2016 Ted Hughes Award shortlist

Delighted that ‘The Immigration Handbook’ has been shortlisted for the  2016 Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry.

Caroline Smith – The Immigration Handbook

From the judges:
“An important and unsentimental collection which humanises and individualises refugees without inappropriate occupation of another voice. Caroline Smith uses a range of forms and close attention to detail which forces the reader to engage.”

“I felt anxiously underqualified at being asked to judge the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry. It soon became a mass undertaking of carrying books from tour to studio. But the wealth of joy and excitement in these worlds, as well as the sheer variety and beauty, was like having new lives poured into me. I feel very proud of the scope of the shortlist, which came after joyous discussions with the other judges about what hit us hardest and why. I am so honoured to be part of this process and thankful for all the new work that I have read that sits inside me now.”
Kathryn Williams

Review by Clare Pollard in Poetry London

Many thanks for your review in Poetry London

February, 2017

Caroline Smith’s The Immigration Handbook is a large-scale project, an attempt to tell the individual stories of people she has encountered as an asylum caseworker for an MP. It is attentive to others, and the specifics of their realities. Smith herself is largely invisible, to the point where some poems are ‘found’ (a legal apology, an adjudicator’s verdict, a letter from the Home Office printed with details blacked out: ‘I apologise for the delay in progressing your client’s application. // Due to the length of time that has elapsed since your client submitted her application the form is now out of date’.) Others feel verbatim, like one in the voice of ‘Ali’:

I have worked
maybe sixty hours this week
in a kitchen in Wembley.
I’ll be paid for five.
There is no one to complain to.

But this is generous poetry, and Smith is present in each careful, interested detail. Mint leaves twist in a tea glass ‘like fur caterpillars’. Mahmood ‘posts cigarette butts / into an empty Sprite bottle’. A carer is seen emptying a catheter and ‘blurting out the wet-nosed tube of his cream’. An answering machine’s messages ‘brim like the water butt / spilling over with black water’. A baby snores:

through its cleft palate,
dummy balanced on its lip,
thin sky-blue hood
pulled over its eyes.

The bureaucracy emerges as a black joke, and Smith manages to find humour, as in the misspellings of ‘Letters’:

I would like to express my filling
I love your cuntry
I have applied for neutralisation

Ultimately though, this is a book that makes us face our own unkindness. It does the important work of witnessing those whose pain we would rather not see.

Clare Pollard

Review by Peggy Ellsberg,Barnard College, Columbia University, New York

Many thanks

Review by Peggy Ellsberg

February, 2017

Caroline Smith’s brilliant new collection, The Immigration Handbook, brings to detailed, tangible, often heartbreaking life one of the hottest topics in global news today. The poet is an immigration case worker who has seen plenty of fire and rain. She personalizes and concretizes 55 individual human moments, poems as well as cases, blending people’s experiences with the bureaucratic vocabulary of “appeals,” “judgments,” “lawyers,” “Home Office,” “asylum,” “settlement,” and the devastating “deportation.” The Immigration Handbook works the way human memory works–by webbing, weaving, networking, knitting. “Red Road Flats” features “white cobwebs.” A “Scarlet Lizard” is something a Judge wishes he could see on his desk instead of the “parched, cracked hexagons/of a legal phrase.” White, pale, pallid, bleached; red, blood-orange, scarlet; long grasses and seaweeds and vines; mold, fungus, undergrowth; vivid images and colors connect the dots to create a congruent narrative collage. In a defunct phone booth, the poet finds the “black cradle… silent as an obsidian urn.”
A few pages apart, one poem/case calls up the smell of fresh-cut pine in the courtyard of a Trappist monastery, and a second one compares a lawyer’s work to that of a manuscript illuminator in the scriptorium of a Florentine monastery. Both of these poems rely on the colors silver-grey and blue. Thus, for the reader, a psychological ecology is established. A one-time adolescent shoplifter chooses suicide rather than allow her family to risk being deported with her. A young immigrant must decide whether to stay in the new country and await approval or return home to his mother’s deathbed. Semantic webbing and emotional netting unify the 55 case/poems.
Once I started this profound, quiet book, I simply could not put it down. I was sorry when it was over. Every single poem is a gem. The Immigration Handbook achieves what every book should strive to achieve: it opens the reader’s mind to a whole new country of human experience.

