Month: March 2015

China by Clare Pollard

There is some doubt as to whether Zhou Enlai (it was not Mao) ever said, “Too early to say,” when responding to the question, “What significance did the French Revolution have on the world?” True or not, I think it is not too early to say now. The year 1789 was seen as the end of the divine rule by monarchy and hardcore nepotism. However, countries began to develop in a more paradoxical way through incremental freedom of the individual, innovation and trade coupled with exploitation and war. Today is no different. Western democracies develop through free market neo-liberal economics based on a democratic model that exports both goods and services backed up by war and centralised control.

But the reason I think we are in ‘interesting times’ is that in the past twenty years, the model of communist development has also embraced free market economics; but instead of a social democrat capitalist end game, the benefits of capitalism are being used to achieve a socialist utopia. We may not be at the end of history but you have a situation in China (and Russia too), of a ‘by whatever means necessary’ model of development; yes, let’s use the market model to create wealth, but be clear this is only to finance a socialist revolution.

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photo by Hayley Madden

This creates all kinds of contradictions in the country, which are perfectly summed up in Clare Pollard’s eponymous poem, China;
you have some of the most polluted cities in the world, “I saw skies so full of filth the stars were all put out,/and bags dip and fly across the flat, farmed fields/in their thousands – a plague of doves.” Whilst at the same time huge investment in green technology and growth. People now own their own businesses for private wealth and ownership at hugely different ends of the scale: “Dumplings were sold on every cluttered corner -/their dour, pinched faces sweating in bamboo stacks -/that cost 10Y or so, nothing to us.” Whilst at the same time controlling their freedom of expression and wider human rights: “We bought a watch where Mao’s arm moves when it ticks:/complicit in how time runs evil into kitsch.” Present day China is incomparable to the evils carried out to get the country to where it is today, but as Clare says in the final line: “with all this harm done/can it really come all right in the end?” (more…)

I went back to my country by Enoh Meyomesse

I could not ask the Cameroonian poet and historian, Enoh Meyomesse for permission to publish his poem “I Went Back to My Country”, because he is in jail in Cameroon. But I know he would have said yes.

Today, I saw a tweet from the African Poetry Book fund saying to read Enoh’s collection Jail Poems, which have just been translated into English and published by English PEN. You can download the book here, and donate your chosen amount (recommended is £5); all proceeds will go to English PEN’s work in supporting Enoh Meyomesse and other writers at risk around the world. They have said that the collection “has a collective commons license, and dissemination of the poems is actively encouraged.”

free-enohAs the poem shows, many refugees or those forced to leave their country for whatever reason, want to go back home, and Enoh was no different. “I went back to my country/with my soul/hosting a thousand/dreams of freedom.” So Enoh left France, despite “the warnings/of thousands //stay-here /you’re-no-longer-from-there /your tongue-has-not-tasted/the-dishes-from-there-for-years.” But the warnings were prescient and he was arrested. The poem is a plea to the Kamerun (the nationalist fighters and now rulers of the country). “When then will you cease/to crush without mercy/your most devoted children/is this the fruit of the fight for independence/that our ancestors tore from the hands of the Whites/is this the freedom that independence/carried in its gut.” He has been betrayed like the people of his country, of which he is hugely proud. “I went back to you/oh Kamerun/burning with desire/to see you tall/stronger than all.” (more…)

Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, and Jungle by Ian Duhig

Since I began this blog six months ago, I have been amazed at how open all of the poets have been to sharing their poems and giving me background to them; and it has also been great because I have learned so much – not only about poetry but the subjects behind the poems and poets. And this experience has continued this week with Ian Duhig.

Ian Duhig (6)During a break at last week’s New to Next Generation Poets at the Institute of English Studies, where I gave a paper, I ‘collared’ Ian Duhig, who I had spotted sitting a few rows ahead of me. We chatted about a joke I had shared with him on Twitter and then I asked him if I could feature a poem or two of his on the site, which he kindly and instantly agreed to. Later that evening he gave a reading alongside Patience Agbabi and Hannah Lowe, both of whom I have featured on PP. The next morning, when I opened my emails there they were – not two but a mini-selection box of poems from Ian.

I could have chosen them all. However, I decided on Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen and Jungle because of the history behind the stories and the discrimination and attitudes towards the subjects in their situations – one a transgender Mexican revolutionary, the other a ‘successful’ homeless male sex worker. For the many of you who know Ian’s writing, the poems are founded on truth (sometimes an uncomfortable one), either historical, or from his direct experience of working with homeless people for fifteen years. And the poems are leavened with a humour as well as a directness and richness of language. (more…)

The Poetry of Working Class Lives: Opening a Door to a More Inclusive Poetics

The Poetry of Working Class Lives: Opening a Door to a More Inclusive Poetics. By Peter Raynard for New Generation to Next Generation 2014: Three Decades of British and Irish Poetry, conference at the Institute of English Studies, London. March 13th 2015

Introduction

Poetry is not the inconsolable wail of the only child. It can be the hum of the neighbourly voices in the meeting hall. To be welcomed in, all you need to do is open the door.”

These are the closing words from Fiona Sampson’s book on contemporary poetry: Beyond the Lyric. But the challenge facing any poetics of inclusion, is how to get people to open the door in the first place. However, as the Warwick commission report on the Arts recently showed, it is not only a problem for poetry.

