Subverted, but Honoured

A conversation with celebrated poet and editor Rachael Allen

Rachael Allen is warm and easy to laugh. We met over Zoom earlier this year and, with brief delight, she explained her beverage and cake choice only for her headphones to immediately falter. She called me back later and, over the next hour, told me about her preoccupation with heartbreak, love of horror movies and deep concern for animal rights.

God Complex (Faber, 2024) had an acute sense of anticipation; Allen’s work has a singular approach to image – both of her collections create landscapes suffused with the disturbing and distinct. Kingdomland (Faber, 2019) is full of haunting images that are difficult to shake – in ‘Many Bird Roast’, for example: “there are dogs in the outhouse and all over the world/ that we do not eat/ and one small sparrow in a pigeon in a grouse in a swan/ that we will certainly eat.” The body that contains multiple other bodies feels like an incredibly apt example of Allen’s work; a concern with the potential of what something may contain – and expose – while in turn exposing the horrors of everyday life.

As well as working as a poet, Allen is an accomplished editor; having worked as poetry editor at Granta, it was recently announced that she is moving to Fitzcarraldo Editions to launch their new poetry list. It was evident, as she spoke about the influence her authors have had on her work, that she reads and edits with marked joy, care and attention.

The first thing I wanted to hear about was your general writing process and how God Complex came into being.

My first book, Kingdomland, is a series of sequences, with interlocking or interruptive poems that thread through the collection, and these were my attempt to make the book more coherent, to create a narrative consistency. I wanted Kingdomland to be a book length poem, but I wasn’t able to make this work while writing it, and I knew that I really wanted to write a book length poem, or something longform with a more consistent and coherent narrative in the future. God Complex came about with this intention in mind, but otherwise its structure came quite holistically. I was writing a novel and poems over the lockdown period and realised that the narrative and tonal intention of the two projects were the same; in both I was creating a fictionalised account of a person who is acknowledging ecological or climate collapse, while moving through a kind of romantic human break-up or grief. I did lots of slicing with both and threw them together. It took a lot of scything and massaging and sewing to make it feel like it had a narrative direction. It was a bit monstrous for a while (perhaps still is), but I think I did it in the end.

You’ve touched on this briefly – I feel like the world building in both Kingdomland and God Complex feels so similar in that… it’s kind of like a nightmare. They have such similar preoccupations. It’s interesting you mention you wanted to write a book length poem – do you feel like there is a throughline between the books, or to what extent do you view them as separate projects? In a way, I feel like Kingdomland represents a kind of girlhood, and then God Complex is progression to womanhood – how do you see it?

That is so great, to have them read in that way, especially when God Complex still feels so new and I am still establishing what it is for myself. Every time I think of each book – and I’m grateful for you indulging my intellectual preoccupations in this way as well – but every time I think about these two books of poems, I think about the failed novels that sit behind them [laughter]. With Kingdomland, while writing poems I was also writing a novel about like… feral rural children – I’m from Cornwall, and a lot of my childhood was spent pissing off farmers in fields and being a reprobate hanging around by the bus stop, and while the novel didn’t work, I did want Kingdomland to have a similar sense of adulthood on the precipice, and a kind of sinister inevitability about moving through the space of girlhood. With God Complex, I had actually thought about the two books as having a relationship. I was thinking with my third book of poetry – although I don’t think I’ll do this anymore – if I were to write something in the same vein, they would form a loose trilogy. I love the trilogy of novels by Ariana Harwicz, which follows female characters in or experiencing domestic or difficult familial or romantic relationships and situations, with this hyper maximalist abject language. Die, My Love (tr. Sarah Moses & Carolina Orloff) follows the narrative of a housewife bursting at the seams of her home life, and then Feebleminded (tr. Annie McDermott & Carolina Orloff), charts a mother and daughter’s maniacal relationship, where they’re both wild for men or not getting the attention they require. Then there’s Tender (tr. Annie McDermott & Carolina Orloff), which is a more gory addition to the pre-established themes of womanhood. I think maybe the relationship was not intentional as I was writing it, but it feels like it could be now (Harwicz calls her books an “Involuntary Trilogy”), or that perhaps I was doing that without thinking about it. But noting that movement from girlhood to womanhood over the two books, I’ve actually never thought about that before. That’s very cool. So thank you.