 

Peggy Ellsberg is Professor of English at Barnard College, Columbia University, and the author of several books.
Review taken from Amazon.com

My essay: Poetry and Immigration in AGENDA

Here is my essay from AGENDA Vol 50 Nos 3-4 February 2017 The Power of Poetry

Poetry and Immigration

Instant responses and ill-chosen words flash round the world with seismic consequences. A photograph of a drowned Syrian child can move the world to action (albeit temporarily) – another of refugees queueing to cross a border can inflame the EU referendum debate. As poets our craft is to choose and think about words with meticulous accuracy and care; to contribute the thought provoking, the deeper and more carefully considered words into the frenzy of comment and passing concerns. No subject requires more thought and precision than the immigration debate, it carries with it a responsibility to speak out and sometimes to remain silent.

For the last fifteen years I have worked as an Immigration and Asylum caseworker for a London MP. I am also a poet. In this vast area of words, I have tried to write about what I know; where I believe I have knowledge, a perspective to offer. It is good and positive when journalists wake the world up to an issue and people feel compassion to act; but refugees need more than a whimsical response that blows with the media trends. They need stability and justice. They need lawyers and campaigners to find pathways through the law, but they also need poets and artists to harness the power of words to change public opinion in a positive and sustained way, to influence governments and to affect policy.

A few years ago I switched computer system and found I had 32,000 separate pieces of correspondence with the Home Office to transfer! My book, ‘The Immigration Handbook,’ published this summer by Seren Books, distils into poetry these thousands of encounters with asylum seekers and migrants. Themes of chance, the randomness of Home Office decisions and the limbo of waiting all weave through the stories people tell me. There are multi-layered accounts to be unpicked, told in faltering English: the stories the person believes the system wants to hear, the way the story needs to be told to fit the rules; and somewhere – buried deep under trauma and sometimes shame –  the story that actually happened that sometimes cannot be told or may need to be forgotten.

I have found the Home Office to be a vast, dysfunctional ‘failed state’ that can break the lives of these already fragile people. People who have navigated difficult and dangerous journeys to seek protection in the UK, only to find themselves at the start of another long and spirit-sapping journey through government bureaucracy, where someone can be stuck for a decade unable to resolve their immigration status or begin their life anew.

In poetry, like law, credibility is everything. The accuracy of words, the phrasing of an asylum claim – the need to recount in the most precise detail an event that happened in panic in a faraway country in the act of fleeing – can make the difference between having your claim accepted and being sent back. Language and timing is vital for the appellant in an immigration case; if you are a day late in submitting an application you can be forced to leave the UK where you may have lived legally for years, yet the Home Office is cavalier in its own handling of people’s lives even writing that “there is no timescale for dealing with this application”. I have seen the bewilderment of a family asked 9 times for a set of the same photographs, their files lost, random decisions – two siblings with the same circumstances but processed by different caseworkers: one refused, one granted leave. It is an inert, passive-aggressive system struggling to process the complexities and uniqueness of fragile human lives, but instead overwhelming them with arcane, ever-changing rules.

In my poem ‘Selection’ I focused on the opacity of the phrases used by the Home Office – their deliberate obfuscation in order to disguise the true nature of their meaning.

I have found poetry in the juxtaposition of ‘found words’ and poignancy in the ‘official phrasing’ set against the raw experiences of asylum seekers lives. An official report, dry and formulaic, deals with the trauma of amputating a human hand but in the midst I find recorded. ‘The interview was stopped so that the interpreter could go and feed the parking meter’. Layers of language with different uses, words of intensity against the urbane but humanising code of a shared action.

A form: subheaded ‘Option Picker’ gives boxes for the decision maker to tick: ‘leave’ or ‘refuse’. So much is packed into these codes, but they remain inadequate to translate into law and systematise the actual complexity of people’s lives.

Words matter, they can be explosive and critical in determining the fate of someone’s life – a judge unconvinced by the claimant who cannot name the airline she travelled on, but persuaded by the clinching detail that the air stewardess wore “sky blue and saffron”. Fragments of poetry that enables a woman with no documents, to save her life through the eloquence of her words.

This year the number of refugees and internally displaced people world-wide has risen to 65.3 million and is higher than at any time since the second-world war. The issue of migration is the most pressing and complex issue of our time, yet behind the statistics are suffering people who are looking for security and a chance to live a fulfilled and peaceful life.

