of that, but again, it was quite interesting that when I took a step back, when I put these words in the poem in my drafting, and then I’d gone to actually do a bit of research into the source of the materials or the craft of the materials, it was about some of these are more lightly woven. You know, they’re not strongly connected in the stitch, so to speak. So it is quite interesting that that comes through in the poem as well.

Mark: Yeah. ‘Lightly woven’ would be a good description of the way you’ve used terza rima here, wouldn’t it?

Selina: Yes. And I think that particular line that you just referred to in polythene-sheets-like wings, that was one of my experiences of being in the basements and doing the stock taking with the clothes and taking them out onto the shop floor and them needing to be… Basements are very, very dusty. You’re handling all these materials. They’ve been pressed with particular synthetic lotions, for want of a better word, so your fingers become very dusty. Your fingers start to pick up some of those materials that the clothes have been produced with, whether it’s the dye or whatever material they used to press the clothes so that they’ve got a really specific crease, etc.

So it was, again, this really strange relationship with these clothes that you’re doing something actually quite mundane in a not very glamorous location of the basement, but then you’re… In some ways, sometimes the final job is to lift off the polythene sheeting that the clothes have been wrapped in to take them out on the racks into the shop floor. So the sheeting almost was like the wings. The wings expand and the garment is revealed and then taken out for its showing on the shop floor to encourage the consumer.

Mark: There’s a very theatrical quality, isn’t it? It’s like that scene. You know, it’s like being backstage when you’re down in the basement. And, you know, if you’ve ever gone backstage in a theatre, you know, it’s all pulleys, and dirt, and people running about being stressed and whatever, and then this glorious illusion that if you’re sat outside you, you never see any of that.

Selina: Yes. Absolutely. And that is what I tried to… I can’t say that I can speak for all these people that work in different industries, but that’s what I tried to explore and uncover in the collection. I remember one time I was waiting for a meeting and I just went and sat out outside the national theatre about 9:00 a.m. It was a business meeting. It wasn’t a creative meeting. And I was… ‘Oh, my goodness’. All these trucks were pulling up with materials. The stagehands were going in. There was a whole other industry going on at 9:00 a.m.in the morning, 12 hours or 10 hours before a production would be on stage. And I really wanted to… I didn’t do it about the creative industries obviously in this collection, but I really wanted to explore some of those roles and occupations, some of those activities that go on to enable us to be out in the world, whether it’s shopping, going to a theatre production, etc., etc., making a phone call, making an order online.

Mark: Well, I think you’ve done that beautifully, Selina, not just in this poem, but in the whole collection. It’s a book that shines, you know, shines a light or looks at whole swathes of work that often get ignored by poetry. And maybe because they often get ignored by us in our daily lives, at least those of us in rich developed countries. So maybe this would be a good time for us to hear the poem again.

Selina: Thank you, Mark. It’s been great to talk to you this sunny morning and your questions are really thought-provoking and interesting. So thank you very much for your time today and your interest in the poems. And I would also really like to thank Andy Croft who is the editor and the publisher of Smokestack Books. I would really like to thank him because as I mentioned, at some stages, perhaps, not everybody understood the reason for writing about work, but he really understood the poems and was very encouraging. So I just would like to say a personal thanks to Andy and to Smokestack Books as well.

Mark: Thank you, Selina.


 

Organza

by Selina Rodrigues

Two seasons ahead. Satin and feathers
shimmer in polythene sheets like wings
and rise to me through the invisible floors.

My skirt rustles. One mutters, one sings.
I pause and my fingers trace a stitch
dropped in Dhaka, a button lost in Beijing.

Crepe and tulle to slice and print.
Could you ever pause and be held
in velvet capes or upon the lace bibs.

This cuff for a breeze, this brim for clouds.
You sit in patterns as machines whirr,
for our want, in the bright-dark shop fronts.

Autumn-Winter, you work hot-fingered.
I search beautiful racks but nothing fits
I tell you cold-faced, in Spring-Summer.

You tend the moleskin and finely-chewed silk
that shine and glint in everyday streets.
Chiffon and brocade. Your art and will
are the cuts and stitches that invite my body.


 

Ferocious

‘Organza’ by Selina Rodrigues is from Ferocious, published by Smokestack Books.

Ferocious book cover

Ferocious is available from:

The publisher: Smokestack Books

Bookshop.org: UK

Amazon: UK 

Selina Rodrigues

Selina Rodrigues portrait photo

Selina Rodrigues’ collection Ferocious (Smokestack Books) uncovers and celebrates work and ‘call-centres, cleaners, computers, online desires and migratory workers’.  Her pamphlet The Visitors is published by Wild Pressed Books. She was three times selected poet-in-residence for the Poetry School Open Gardens, is an editor and Board member for Magma Poetry magazine and co-hosts the monthly Shuffle readings at the  Poetry Café in London. Selina is of mixed-race Indian parentage,  has lived at three points of a triangle in England, and now lives in London.

SelinaRodrigues.com

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