How I did it. Essay for The Poetry School on being shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award

How I did it.

For me poetry and art are at the heart of life – a driving force – not a commentary upon it. I did not write ‘The Immigration Handbook’ to try to change immigration policy, I knew the climate of the immigration debate needed to change and as an artist I felt compelled to write these poems.

Working as an immigration caseworker for a Member of Parliament, I get the chance to see immigration from a multiplicity of angles and perspectives. In our surgeries I hear first-hand the despair and frustration of people trapped in the system, the victims of rule changes and bureaucratic mistakes, the prey of bogus lawyers. I also speak to the decision makers in the Home Office, the politicians who make the laws. I analyse the judgements and decisions from the Courts and Tribunals. The poems in ‘The Immigration Handbook’ work together to give a whole picture that reflects this multiplicity of perspectives.

To be asked to focus on one poem, is to look from one angle only so I have chosen ‘The Scarlet Lizard’ because it deals with a theme that is constant through the whole collection.

‘The Scarlet Lizard’ is about the importance of language in immigration law and in poetry. How words matter, how they can be critical in determining someone’s fate; whether they will be allowed to stay in this country or be deported to a country in which they fear torture and death. Convincing an Immigration Judge that a story is true and credible is everything – like Scheherazade, who I have referenced at the front of my book – a persuasive story can mean the difference between life and death.

In an earlier poem ‘Selection’ I concentrate on the opacity of the way the Home Office uses language; their deliberate obfuscation to disguise the true meaning of their words. They will ‘invite’ a failed asylum seeker to a ‘Service Event’: the soft, welcoming word ‘invitation’, the unthreatening activity of ‘service’, disguise a devastating decision to refuse and to detain and to deport. In another poem, ‘Asylum Interview’ I focus on the interviewer deliberately misinterpreting the answers given by the interviewee as to why she has claimed asylum. But I also show the way in which asylum seekers too will speak in set phrases that they have been instructed to use by their lawyers, because these words fit the rules and legal precedents for being granted asylum.

In ‘The Scarlet Lizard’ an immigration judge is dealing with all these layers of meaning; a professional, but in this quiet moment, overwhelmed by the immensity of his task to discern the truth in the thousands of cases he must read and judge and decide upon. He is conscious of the enormity of refusing someone and sending them back. He must be convinced, discern the credible through the layers of stories, both those presented and those concealed. He must weigh up accounts of asylum seekers whose first language is not English, who are afraid of the authorities, who have fled with no documents and are traumatised by the events that have happened to them, such that they cannot easily put them into words. In the poem, the immigration judge uses a poetic metaphor and looks to the similarity of the tools of poetry to pick out the truth;

‘He longed to see the quick movement of a scarlet lizard weaving unexpectedly through the parched, cracked hexagons of a legal phrase’,

He needs a clinching detail that can bring a story to life, a vivid observation, an unexpected element, an unpredictable turn in the story that doesn’t chart an obvious path to the longed for outcome. He looks to the power of language to convince and illuminate, to see the authentic within the lawyers’ legal speak used to frame a story within a Geneva Convention reason for a grant of asylum.

It took me about five years to write ‘The Immigration Handbook’ and I was still including poems up until the day before the proofs were being sent to print, driving my patient editor to distraction! I had however, been thinking about it for many years. The subject is so huge I found it hard to find a way in. I knew I didn’t want to write a polemic, I wanted it to be centred around the impact of the system on the people trapped in it and to create an emotional response in the reader in this way. Like the Immigration Judge in ‘The Scarlet Lizard’ to see the human beings behind the statistics and legal speak.

I finally found the key to writing ‘The Immigration Handbook’ through theatre. I happened to see a series of Shakespeare plays. I realised Shakespeare presents whole characters in dramatic tension with difficult decisions to make, in the most extreme and challenging situations. He presents boundary moments in people’s lives, the consequences of action and inaction, actors caught up in the ebb and flow of social currents and the contingencies of fate. But above all he does not judge his characters.

I originally trained as a sculptor and as soon as I began to see the poems as three dimensional and to withdraw myself, at the narrator from the poems, I felt they began to work. I remember when this first happened with one of the poems – I realised I had began to think as the character, to use metaphors that could be part of the character’s unconscious instead of my commentary on them.  I then saw how two dimensional some of my first poems had been and went back to them and rewrote them from within the character’s own perspective.

Although I don’t write in a conventional form. The structure of a poem is very important to me. My technique was honed by the discipline of writing thousands of letters to the Home Office over the past fifteen years. A turn of phrase, a report, situations of injustice and poignancy would jump out at me in my day to day work and gave me sparks of ideas. These fragments would sit in the background until there was something else to juxtapose against them. Being so immersed in the subject and carrying so many stories and incidents and letters around in my head – a portable and abstract version of my sculpture studio – meant unexpected images would come into my mind naturally because they were already part of my daily life.

In ‘The Immigration Handbook’ I have no interest in revealing the sensational; to record the horrific stories I hear and read on a daily basis. I wanted to use stripped back language, focus on the subtle and human detail, the different angle, contrast the official language of a report with the lyrical moment, like the immigration judge – look to the tools of poetry to convince the reader.

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

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



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

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.

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’….

‘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.

‘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