Gladly! In that vein, what were the influences on God Complex

Definitely Ariana Harwicz, Die My Love is my favourite from the trilogy, and a really amazing book, and I think just the way that Harwicz situates and describes the limitations of a woman’s body, or a marginalised body – and the ways in which we all press against those confines – in this kind of really outrageous, bombastic, totally ecstatic-maniacal lexicon. Her books are written in Spanish but I read them in English, so this of course may be how the books are translated. There’s a hysterical energy in the language that I feel very drawn to. I’ve been very invested in women’s writing, specifically a kind of genre of women’s writing (and visual art) that inhabits and reclaims the kind of abject desiring “hysterical” woman. Another influence for me in this vein was Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept, a line from which is one of the epigraphs for God Complex. My other epigraph is from the film Saint Maud, which was a huge influence on this book. There’s a necessary horror embedded in the main character of the film, a woman who is precarious, desiring, devotional, and lost. Stylistically, I adore poets like Denise Riley, Will Alexander and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and also a lot of male poets who have a kind of irreverent, stylistically associative turn of phrase, poets like Michael Earl Craig, Bill Knott, Vasko Popa, Geoffrey Nutter, poets who write quite weird lyrics that I find funny and absurd. I’m very interested in the absurdity of a turn of phrase, what we can do with and in a poem’s (smallish) proximity for sincerity and humour. I work as an editor, and my authors are probably my greatest influence. A writer like Holly Pester is a gift on earth. I just edited her novel, and her writing has a deeply self-reflexive sense of performance while being in itself performative. She is both hyper-aware of the frame of the form and deeply immersive in her writing – but perhaps her hyper-awareness creates the immersion. Another author I work with, Daisy Lafarge, is a hero in regards to thinking about animal-human-plant relationships, as is Sylvia Legris, both writers I’ve been so lucky to work with, who I really admire and adore.

I’ve not finished Days of Abandonment (by Elena Ferrante) yet but the figure of the woman who lives downstairs; that woman [the Poverella], the hysterical grief, I feel that, as an energy, is really present in God Complex.

That’s really good, that’s exactly what I wanted!

You do something I’ve been calling “cubism”, for want of a better word, like here on pg 33: “Is it/ being thrown through a window as a grown woman/ thrown through a grown window as a changed man/ thrown through the grown woman, a good window?” This – to me – feels like a linguistic exploration of a grief, seeking to unpack an experience by unpacking the language used to describe it. Could you tell me how you view the relationships between grief and performance and absurdity in God Complex?

I think a part of this book was to think about varying states of grieving, and what feels like an acceptable kind of grief… what we acceptably call grieving and what we don’t, really, and this book stems from the grief of being heartbroken, and the hysteria or the mania that accompanies love that is stopped, or a love that is damaged or irreconcilable, or unrequited, or bad for us. All of the books that I mentioned as influences make space for the harrowing aftermath of heartbreak, but there’s also a level of high performance to them, a kind of theatrical or bombastic tone, or a recognition of the ludicrous. It’s not that they are over the top or camp, but there’s a level of serious emotional energy with a sense of the ridiculous. There can be a kind of silliness to how high-energy heartbreak is, and I wanted to self-reflexively acknowledge how ridiculous and how repetitive and how silly and how universal it is to experience a heartbreak and feel like your world is going to end and know that everybody in the world has probably felt this way too, but for you in that moment, it’s like “I see no hope or health or happiness or future”. The pits of having a romantic love, or a friend love in some way, damaged or distorted or taken away – it can be really traumatising, but it does get better. I’m interested in self reflexivity; I mean, the reason I love poems so much is because of their inherent frame, they’re always commenting on themselves, they’re always undermining themselves. Poet and academic Veronica Forrest-Thomson talked about this in her book Poetic Artifice, how we can acknowledge the artificial shape of the poem formally to its strength. So if I’m writing about heartbreak, I might as well undermine feelings of extremity while also looking for an emotional response, because the frame of the poem is set up for both immersion and undoing, it’s like crying in the mirror, or in a TikTok, or something.

I love the phrase inherent frame. I really liked the moments where you really explicitly say, “that’s from a book” on pg 15 and later on pg 44 “I took that from another book”. I think the moments where you’re pointing at different things, where it’s almost like you’ve broken the fourth wall and you’re winking at the reader and saying “just so you know, I know this isn’t mine, but I’m integrating this into my grief.”

