Month: April 2015

Morning Prayers by Laila Sumpton

Ibrahim lived in Idlib province in Syria. He is a graduate of English Literature from Aleppo University. But he joined the Free Syrian Army. Why? Because in 2012 the regime of President Assad burnt his library of English books during the early stages of the war; he had five hundred in all including Shakespeare and Tolstoy, as well American poetry. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was his favourite – he saw hope in Godot. But the war as we know became complicated and many factions entered the war. Ibrahim left and is now teaching school children in Turkey.

I have followed his story via the reporting of BBC journalist Ian Pannell. I wrote a play about him called Waiting for Summer, which was shown in Brighton and have written a poem. What drew me to his story, and to Laila Sumpton’s poem ‘Morning Prayers’, is the way in which the more personal story is told. It is not the helpless uneducated victim that is often portrayed by the western media; it is someone who had hopes and aspirations like anyone living in peace.

profile picIn Morning Prayers, the hopes of a mother are set out, “You long for monotonous streets/unremarkably intact/adapting only to the seasons.” These longings for the mundane are ones that many of us take for granted, “You hope for the rush to school/to be fuelled by no more/than a stern bell ringing teacher.” Of course if you are trapped in a war, then “You pray for your son only to fear/spiders, heights and getting lost/that he will grow bored of birthdays,/only ever hold toy guns.” But we know that even the most simplest of wishes can be very difficult to fulfil. Whether it is Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya, or Egypt, mothers, father, sisters and brothers hope and pray only for peace, for to read books, play, get married and live safely. Laila’s poem shows this both starkly and beautifully. (more…)

Poetry Books and Pamphlets

Books and Pamphlets I Have Bought and Nearly Read

I have been feeling a little overwhelmed by the number of poetry books and pamphlets out there and the pressure to keep up with them both for the site and for my own learning as a poet. At the moment I don’t really have a sense of how they fit together or what I have learned from them. So I thought the first thing to do was to make a basic list of the publications I have (although there may be others scattered around the house). This isn’t a review, it is a simple list from which I hope to get a sense of how they relate to each other in terms of style and themes. I would love to hear of books/pamphlets you might think I will be interested in reading.

telling talesThe List

Patience Agbabi, Blood Monochrome (Canongate, 2008)
Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales (Canongate, 2014)
kithRaymond Antrobus, Shapes and Disfigurements (Burning Eye, 2012)
Simon Armitage, Paper Aeroplanes (Faber, 2014)
Jo Bell, Kith (Nine Arches Press, 2015)
Jo Bell, Navigation (Moormaid Press, 2014)
Emily Berry, Dear Boy (Faber, 2013) (more…)

On Ellington Road by Mona Arshi

Our garden backed on to my Primary school playground. When I was six or seven, a few friends and I would lean against the school fence of a break, and shout: “MUM, biscuits!” and she would come and hand out the custard creams for us to eat on the grass, each in our own individual way. A couple of years later she went to work full-time and I would go over the road to a family of eight children before school. The breakfast production line would have made Henry Ford proud.

We lived in the middle of our street (my parents still do) and it’s book-ended by a pub and a church. And like many of the streets people grew up on, it had its array of different characters; a number of Irish Catholic families as well as those who had grown up in the city (although they were in the minority); a British heavyweight boxing champion, who’d let you knock his door and hold his Lonsdale belt. Then there was the spooky overgrown house on the corner where two brothers lived, although you only ever saw one of them – rumour was they were identical twins and never went out together, and that one had a wife who he drowned in the little pond in the garden.

mon_arshi 3Forgive these reminiscences, but I wonder how much you think back to your childhood street and all the people who lived there and where they might be now? I have to thank Mona Arshi for her wonderful poem, On Ellington Road, for jogging me back in time. But Mona has a much better memory than I do, for the detail she gives of the many characters on her street is remarkable. Old man Harvey, with his thick specs and polished shoes/shouting ‘trespassers’, yet offering us a penny for collecting/his waspy pears.” Each line or couplet has a life story that you want to explore more, “Aunty Kamel, knocking on our door, with her black plait undone,/begging us to keep her for the night.” (more…)