I have found my life has become interwoven with the people I work for – the date this woman claimed asylum was my wedding anniversary, my son was born the day the old bridge in Mostar was reopened in Bosnia. Many who attend the immigration surgeries have no voice, some are afraid to be heard, just existing in a shadow, in a parallel world. But on finding stability and security, they also find their voice and begin to participate in society – to speak. Theirs are the voices that need to be heard and listened to in the immigration debate. Theirs the rich experiences and the poetry from which we will all learn more about our world and ourselves.

Review in Orbis #177

Thanks Afric Mcglinchey for this review in Orbis #177.

Thanks to readers of Orbis #176  who voted my poems  ‘Lime Tree Honey’ and ‘On Hold’ joint first and second for Readers Awards!

 

Orbis #177 Autumn 2016

  1. 58

 

A TOUCH OF COMPASSION: REVIEW BY AFRIC MCGLINCHEY

The Immigration Handbook by Caroline Smith, 72pp,£9.99, Seren Books, 57 Nolton Street, Bridgend, Wales CF31 3AE www.serenbooks.com

Caroline Smith (Orbis 176) is delving here beneath the morass of statistics and forms to uncover the real lives, circumstances, memories and emotions of individuals applying for refugee status. In fact, many of her metaphors involve revealing something hidden: a kitchen bin lifted to reveal ‘a sudden frost – an aubergine had turned old overnight / a shock of white hair standing straight up on a wizened purple and brown head’; ‘ a row of waiters standing, one hand behind their backs, percussionists lifting silver domes’; opening a grain bin exposes ‘ a nest of purple ratlings’; ‘ apricot snails / sheltering in the damp pelts / of wet undergrowth’ (‘The Administrative Removal Officer’).

The Stories show the tip of an iceberg, but the language is starkly plain and clear. In ‘The Father’:

He has finally saved enough

to bring his family to join him;

but DNA tests show that

only two of the children are his.

The middle one has been refused a visa.

 

Smith’s work as an asylum caseworker obviously provides authenticity. She is also a sculptor, and her visual perspective is evident in the ability to evoke myriad landscapes and visceral, sometimes uncomfortable images that resonate effectively. Her particular strength is in the striking analogy, and she also conveys the tactile:

 

the years, like a soothing poultice,

began to break down his identity,

braille his documents with mildew and

the wet, black gills of fungus; crumble

the pages into the soil he’s become a part of.

[‘The Boxer’]

 

Such writing captures the sense of ‘extinction’ felt by immigrants – and the stupendous elation when luck strikes. For example, when a baby is born three days before the end of amnesty, allowing a family to stay in the country.

 

While focusing on the harrowing difficulties of trying to penetrate legalese, she also shows the other side. One particularly strong poem is ‘Red Road Flats’, where the image of an ‘invisible conspiracy of white cobwebs connecting the grasses’ relates to the presenting officer who perhaps feels responsible for the suicides resulting from his decision to deport three immigrants. The poet has a particular knack for slowing a moment down, particularly those of reflection.

 

Many collections today can be self-absorbed, with their authors hoping to achieve some sort of renown, accruing to the ego. This book has a much nobler purpose and occupies what Carolyn Forche has called the third space in poetry: not the personal or the political, but the social, making a profoundly compassionate and powerful case for the asylum seeker. It deserves a wide readership.

Write Out Loud

Thanks to Greg Freeman for his review of ‘The Immigration Handbook’ posted on Write Out Loud on 8th August 2016.

https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=59155

Review by Greg Freeman, WriteOutLoud

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Caroline Smith’s collection The Immigration Handbook (Seren) is the product of her experiences as an asylum caseworker in the constituency office of a north London Labour MP, and the characters within these poems are composites of people she observed over a number of years.

Some poems are more “poetic” than others. ‘The Administrative Removal Officer’ likens the weary official to a gardener forever engaged in the act of clearing, “pulling away armfuls of climbers”. For most of the poem the language is faintly repellent  – “twisted ground … purple worms … sickly-pale apricot snails”. It concludes by describing the pity and destruction of this soul-sapping process: “I must clear this plot / steel my heart to dig up / perfect flowers in full bloom.”

On the other hand, ‘Delay’ appears to be a copy of a Home Office letter dated September 2015 which apologises for the nine-year hold-up “in progressing your clients [sic] application”, which has been outstanding since 12 December 2006. You don’t need a metaphor to know which way the wind blows in this case, or crafted language to tell this story any more clearly.

Like a dossier, the poems compile individual tragedies, such as the nurse denied citizenship because of a minor shoplifting crime many years earlier: “How she’d forgotten / until now, when the letter came / refusing them all … How she could see no other way – / how without her, they’d be allowed / to stay” (‘The Jumper’).

