Forms of Protest by Hannah Silva


Forms of Protest
Hannah Silva
Penned in the Margins
paperback, 80 pages, £8.99
ISBN: 978-1-908058-17-1

Robin Boothroyd

Hannah Silva is a poet whose primary mode of expression is performance. Forms of Protest is her debut collection, and it contains a variety of texts which echo her work across a multitude of disciplines as writer, theatre-maker and performer – some are transcripts of vocal performances; others appear for the first time in print. Earlier this year, in ‘Poets Prefer Marmalade‘, a blog post cataloguing the received ideas of the poetry world, Silva mocked the supposed page/stage divide:

A poem that works on the page will work in performance. A poem that works in performance will not always work on the page. A poem that works in performance but not on the page is not a good poem.

Silva’s main challenge then, if the truism is to be believed, is to find a way to make her poems that work in performance work on the page, and she excels. ‘Gaddafi Gaddafi Gaddafi’, one of the collection’s strongest poems, repeats the dictator’s name relentlessly (73 times in 36 lines!) until it starts to lose meaning – eventually losing it altogether. Clearly a performance poem (or a poem that will work in performance), it works remarkably well on the page, especially when the word’s loss of meaning is mirrored typographically:


Gaddafi week after week after week Gaddafi
Gaddafi until Gaddafi at last Gaddafi one morning
Gaddafi one morning the word is the same


as all other words gaddafi gaddafi and we keep on
chanting gaddafi gaddafi gaddafi until the word loses
it’s meaning completely gaddafi


The poem-as-protest is a theme which runs throughout. ‘Opposition’ uses the page to sabotage a performance – David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ speech – but never allows him to deliver the punch-line or conclude his arguments. “The Big Society” is reduced to mere vowel sounds (“I call it ‘Er Ih Oh-ay-ih-ee'”), and Cameron’s speech is torn apart and ripped open:


All that talking All that talking
talking talking talking talking
talking taking taking taking


Silva ‘remixes’ her source texts like a musician, ‘sampling’ words and phrases and weaving them into her poems. Her sources include spam emails, newspaper articles, diaries or management speak:


You are a water cooler moment
You are a doomsday scenario
You are a coping mechanism


This technique of creative sabotage is effective because it simultaneously undermines her targets’ language – the source of their power – and produces political and comic poetry in the process. Indeed it is refreshing, for this reviewer at least, to encounter a poet who addresses political themes head-on, who is lashing out instead of looking in. So convincing are these poems that, having finished Forms of Protest, it is unlikely you will be hoodwinked by doublespeak ever again.

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