Salena Godden: Narrating the Times

The indefinable black, punk, feminist poet, writer and performer; most succinctly termed by Kerrang as ‘Everything the Daily Mail is terrified of’ – Salena Godden talks tears, laughter and the poetry of toilet walls and lovers' whispers

Feature by Alan Bett | 21 Aug 2014

“It was a good cock, there’s no disputing it. It made her giddy just to look at it, throbbing, twitching and pulsating there within her hand...” Salena Godden is on typically mischievous form, and from her diverse repertoire of poems she chooses to perform the most bawdy and deliciously vulgar at Neu! Reekie!. I’m unsure whether to be ecstatic or affronted; whether she is keen to offend tender Edinburgh sensibilities, or confident we have the mettle to take it.

She answers in a roundabout way when we meet the next evening. The sun is still bathing Leith, and drink is taken as a gang forms on the shore; Salena’s friends from the performance duo Shiny Shiny, building up to their next day gig at the Pussy Whipped festival, plus two young Scottish writers now in tow. “I did a gig only once,” Salena tells me “...where I did my more beautiful stuff and the audience were all in tears and that felt weird and I’ve never done it again... it didn’t make me feel good, I’d just made everyone cry. To make people feel is obviously the job but gosh... I thought I’m never doing that again.” So, perhaps it was for our own good that she instead spoke of ‘good cocks’ and ‘fisting love’ to ignite the Edinburgh crowd in shocked laughter. “If you make an audience laugh then you can make an audience care, and if you can make an audience care you can make an audience cry, and think. I go on that level and I like more than anything to get a room full of people laughing.” 

For the uninitiated, how to describe Salena? A London based poet, writer, and singer. “I find all the clichés really uncomfortable.” she claims. So let her describe herself.  “Jamish is the word I call myself. I’m Jamaican, Irish, English, and I call that Jamish... All the other words like feminist writer, black writer, performance poet; all those other labels I find stifling and limiting.” She dismisses her regular tag of punk poet – protesting she’s far too young – although she did start her days reciting on stage alongside Irvine Welsh and the print rebels of the time. “I’m very flattered when people call me a renaissance woman. To me, I just tell stories whether that comes out as a poem, whether that comes out as a short story or whether it comes out as song.”

"To write a book is rock n’ roll... it’s a fucking really wicked martini!” - Salena Godden

But punk need not be tied to era; it can exude in ethos and attitude, and does so from Salena with ease today. Possibly a result of being shown a fine time by the Neu! Reekie! crew, or perhaps she showed them one herself; the truth as always probably somewhere in-between. Anyway, this has a ‘day two’ feel, where thoughts are lubricated and inhibitions melt away. “I don’t know why there’s this staid and quite starchy cupcake attitude around books, because to write a book is rock ’n’ roll, it's hard work. And I don’t understand why everyone tries to act as if it’s some cheesy kind of quilty, blankety, cosy thing; a warm glass of white wine in a plastic cup. It’s not, it’s a fucking really wicked martini!”

Fishing in the Aftermath is her collection of poetry from 1994-2014, which published in July through Burning Eye. The titular piece gathered from the emotional debris she found circling her in New York on 9/11. While her words are most often listened to, enjoyed and endured by fans rather than read from the page, when I question her loyalty to either medium she kicks off in typical glorious fashion. “Don’t even go there! I actually...” A pause, a stiff drink and gathering of thoughts. “...the page and stage debate is just old and tired and rinsed out and squeezed... it's bollocks.” Salena takes a free and borderless approach to words, refusing to allow form to label her work. “Basically a good poem will be written on a toilet wall, a good poem will be whispered in the ear of your lover, a good poem will be remembered and recited to people sitting about at three in the morning drinking a bottle of whisky, going ‘this line, it moved me, I related to it.’”

There are more important arguments for the writer than how their work is compartmentalised she believes, more prominent roles. “As a poet I believe your job is to narrate the times, you are making the document of our times in the way a journalist can’t. That’s what a poet does, you’re echoing, talking about what everyone’s thinking... my nudge when standing on stage is to get everyone in the audience to go ‘Oh my god, I think that, I feel like that.’” Her work edges close to stand-up at times, and I ask about the relationship between these genres. It’s a comparison I imagine most poets would balk at, but it’s taken as a compliment by Salena who relates with the rhythm and repetition of the greatest comedians. “I think Bill Hicks was a brilliant poet, I think Lenny Bruce was a brilliant poet, I think Stewart Lee’s a brilliant poet, but we don’t call them poets we call them comedians... narrating the language of the people is poetry.”

The tone changes as we begin to discuss her upcoming autobiographical work, Springfield Rd. And this change can be heard in the words of the work itself. While officially publishing this month, nostalgia tinged sections read by Salena herself have existed on YouTube for some time. These are tales of an era she attaches to newspaper wrapped fish and chips and roller skates you tied to your shoes. “I looked everywhere for a book which could describe my era, the late 70s and early 80s, and I couldn’t find it. Even more so from a little afro, National Health glasses girl, sitting there just observing.” This is the role she feels she has taken in life, beginning at a young age. “I was an observer as a child, I just sat there watching, making shapes out of clouds but also making shapes out of the adults and the people above me.” It wasn’t only her age which legitimised this position; all aspects of her culture, race and upbringing made her a perfect storm. Her father was a white Irish jazz musician of talent, having played on Sergeant Pepper and with Miles Davis and Salena Jones (from whom she takes her name), her mother a black go-go dancer. “It’s weird being me, not black enough to be black so I’m not really embraced by that team, not white enough to be white... not posh enough to be posh, and I speak too well to be poor enough... but actually from that stance it makes me an incredibly powerful writer and observer because I’m so not in anyone’s team, I’m just literally on the edge.”

More edge is provided by her favourite writer, Charles Bukowski – a character who seems at odds with her feminist thinking and a man exactly twenty years dead as we sit talking on the shore. She has a deep respect for the work. “It was brutal, and it was honest and it was talking about being skint and hungry and it was talking about being randy and they were the things that I totally related to... I engulfed it all.” To such an extent she was nicknamed Birdkowski in her early days (but which didn’t quite catch on like Salena Saliva). It’s that eternal question, differentiating between the artist and their art.  “I think he was an absolute brute, he was awful... just a horrible old drunk man... but his writing, I just get it.” There’s a level of understanding and acquiescence. “We can all be a little arrogant and a little vulnerable, I just wish we could stop with the snobbery and the bollocks that surrounds poetry. I'd rather sit under the table than pull up a chair to join the salesmen and magicians! The books I love don't come from a clean place, the writers I love to read are brutally honest and filthy. They exist on the outside... the outside may be cold, but it’s the best place to be.” It’s definitely a theory in line with the drunken poetry this afternoon has conjured. Then, as the evening sun extinguishes itself in Leith’s sparkling waters – aspirationally gentrified but still stained with the oils of industry – we gather up the retinue, of which I am now one, and drag ourselves to darker places along the port.

Watch our interview with Godden at Edinburgh International Book Festival

Fishing in the Aftermath - Poems 1994-2014 was published by Burning Eye Books in July

Springfield Road publishes September through Unbound