Poetry and Working Class Lives

I came to focus on the poetry of the working class lives in two ways. Firstly, when I started writing poetry as a dare by taking a module run by Malika Booker as part of an MA in Creative Writing; she showed us poems from William Blake, to Martin Espada, Jacob Sam-La Rose, Inua Ellams, and Karen McCarthy Woolf.

trainspottingThe second entry point was a dissatisfaction in the way in which the working classes were portrayed in the media and arts: in novels, plays, TV programmes and films, stories involving working class people are portrayed as ‘horror stories’ or ‘fairy tales’; The most billy eliottcommon depictions are the lumpen, feckless, racist and criminal underclass of ‘Shameless’, ‘This is England’ ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Lionel Asbo’, complemented by the narratives of escape via the salvation of a supposed middle-class life such as with ‘Educating Rita’ and ‘Billy Elliot’. (more…)

Another Life by Jill Abram

Many years ago my friend went for an interview at the Royal Mail; when asked why he wanted to be a postman, he said, “Because my uncle runs the pub across the road.” He didn’t get the job, which wasn’t fair really because the pub was always full of posties at lunchtime.

Charles Bukowski was probably the most famous literary drinking postman. When deciding whether to continue at the post or become a full-time writer he said, “I have one of two choices – stay in the post office and go crazy … or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”

Imagine however, that instead of delivering other peoples’ letters or junk mail, the postman delivered a message of his or her own. What would the folks of downtown L.A. have thought about missives from Bukowski or Burroughs? Or how about messages from those promoting social justice and equality, like Gandhi or Jerry Springer.

B&W by Naomi

Photo by Naomi Woddis

Jill Abram, in her poem, Another Life, does just that when she imagines Martin Luther King walking the streets with his dream, ‘but instead of sharing it/with all the world at once,/he would have told people individually/household by household.’ Can you imagine getting a personal message from MLK, how life changing that could be? And how you could pass on his word, “neighbour to neighbour/over garden gates and hedges/and cups of tea.”

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For Eliza (my great grandmother) by Katrina Naomi

It is an indictment on those who hold power and are resistant to its democratisation that days such as yesterday’s International Women’s Day remain such an important reminder of the discrimination women face throughout the world. Here in the UK, it is particularly poignant given the upcoming general election, where women’s role in politics is still far outweighed by men; though I do like to think it is no coincidence that the more progressive political parties of the United Kingdom, the Greens, Plaid Cymru, and SNP are all now led by women.

The suffragette movement of course was instrumental in creating change. But I used to think it was portrayed as a rather middle/upper class movement, when, this is clearly not the case. There are many examples of working class women involved in the movement, and campaigning for equal rights many years before the turn of the century.

A programme just this week on BBC television, Suffragette’s Forever, showed how in the 1850s, in response to the male dominated Chartist movement, there was the formation of the Sheffield Female Political Union, who proclaimed: “To the women of England, beloved sisters, it is our birth-right, equally with our brothers to vote for our destiny, …and we ask in the name of the new justice must we continue ever the silent and servile victims of his injustice? Is the oppression to last forever? We, the women of the democracy of Sheffield, answer – No!” As Professor Amanda Vickery says, ‘it disputes the idea that working class women were downtrodden and prepared to suffer and be still; but more than that it gives a lie to the idea that the suffragette movement was a snooty middle class affair born in drawing rooms in Kensington and Mayfair. It seems to me it was born here in Sheffield in 1851.”

Katrina NaomiKatrina Naomi’s elegiac poem ‘For Eliza (my great-grandmother) who ‘ran away to north London,/never spoke of home, fled as a child/from that gap on the form where your father would have been;’ and who went on to be part of a movement that changed the course of history ‘When you straightened up,/out of the poor light, you thrust a pin/through the crown of your best straw hat/worked amongst those with a larger vision.’ beautifully encapsulates the height of the suffragette movement, (more…)

Poems from “How the bookmaker feels about the dogs” by Joey Connolly

You may not have noticed but the days are getting longer. Shops’ opening hours seem extend to meet the needs of everyone’s body clock. Superstores are 24/6, bars open to 2am, some banks on Sunday. It seems it is only doctors’ surgeries that escape the creep of capitalist opportunity. One that strikes me, given my previous life, is when walking home late evening to see the bookmakers (betting shops) still open till 10pm; when I worked in a bookmakers in the 1980s, there was no night racing, far fewer race meetings, no slot machines, you were never open on a Sunday, and there were no PDQ machines to pay by card – you could only lose what was in your pocket. Now their shops are open 12 hours a day seven days a week – 24 hours if you count online.

I feel that more than ever, being in a bookies is all about waiting and counting; whether it’s the time of the next race, your next win, the odds, how much you’ve got to bet with, how much you can afford to lose, how much you actually lose that gives you that sickening feeling when you walk home to face your family (it is rarely the more positive alternative). The same applies to the bookmaker/owner but more so for the person working on the till. How do you fill the time and what counts?

joey connollyJoey Connolly passes the time writing poems when he’s working in the bookies, which is a great way to pass the time, even when you’re being interrupted; and in a series of poems from ‘How the bookmaker feels about the dogs‘ he portrays this mix of creativity and capitalist intrusion very well. ‘It’s a position I struggle to reconcile,/naturally. But it’s more interesting than an office/and it’s anyway impossible/to stand completely outside/of Capital’s relentless comprehension in this day, this age.’ It is a frustrating position and not like any other retail position, because you are dealing with people for a number of hours during a day – they don’t all just walk in, place a bet and walk out again. ‘I trudge to the bookies where I work and will find time/to write this….and will concern money…– but also/other important things; all of which/are suspended to take Joe’s throw-of-the-dice tricast,/Joe, who is/a real misogynist.’ (more…)