Birmingham to London by Coach, by Steve Pottinger

In 1925, the newly installed Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill, linked the pound the gold standard in a vain attempt to boost a dying empire. This led to an economic catastrophe and the now famous General Strike of 1926. Always one for war war as opposed to jaw jaw, Churchill advocated troops firing on strikers. So to stop him from inflicting such harm, he was assigned the editorship of the British Gazette, the government’s propaganda machine during the strike. The paper ridiculed the strikers and claimed they were a direct threat to the country’s democracy.

sun arthur scargillsunsplashThe media has continued with this tradition of ridiculing and demonising the working classes. During the Miner’s Strike of the 1980s, Thatcher wanted to take a very similar approach to Churchill, with a secret plot to use 4,500 troops to crush the miners and she had the backing of the right wing tabloids of the day. The Sun tried to run a front page of a straight-armed Arthur Scargill (he was mid-wave) under the heading, “Mine Furher”, but the print union (who knew if the miners lost they’d be next) refused to run it so the paper had to back down and run the alternative (see right).

However, the focus of today’s media demonization is the out-of-workers; those on benefits, who we are told have too many children, are promiscuous, criminal, and feckless. These types are paraded on the screens from Jerry Springer to Jeremy Kyle, with characters like Vicky Pollard and Frank Gallagher, and are regularly on the front pages of the tabloids. It feeds into politicians’ minds and speeches; in the UK election the focus is very much on hard working families, who can only be helped through cuts – cuts which implicitly will affect those on benefits. So if you are unemployed, disabled or unwell, elderly, you are seen as a drain on the state. All this, despite the fact that many “hard working people” are in poverty and rely on benefits and food banks. It is a classic divide and rule strategy.

steve pottingerHow does one deal with this? One obvious way is with frustration, anger, protest, and voting against those propagating a perception that disadvantaged people are the problem. The other way, which Steve Pottinger has done with great wit in his poem Birmingham to London by Coach, is to write about it in a satirical way; turn our perceptions around, make us think differently about the current demonization of a class of people, who somehow hold little power and little money, and yet seem to dictate the policy of the main political parties. I know, it’s fucking bizarre! (more…)

To a Halver by Paul Batchelor

olduvaiHere in the UK there was a radio series that explored a history of the world in a hundred objects. The objects ranged from the ancient, such as the Olduvai Handaxe made of volcanic lava that was part of a process of tool-making some 1.6 million years ago, to the relatively more modern, Victorian Mrs Beeton’s Cookbook, which had over 900 recipes and was probably one of the first cookbooks, and are so popular today (our local Waterstone’s six column shelves of cookbooks – WTF).

The poet Ted Kooser said that the mark of a good poem is one that makes you see the everyday, or the everyday object in a different way; to make his point, he references a one line poem by Joseph Hutchison, Artichoke: “O heart weighed down by so many wings.” As Kooser says, ‘Could you ever look an artichoke in the same way after reading that?’

corrugated ironIn one of the first poems featured on Proletarian Poetry, Kei Miller did just that with corrugated iron, in his poem This Zinc Roof. “This clanging of feet and boots,/Men running from Babylon whose guns/Are drawn against the small measure/Of their lives; this galvanised sheet; this/Corrugated iron. The road to hell is fenced/On each side with zinc.” I am currently writing a poem about tyres, how, when kids, we used to roll them down the hills back home for fun, or when used as a form of execution, (‘necklacing’) in South Africa and Haiti where they are put round the neck of a victim, filled with petrol then set alight.

paulbatchelorpicPaul Batchelor has taken an everyday object in a fantastic way with his poem “To a Halver”, which appears in his latest chapbook, The Love Darg; a halver is a half-brick, one half of an everyday object, that we are surrounded by, pass by, and sometimes take up as a weapon of protest or of gratuitous violence: “O half brick: your battened-down/century of faithful service in a pit village terrace/forgotten now you’ve broken loose; now you’re at large/on CCTV, flackering out of kilter till you bounce/like far-flung hail rebounding off the riot squad/or kissing the away support a fond goodbye.” Paul turns to the personal when one nearly kills his father following a Celtic/Rangers match, “when it was raining hammers and nails/after an Old Firm fixture – the decider: I exist/because you missed and broke his collarbone.” (more…)