That’s such a nice way of thinking about it, I’ll claim that as my intention, but really I’m just scared of plagiarising by accident. I’ve already realised I have plagiarised by accident once in this book. Kind of. But I’m so scared of plagiarism that I enjoy to overtly state when something is borrowed, like, don’t come for me! This line is from something [laughter]. But I do feel like the context of wanting to break the wall anyway allowed me to do that a little bit, to be playful, I suppose. That’s another part of the conversation I wanted to have around the book, about play and humour. I don’t know whether the book is funny but I like to be funny and enjoy funny poems. One of my friends who is a Sagittarius and brilliantly upfront, she read it and very bluntly told me she didn’t expect it to be funny, and I was like, “is it?” [laughter] but then, she was like “well, it’s melodramatic”, and that probably is the word I was trying to find in the previous question: melodrama. Yeah, melodrama, as both like a real and felt direction but also silly, like opera.

Yeah, it does kind of have a kind of like, operatic element – the voice is just absolutely throwing themselves out to the feeling of grief. You touched on it really briefly but I feel as part of the melodrama – and you mentioned Saint Maud – there’s a real acute sense of horror and surrealism and absurdity. I feel like I will be thinking about the line on pg 47 which reads: “In this pain I was a charred donkey in an office chair.” Do you feel like horror is a big influence on you? Or surrealism? When you’re in the process of working are you thinking “I want this to feel like horror?” 

I love horror films, and the horror genre, and I guess that also feeds a bit into the last question. Horror, as well, is something that has a history of camp, ridiculousness, humour and formula; rules, I suppose, and silliness or disdain for and within those rules, great silliness that I admire and love so much. I think how a film, or a book, can move from ridiculousness and silliness to abject terror and fear within the space of minutes or sentences is so admirable, or even just be both at the same time, and I love how horror has this very specific set of rules and constraints that are always being amended and flipped around and changed and subverted, but also honoured, like poetic forms. Genre more broadly will be more aware of itself because of its formula, which again creates this self-reflexive shield. In regards to why I like horror films so much, I just feel they communicate the truth of the world in regards to its violence, and its disconnect and its nihilism and its threat. That’s why I think the best film work, and the best literary work is still in something like the horror genre, now. When I think about how class or race politics are being communicated in horror, it feels like the most powerful medium to create work towards social justice, because acknowledged structures of violence are enacted and ambiently accepted in marginalised communities and spaces and towards people, in my case, I think a lot in my work about the material constraints of working class women and male violence. Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us navigates and communicates a contemporary experience of blackness in America in a hyper self-reflexive mode. There’s really amazing international horror films I think about, like Under the Shadow, an Iranian horror film set in the 70s during the Iranian Revolution, and it so aptly isolates the threat of an oppressive human force via the imagined spookiness of a spirit or a haunting. But my biggest influence on this book was the film Saint Maud, directed by Rose Glass. Have you seen it?

I haven’t.

Saint Maud was particularly appealing to me because of the subverting of formula to indicate or represent a kind of class politics. The enormous, inherited, creaking and spooky feeling house at the centre of the film, where Maud is sent to look after an ailing but incredibly rich and bohemian older woman, becomes a place of care, safety and solidity – permanence – while the precarious sublet that Maud has to move into next is dangerous, haunted, and abject. The film flips the mode of the enormous scary house being the threat, and develops through this an underlying narrative (or perhaps critique) of what would otherwise be usual or normative or even threatening in the horror genre: a massive house, without much consideration for the class structures that enabled such homeowning – which is of course representative of the middle class enclave of owning property, which is perhaps the true horror. 

I feel like one of the most acutely horrible things that keeps happening in God Complex is there’s this consistent blurring of boundaries between the human and the animal, in a way that feels disgusting – or not disgusting, but very uncomfortable. You’ve been quite vocal previously about speciesism and animal rights. This is coming from someone who feels very similarly; I’m vegetarian, and am quite preoccupied with animal life. I think the thing you said about horror  – that it kind of gives you a kind of buffer almost or, refractive mirror to do something with – to say [to the audience] “I need you to look at this differently, from a different angle”. Could you talk about animals in your work and, specifically, I think, power and the power dynamics between human and non-human life? In Kingdomland you have a poem called “Many Bird Roast” and you come back to that image of the goose again, in God Complex. In God Complex, the speaker is transformed into a dog, and a cow, there are all of these quite “domestic” animals that live in your work.

