Ali Whitelock's a poem walks into a bar

thrusts a sheet of A4 paper into my hands, says,
‘here, have this.’
‘what do you mean?’ i said, ‘what is it?’
‘it’s a poem,’ the poem said. ‘a poem?’ i quizzed.
‘aye, a poem,’ the scottish poem replied.
‘well how come you’re just handing it to me?’ i said.
‘because,’ the poem said, ‘i’ve been watching you from the driver’s
seat of my big poetry bus and every time i pull up at your stop
i see you hunched over your laptop, only stopping now and again
to get a cup of that kombucha or whatever the fuck it is you’re drinking
these days, or to rub the RSI in your forearms from your too much typing
and i see you agonise trying to find exactly the right word with exactly
the right weight that conveys the exact emotion you are trying
to get down on the exact page exactly no one gives a flying fuck about.’
‘sorry … your big poetry bus?’
‘aye, that’s right. for the last eighteen months––you bashin’ away
at the keys like a maniac lookin’ aw tortured––i know hemingway
said, writing is easy all you’ve got to do is sit at the typewriter
and bleed, but you didn’t have to take that quite so literally.
so here. put your pen down, take the day off and have this poem. it’s for free.’
‘a poem for free?’’ i said. ‘i can’t just have a poem for free!’
‘of course you can. you’ve earned it––sure there’s an imprint
of your nose on the screen of your mac to prove it. so here, before
i change my mind. take the fucking poem.’
‘well, i’ won’t lie, it is tempting,’ i said, ‘but what about the bleeding?
what about the struggle? what about the endless fumbling at three am trying
to find the notepad and pen on the bedside table to get lines and ideas
down before they disappear forever?’
‘a poem doesn’t always have to be that,’ the poem said, sternly, ‘the poem
does not always demand you sink ankle deep in clay from the weight
of the oxygen tanks on your back as you climb mount kilimanjaro
every time you lift your pen. sometimes a poem will simply land
on your lap, as though it were merely exhaled from the lungs
of, i don’t know, fucking angels or something, in one single breath.’
‘but what kind of poem can come from not bleeding, not fumbling,
not struggling?’ i implored.
‘this kind!’ the poem snarled, shaking the piece of A4 paper under
my nostrils, like it were a crisp cotton bed sheet flapping in a violent
glasgow wind.

i took the sheet of A4 paper from the poem’s hands and surveyed it.
i mean it looked like a poem, had the same weight as a poem, christ
it even smelt like a poem. i held it up against the window as a surgeon
might an x-ray of a poet’s breast and pink hues of sun filtered through,
illuminating rosy cheeked cherubs, succulent vines and a heart
still full of poems to come.
‘look,’ the poem said, ‘i haven’t got all day. if you don’t want this poem
there are plenty of other poets who do. and by the way those oxygen
tanks look heavy.’
‘well, now you come to mention it, they are pulling down on my
scoliosis quite a bit. okay poem you have convinced me. i will accept
your effortless gift.’

i clutched the poem to my heaving breast, its perfect pearlescent
beads of clich├ęd morning dew melting like a child’s tears against
my undeserving but forever grateful heart.
‘oh poem you are a marvel. this is truly a wondrous gift!’
‘a marvel?’ the poem shot back, ‘i am not a marvel. do not hold me
in such high esteem. do not prostrate yourself before me at the alter
you have created filled with the incense and mooncakes of your own
imagining. do not inflate me with the bellows of your longing,
nor throw unnecessary logs onto the embers of my existence simply
because you are in need of warmth. next time you pick up your pen
and find yourself ankle deep in the clay of your own making, lay
down your oxygen tanks, summon to mind the exhalations
of angels and remember, i am not a marvel.
i am merely words
and rhythm,
imagination
and truth.’


Ali Whitelock is a

Scottish poet and writer.

Her new poetry collection, ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’ is published by Wakefield Press and her debut collection,‘and my heart crumples like a coke can’ (Wakefield Press 2018) has a forthcoming UK edition by Polygon, Edinburgh. Her memoir, ‘Poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell’ was launched at Sydney Writers Festival to critical acclaim in Australia and the UK. She’s read her work at festivals and events around the world including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2018 and 2019. You can read more about Ali right here: aliwhitelock.com.


Reviews of ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’:

‘Ali is devastating, funny and cruel and wise, and life – hers and ours – is devastating and funny and cruel, so her wisdom is a tonic.’ Simon Sweetman, ‘off the tracks’ NZ
For full review click here. 

‘How does her work break ground? Well, look at the titles—‘the great fucking wall of china,’ or, ‘a poem walked into a bar’ or, ‘the dandruff in the dry scalp of your longing.’ Rochelle J Shapiro, author, poet and teacher at UCLA 
For full review click here. 

‘Blurt-your-beer funny and rip-your-gut raw. Where other poets may blink or flinch, Whitelock holds her gaze and brings words to heel.’ David Astle


‘As far as I can tell, Ali Whitelock’s work stands at the summit of the most intimate, original, and vital of contemporary poetry in the English language.’ Dr Brentley Frazer, Riding Sharks, Aboriginal to Nowhere, Scoundrel Days

‘The poems in Ali Whitelock’s the lactic acid in the calves of your despair are packed with hilarity and gut-wrenching and everything in between. For anyone who ever made up their mind that poetry is boring or pointless, there is a sure antidote and it is Ali Whitelock.’ Edward O’Dwyer, Bad News, Good News, Bad News, The Rain on Cruise’s Street, Cheat Sheets

‘Fans of Ali Whitelock’s distinctive blend of sharp, insightful, prosaic, no bs humour blended with the intimacy of confession won’t be disappointed by this latest collection. This is tremendous, witty and deeply moving poetry.’ Magdalena Ball, Compulsive Reader

‘So many poems I read are pretty… ‘meh’. I think, what am I not getting? But when I read Ali Whitelock’s ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’ – whoosh! The top of my head blows off. Every time.’ Magi Gibson, Wild Women of a Certain Age

‘In this her second collection, Ali Whitelock weaves unique personal experiences into universal messages about love, grief, regret and ultimately from that, the hope that comes from acknowledging the honest, damned, helluva thing that is living. What a poet. What a voice.’ Jenny Lindsay, Flint & Pitch

‘It will come as no surprise that Ali Whitelock’s follow up to And My Heart Crumples Like a Coke Can is every bit as glorious, gory, witty, and wonderful as you hoped it would be (and then some). I never cease to be amazed by this poet’s incredible talent to tickle, tantalise, delight, and devastate. Personal favourite from this collection has to be NOTES from the six week course entitled: ‘a beginner’s guide to writing poetry’, but an honourable mention must go to if you have no eyes where do the tears go?, and (of course) the poem that became a viral sensation during the Australian bush fires earlier this year, this is coal don’t be afraid. Ali Whitelock continues to give ’em hell, and it’s an honour to watch her do it.’ Sheree Strange, Keeping Up with the Penguins

‘The humanity in these poems takes your breath away, makes you want to cartwheel and shout ‘yes yes yes, that’s JUST how it is!’ Ali Whitelock captures the flawed beauty of life with an exuberance and courage that is gorgeous indeed, an invitation to live more fully. This collection is always close to hand, I open it whenever the edges of life are feeling dulled, when I need a dose of derring do. Her poems are sheer brilliance.’ Leonie Charlton, Marram

‘A unique voice in the Australian poetry scene, Ali Whitelock sparks and sparkles in her latest kick-ass collection.’ Anne Casey, out of emptied cups, where the lost things go.

Excerpts from ‘the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’: