In 2015, Welsh-Scottish poet RJ Arkhipov gained international acclaim when he penned a series of poems using his own blood as ink in protest at the blood-donor ban on men who have sex with men – a policy which has been in place in one form or another since the advent of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Five years on, in the midst of a different pandemic, governments across the United Kingdom announced the discriminatory policy would finally be lifted. To commemorate the occasion, Zuleika has republished Arkhipov’s ‘blood poems’ in a new paperback edition. As Pride Month 2021 comes to a close, Toni Velikova from the Scottish Poetry Library sat down with RJ Arkhipov to discuss the poetry of blood and his journey to today.
Visceral engages closely with the imagery of blood and its many meanings. What motivated your decision to have the first iteration of the poems be written in your own blood?
At the age of eighteen, I left my hometown in Wales and moved to the French capital to study at the University of London Institute in Paris. Paris was a cauldron of culture and I quickly found myself tangled among red-wine philosophers and experimentalists of every art. Fiction would blush at the protagonists of Paris.
At night, the city overspilled with awen (a Welsh word which roughly translates as ‘flowing inspiration’). It cascaded from the mouths of thinkers of all persuasions and none. It dripped from the garments of passers-by.
It flowed unabated between unlikely partnerships and chance encounters. Lingering European aristocracies mingled with eloquent anarcho-communists. Flamboyant drag queens consorted with music-makers and washed-up partygoers shipwrecked on the shores of the night.
Amidst all the abundance of present-day Paris, I still found time to immerse myself in the Paris of the past. Through the eyes and words of James Baldwin and Ernest Hemingway, even my Paris grew jealous.
One line in particular that I came across, often attributed to Hemingway, stayed with me: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I cannot put my finger on what it was that motivated me to take those words quite so literally, but I am sure the unapologetic unreservedness of the artists around me played its role.
As I was having my blood taken for the first poems, I was asked if I’d even donated blood. I reminded the medic that, as a gay man, I was unable to donate blood. As soon as the words left my lips, I knew I wanted my ‘blood poems’ to talk of the blood donor ban which prevents many gay and bisexual men from giving blood.
As the collection grew, so did the scope of the poetry. I realised swiftly the many and multifaceted meanings of blood and explored themes as varied as abjection, ancestry, faith, intimacy, mortality and stigma.
The new editions of Visceral—both the hardback, and the paperback—are printed in ink rather than blood. Does sharing them with the world feel just as personal as it did when they were written in blood?
When the hardback was published, I asked the printer if they would allow me to add a drop of my blood to the ink as a symbolic gesture. I was disappointed when they declined, but their refusal led me to approach the incorporation of my blood in more subtle, more creative ways.
The poems in the hardback art book are interspersed with photographs by French photographer Maud Maillard. My blood features in the photographs in various ways. In some, it is ink on a page. In others, it glistens on the petals of a spray of white roses (a reference to both Lewis Carroll’s chef d’œuvre and the shared etymology of the words ‘blood’ and ‘bloom’). In one photograph, we even used blood as make-up. One critic described the photographs as ‘largely depicting the author in a queer fantasia, mixing vaudevillian homoeroticism with the incongruously macabre.’
The paperback, which was published this year to commemorate and celebrate the lifting of the blood donor ban, features illustrations by French artist Fabien Ghernati who lent reality to my imagination when I was pondering the six themes which circulate in the blood of my poetry. More abstract, certainly, but sanguineous nonetheless.
There are many layers of meaning scattered throughout the pages of Visceral. Which of the book’s six chapters feel most personal and impactful to you and why?
While there are certain threads and seams that stray, they are part of a tapestry I could not unstitch.
I imagined this work very much as a living, breathing, pulsing body. Like the heart and lungs within our own bodies, the poems are both intersectional and interdependent. In the opening lines of the book, I ask readers ‘not to dismember my body, but to discover it as it was developed: holistically.’
I promise, in return, that the raw honesty I have sewn into each sinew; the charged passion I have excited within each nerve; and the sensual tension I have caressed into each muscle will belong to the reader.
The blood donor ban was implemented as a direct result of discrimination against gay and bisexual men during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. How important is it for you to engage with queer history through your work?
Queer history is my history. Without a past, I have no present. Engaging with history is not only important, it’s essential.
What do you think is the role of poetry in bringing awareness to issues faced by marginalised communities?
Protest, with one fist raised, has throughout history reached out its free hand in invitation to poetry. From Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy to Maya Angelou’s song of the Caged Bird, verse has risen to the occasion. Where injustice abounds, poetry can distil complex truths, provoke raw passions and, in so doing, articulate resistance.
Culture commands the conscience and, in so doing, conceives change.
What comes next for you, as a poet and artist, after Visceral?
The past year has been difficult for me. We are living in a strange, lingering moment. I know many writers who found inspiration during the pandemic and the lockdown. I wasn’t so fortunate. My poetry has always germinated in people and places. If blood was the life essence of Visceral, LGBT people and queer spaces were its skeleton. In a year where the physical and the social withered, so did my poetry.
One poetic process I am exploring at the moment is to write a poem in English and translate it into French. I then destroy the original English poem and leave the translation in stasis for several months before translating it back into English. Without the original, I’m fascinated to know what remains and what’s lost. There are many notions tied up in this process which appeal to me. Coming out of confinement. The evolution of an identity. The interplay of memory and forgetting. And, especially in the wake of Brexit, nurturing a cultural and linguistic link with France, where I came out both as a poet and a gay man.
Even though the ban has now been lifted, LGBTQ+ people still face many challenges when trying to access essential medical care. Do you have a message for aspiring queer artists and poets, who may feeling pressure to address these issues through their art?
Much has been said of the poet’s obligation. To beauty and pain. To the sacred and the profane. To call oneself a poet is to witness and bear witness to the ebb and flow of whatever measure of years and days we are granted. We bring words to the silences of our age. Those few poets history remembers, who dive into the deep undefined, who swim in a sea of subtleties and stay afloat, those are the poets who’ve turned the tide on history itself.
There is a rousing quote by Pablo Picasso, which he gave in an interview towards the end of the Second World War, which conveys my thoughts more effectively than perhaps my own words might:
“What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who only has eyes if he’s a painter, ears if he’s a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he’s a poet – or even, if he’s a boxer, only some muscles? Quite the contrary, he is at the same time a political being constantly alert to the horrifying, passionate or pleasing events in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How is it possible to be uninterested in other men and by virtue of what cold nonchalance can you detach yourself from the life that they supply so copiously? No, painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.”