Thank you so much for picking up on all that, I so appreciate the care and attention and time you’ve given the books. I am invested in animal rights, and I know this is in my writing, but I think it can be hard to know how to practise that more materially. Kingdomland is a book that is very interested in the cultural responses and associations around eating animals and meat. The first chapter of my PhD looked at Ariana Reines’ first book of poems The Cow, an experimental poetic journey through intensive animal agriculture, interrogating the metaphorical device of the animal – the Cow as Cow, and the Cow as meat, but also Woman as Cow, and the marginalising and subjectivising language around (and combining) women and animals. Her book complicates, distorts, and studies the ethical (and material) implications of metaphor in this way. The Cow is a really significant book for me because it was one of first books I read with a specific focus on human-animal crossover in regards to disease, consumption, and bodily treatment. I grew up in farming communities, and I always found the closeness to the animal admirable – or perhaps I find it admirable now, I probably didn’t think about it then – I recognise and feel close to a kind of a farming sensibility towards animals, which is: I’m going to look after this creature before I slaughter it or I am going to fish these oceans in a manageable and knowledgeable way. I actually hold the farming communities that I grew up in, and the fishing communities, within the same mode of thinking that I have towards animals, which is to not eat them: both positions hold a deep love, knowledge and respect for animals. I don’t think that everybody is able, or is in the position, to live a life plant-based or vegan or vegetarian; it can be a difficult thing to do in regards to material contexts and constraints. I think the parts of God Complex and Kingdomland, where there is almost like a fascination or a dissection of the animal body, or the symbol of the animal body, is because I just find, generally the cultural treatment of animals here, in America – I guess loosely, like maybe in The West – to be deeply troubling. I lived near a massive racecourse while I was writing parts of this book and it was really distressing to know what was happening to the horses a couple of times a week, and to hear them dying periodically. As I alluded to in the book, it’s true that if a race horse is worked too intensely by the person riding it, it will drown in its own blood. To think that we facilitate something like that and call it “a sport” is unholy to me. I think the way that we eat animals here – not including the small-scale farming and fishing that I mentioned earlier – is deeply apathetic and problematic; we are removed from acknowledging how we’re eating meat, how that animal is killed. There are a lot of thinkers who have helped my thinking; this incredible book by Nicole Shukin called Animal Capital changed my whole way of approaching our enmeshment with animals, and is a really amazing piece of scholarship as to just how intrinsically embedded we are – at all moments of our lives – with bits of creature, whether through a human-led agency, like killing an animal or putting bits of them in a roll of film or putting them in clothes, or making filtration systems out of their skins, or just because we are crawling with insects and fungi. I think the artistic and intellectual interest for me is metaphor and symbol. What does an animal symbolise? How do we manage that in a language / form that doesn’t subjugate? How could we be contributing to further oppression or marginalisation? What language do we use to describe animals, and meat, and the ways in which they are used by us? There’s an amazing poem by Juliana Spahr called “Transitory, Momentary” where she talks about how certain oil fields are named after the geese that migrate over them, an incredible and heartbreaking noting of how humans make and, in all sincerity, name a toxic space of land built purely for exploitation and capital after the animal they are displacing from it. And what will remain? Brent oil fields or the brent goose? There’s just some kind of incredible intellectual and artistic exercise there that highlights how obtrusive, interruptive and damaging our language structures can be towards the nonhuman. These conversations should also always start with the acknowledgement that there are humans who are not given the status of “human”, to whom are we giving this status? This is a question from which animal rights movements and theorists begin from, and thinking about how there can be combined power in the margins of culture and society.

This question feels very linked to me, to what you’ve just said, but in case it doesn’t, I can explain it; I feel like colour is a really big thing in your work. Green and pink really revolve about God Complex, – you’ve got the lungs, the edge of the house on fire. the algal bloom, the green of the hardware store, “we would not survive this greenly” on pg 78 – at first it felt very green, and then this pink came in. I wondered how you operate within a mode of colour and if you see yourself returning to colours? What do those two colours mean to you within this collection?