A desperation and determination to be allowed to remain sometimes leads to romantic deceit and broken dreams. ‘Spouse Visa’ tells the story of an older volunteer worker who allows herself to accept a young Turk’s claim that he has fallen in love with her.  She hadn’t been back on the rota to help since he left, but had signed his papers anyway, because “for two years / she had been the moon’s grace, / had shed the wrinkles of her old age”.

Sifting among the heartbreak of wasted lives, such as the doctor from Paktika province in Afghanistan who has been trekking out to Hounslow each week for seven years to sign his name (Eaton House’), there can be found occasional lightness, such as the unwitting comedy of broken, misspelt English: “I love your cuntry … I have applied for neutralisation … I was arrested by six uninformed guards … With wormiest regards” (Letters’).

And I will quote in full the five-line poem ‘Father’, which in its brevity expresses how the demands of unbending, heartless officialdom can uncover family secrets that could and should have remained hidden:  “He had finally saved enough / to bring his family to join him; / but DNA tests show that / only two of his three children are his. / The middle one has been refused a visa.”

This is poetry that is about something, that needs to be written.  In these strange and disturbing times, Caroline Smith’s sympathetic and enlightening poems reveal the complicated truths behind the tabloid headlines, and show that poetry can be employed in significant and important ways.

 

Thanks also for reviewing our Seren ‘Stablemates’ reading at Waterstones Piccadilly on Thursday 24th November 2016.

‘Caroline Smith and the poetry book ‘that needed to be written’….

https://www.writeoutloud.net/public/blogentry.php?blogentryid=62312

‘Citizenship Ceremony’ posted on And Other Poems

Thanks to Josephine Corcoran for posting ‘Citizenship Ceremony’ from The Immigration Handbook on And Other Poems on  October 31st 2016.

https://andotherpoems.com

‘Citizenship Ceremony’ by Caroline Smith

Citizenship Ceremony

Every few months a timetable clash
means the Citizenship Ceremony
and the asylum surgery converge.
From outside the council chamber,
as each new citizen is made,
we can hear the patter of applause.
It is rain to parched, thirsty soil –
every head turns and lifts
towards the sound.

(from The Immigration Handbook, Seren 2016)

Caroline Smith, works as a refugee caseworker. She has been widely published in poetry journals (including Poetry Review, Poetry Wales, Stand Magazine, Agenda and Orbis) and she has given readings at many venues (including Barnard College in New York, the Sudbury Arts Festival, The Troubadour and Dove Cottage, Grasmere for the Wordsworth Trust). Her first publication was the long narrative poem Edith published by Flambard Press. Her debut collection Thistles of the Hesperides was shortlisted for the Aldeburgh Festival First Collection prize. Her most recent book is The Immigration Handbook Seren, 2016. Twitter @csmithpoet

Review by Kim Moore for the Poetry School

Thank you Kim Moore for a sensitive & thoughtful review of The Immigration Handbook arguing for ”poetry as witness”.

https://poetryschool.com/reviews/immigration-handbook-caroline-smith/ 

Review by Kim Moore, The Poetry School

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Immigration Handbook collects together stories of people caught up in the unwieldy, impersonal and often seemingly illogical world of government bureaucracy. Not unlike the recently released I, Daniel Blake, such a bureaucracy is shown to brutalise those who depend on it the most.

Caroline Smith is perfectly placed to write these stories, having worked as an asylum caseworker for a London MP. In a recent interview in Eastern Eye, Smith explained:

 

“It’s called The Immigration Handbook because it comes at the issue of immigration from different people’s perspectives, whether it’s the immigration judge, the asylum seeker, or the case worker.”

 

This multiplicity of views is one of the main strengths of the book, and without it, the poems could have been unremittingly dark. As it is, many are suffused with a sense of hopelessness, which would be deeply troubling and upsetting were it not for Smith’s empathic listening and objectivity. Post-Brexit, this feels like a necessary project. Now more than ever, we need writers to draw attention to the human suffering behind the headlines and to challenge the often disturbing and extreme language that is used to describe migrants and refugees.

In the first poem of the book, ‘On Hold’ we are introduced to Arjan Mehta. This poem is short, and worth quoting in full, as it illustrates many of the key concerns explored throughout the collection.