These preoccupations with colour are perhaps not intentional, but were definitely a part of the process. I worked with an amazing artist called Ben Sanderson to create a number of the poems in God Complex. He’s a Cornish-based artist, so I feel this place-based kinship with him, and we wrote a pamphlet together called Green at an Angle. His work is interested in organic textile and plants and the histories of botany, how you can render plant life and plant history within a painting or textile. His paintings also feature a lot of pink and green! Another poet I really love, who I mentioned previously, Sylvia Legris, is similarly interested in the anatomy of a plant, especially in the book I published with her, Garden Physic, and I did want to have this book be slightly more plant-y, but I couldn’t escape the feeling of toxicity that I feel is rendered in all kinds of bodies – and how green can be relaxing and caring and calming, but it is also representative of toxic states of being. I think about the huge algal blooms that emerge in water when the weather’s too hot and water has too much nitrogen because of the chemical and runoff flow from all the cow fields and it feels like this horrifying, surreal image of broken plant life – this algal bloom, whose success means all of the other living creatures in the water are being suffocated because the water has been fed too much nitrogen from the cow shit. More formally, I’m interested in how colour can work as a refrain in a book. Going back to a colour might mean different things, but it connects us to the original impulses, which for the collection, I did want to be all at once thinking about organic matter and inorganic matter, and how one can represent the other. In terms of the pink… it’s perhaps something to do with interiority and metaphor or materiality. Maybe with the line charred donkey on an office chair, or the pink lungs of a house on fire, I’m interested in shifting states of materiality. Transformation: when does one body become another body, or not its body? When does a body merge with the landscape? Maybe that’s where the pink / blood colour comes from? 

That’s very much how I read it, but I was just curious if that was your intention. You mentioned it was written over lockdown – and you just talked about bodies merging with bodies, and contagion, particularly love as a contagion is a major, I guess, revolving point [of God Complex]. Do you feel like this preoccupation has anything to do with it brewing over COVID?

Yes. There are two poems in the book from a project that I worked on with the artist collective JocJonJosch, three men who make incredible performances and sculptures about bodies and masculinity. I’ve collaborated with them a few times, and I wrote a sequence in response to a period of time where they were working with pig intestines that they filled with cement to make sculptures, or dried and threaded across the room like rope. Around this I was researching interspecies disease as I was writing my thesis chapter on Ariana Reines The Cow – specifically the moments in the book where she looks at bovine spongiform encephalopathy (Mad Cow Disease), which was one of my biggest fears when I was a kid. So I wrote all these poems in response to JocJonJoschs’ talking about a zoonosis, and then COVID happened. This is the concern of many writers, like Daisy Lafarge, whose book Lovebug is kind of about interspecies disease; the idea of animal pathogens and animal disease and human bodies, how that relates to the idea of human love, and metaphor.

From everything that you’ve just said, I’m really just thinking about the word “membrane”. It’s not really a question, but there’s the idea of like, a membrane being a border and a border being a membrane and –

That is exactly, like exactly, what I would like to think of as a kind of organising principle – formally, and thematically – “where does it stop?” Skin, animal, home, tree, leaf, etc. – I love that. I love thinking about the concept of the membrane. That’s exactly it. Thank you.

One of the lines I kept coming back to in God Complex was on page 25: “In living I wanted to disrupt the history of women’s stories in/ my life, but it turned out I couldn’t.” You’ve briefly touched on this, about the implicit relationship between theory and womens’ bodies and animals’ bodies and how those things are melded – I won’t get into all of that. The thing I wanted to ask was, how do you figure the struggle for female agency? And I guess the movement from girlhood to womanhood, like we spoke about at the beginning.

I think one of the most depressing things about becoming a human adult is how cycles of violence and abuse continue to be perpetuated against women at the hands of men. I grew up in a community where – anecdotally – my mum would be going to her friend’s houses to effectively save their lives, and every woman in my family, bar my mum (and that was something that was used as a badge of honour, that she wasn’t, you know, knocked about) has been a victim of domestic violence, and in some cases that resulted in those people being killed by their partners. There was an ambient acceptance that men are violent. I see this violence and its acceptance still. It feels like an inescapable, depressing tube of history that I think many women, most women, have experienced. It’s every day and it’s everywhere. It is the most horrifying, and most frustrating, and most damaging, and most preoccupying, aspect of my life and so many women’s lives who I know, and I extend that to so many other communities who are victims of this kind of violence. I think predominantly here of transgender communities. I feel like the patriarchal context, and the patriarchal oppression, runs really deep. This is probably the most important thematic thread and binding thread in both Kingdomland and God Complex

God Complex is published by Faber & Faber.