 

On Hold

‘There is no timescale for dealing with this application’

He was just twenty-three
Arjan Mehta, when first he began
calling the Home Office
from a red phone box
on the corner of Preston Road;
would push against
and let fall behind him
the heavy creaking door,
into its stale, vacated, smoke smell,
stand on its concrete littered floor
his fingers twisting through
the plastic snake cord,
dragging round the metal dial,
eager about his application.
Seventeen years have passed
with no answer.
He is now forty.
The sealed-up phone box
long out of service,
the black cradle
within its sepulchre,
silent as an obsidian urn.

 

The poem opens a door onto a world that many people are not aware of, and simply asks you to look through. The language used is simplistic and factual, and the long opening sentence fits with the idea of being on hold, of things going on indefinitely. This is contrasted with the factual, short, sharp statement: ‘Seventeen years have passed / with no answer’.

Perhaps the most surprising thing I realised after reading this collection is that the pain of waiting for an answer that never comes, of having no home, or the possibility of having your home taken away, can be just as damaging as physical violence, and the haunting image of the sealed-up phone box at the end of this poem symbolises this brilliantly.

‘On Hold’ begins with an epigraph of ‘official’ text taken from communication with the Home Office. This technique of weaving in official text to use as part of poems or to serve as epigraphs occurs throughout the collection. Taking this strategy even further, a copy of an original letter from the Home Office appears in full, roughly halfway through the collection. This letter begins ‘I refer to your clients No Time Limit application which has been outstanding since 12 December 2006.’  The letter is dated 21 September 2015.

Smith makes the titles of her poems work hard. They often have two meanings – as in ‘On Hold’ with its literal meaning of being ‘on hold’ on the phone, and the secondary reference to the idea of someone’s life being on hold. In ‘The Jumper’ the reader begins by thinking that it refers to an item of clothing, as we read about a nurse who is caught stealing a jumper. She pays the price years later, when she is refused the right to stay because of the ‘criminal act’ committed in her youth. The poem finishes:

 

How she could see no other way –
how without her, they’d be allowed to stay.

 

Suddenly the title takes on a whole new meaning.

In another poem, ‘Omnipotence’, after reading lots of poems in the voice of an observer or an outsider, we are in the first person. An asylum case worker tells us:

 

He’d been bugging me all morning,
phoning insistently
so confident of his rights.
Just wanted the Home Office to hurry up –
but he was bolshie and I snapped.
Told him they were doing further checks,
had called up another file.
Then I heard his voice crumple and go small;
‘please don’t push them too hard then,
don’t make them angry,
I’ll leave it to time.’

 

Again, the title of the poem deepens the impact of the poem – and the sense of shame which comes from this moment of self-reflection on the part of the speaker is both startling and moving.

One of the things that keeps the collection fresh and surprising is the considered exploration of the viewpoints of those who work with and alongside migrants or refugees – various caseworkers, judges and officers operating within the constraints of the asylum system. The first two poems, exploring the lives of two different asylum seekers respectively are followed by ‘The Scarlet Lizard’, a different kind of poem altogether. This poem, is again spoken in the voice of an observer, but this time looking at a judge.  Here is the Judge, reading through a report:

 

He needed to sense some quiver of
indecision, an odd detail
that would open the truth of their words;
chinks of light shining
through shuttered doors.

 

And ‘Red Road Flats’ we read:

 

When the Presenting Officer heard of
their suicides following the ruling
it was as if he’d woken up
and found himself
a trespasser in his own garden.

 

People are not presented simplistically, and although the news of the suicides make the latter poem particularly dark, the exploration of the impact that this has on the people dealing with these cases is delicately drawn does alleviate the sense of hopelessness in a small way. Though the asylum system is inhuman, real people are part of it, and these people are also human beings who are compassionate and flawed and struggling to understand the situation they find themselves in.

The problem of writing other people’s stories is a difficult one, particularly when dealing with groups of people who have already been silenced time and time again. The position of witness is often difficult one to pull off because of the position the author must maintain as outsider, but Smith is successful here: she negotiates and avoids the pit of slipping into sentimentality and mawkishness. This collection explores this idea of ‘poetry as witness’ layering story after story of trauma and pain on top of each other in orderly way that is to be admired – in a shocking poem, Smith factually recounts how a middle child of three is sent home because he is the only one in his family that doesn’t have a visa.

If I could wish for anything else it would have been for a few more poems exploring the impact of working with refugees/asylum seekers in the first person so that there was more of a range of tone throughout the collection. However, this is a small quibble – I found the book moving, disturbing and revelatory in its exposure of the intricacies of the immigration system.