On Wednesday 6th April, Proletarian Poetry took over the Poetry Library as part of their Special Editions series. With the poets, Mona Arshi, Rishi Dastidar, Fran Lock, Clare Pollard, Richard Skinner, and Laila Sumpton, this was always going to attract a full house. For those unfortunate enough to miss the event, there is a link to a recording of all six poets readings below, and introductions from myself (I have included in the latter the time in the recording the poet started reading and a link to the original poem featured on the site). I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
The link to the whole recording of the evening is here: https://soundcloud.com/the-poetry-library/proletarian-poetry
Proletarian Poetry at the Poetry Library
Thank you everybody for coming this evening and to the library staff who have been so helpful in setting up the event.
I’m not sure what the librarians think of this idea, but I recently read an article entitled, Does Poetry Need Genre Boundaries in bookshops in the same way as novels. If you look at the categories of novels, historical, romance, myths and legends, science fiction even, poetry has certainly got it covered. I’m not sure how many serial killer poetry books there are though. However, I don’t think it could work. Beyond the problem of mixed genres within collections, the other problem it faces is the predominance of cookery books. There are eight columns of shelves of such books in my local Waterstones whereas there is only three quarters of a column dedicated to poetry. But also the Dewey library system has its categorisation problems; in the poetry section of my local library they’ve got a Jeremy Clarkson book and it’s definitely not poetry.
However, within the collections and magazines in the Poetry Library, you will find many poems of working class lives. And like magic mushrooms in autumn, you just have to know where to look. I wasn’t sure what I would find when I started the online anthology Proletarian Poetry, in which the six poets today have been featured. But in the 18 months since its inception the site has included over eighty poets from around the world, with each poem complemented (I hope) by a commentary from myself about the subject or issues raised.
I started the site, not because of any disquiet with the poetry world, but more my disappointment in how the working classes had been portrayed in fiction. Whilst there are many good novels, films and plays, overall they seemed to either convey the horror stories of people trying to struggle with poverty, and the criminality and discrimination that comes with it. Or there were the Fairy Tales of people trying to escape working class life by getting educated or becoming ballet dancers.
What I have found with poetry is that there is a more complex, nuanced and varied set of portrayals of working class life. Yes, there are those about the miner’s strike and ‘the struggle’ (I’ve written a few myself), but there are also those about friendships and everyday life; about grandparents, families at the seaside, identity and social mobility, refugees, boxers and more. Ian Duhig wrote a poem about an early 20th century transgender Mexican revolutionary, and there was a beautiful poem by Jill Abram, imagining Martin Luther King as a postman. So there is variety out there.
Now before I introduce the first poet, I wanted to say a word about the term Proletarian Poetry and definition of working class. Proletarian Poetry is not a five-year soviet type plan to take on the poetry world, rather it is a tribute to the Harlem renaissance poets of the 1930s such as Langston Hughes. Proletarian poetry is not a critique of the poetry world, rather it is trying to add another dimension to it. Finally, I am often asked what I mean by working class. For my purposes in selecting a poem for the site, I define them as people who lack power and/or wealth, which I think is a near perfect description of a poet.
And so to our lowly status poets.
I used to work in a bookmakers but was never good at the horses; however, PP has been very good at picking the winners of poetry prizes. I featured Liz Berry and Andrew McMillan before they won their respective Forward and Guardian prizes, and Imtiaz Dharker before she received the Queen’s Medal (I would never have imagined the Queen was a fan of the site). The same is true of our first poet, who won the Forward prize for her first collection, Small Hands. Her poem for Proletarian Poetry was “On Ellington Road”, which is a wonderful evocation of the characters on the street she grew up in Hounslow, London. Please welcome, Mona Arshi (at 8 mins, 35 seconds). Her poem for PP was On Ellington Road.
Our next poet works with words, either in his day job, his poetry and editing, or his one or two word/sentence Facebook and Twitter updates; yesterday’s missives started with “armour donned again” (I’m assuming before he started work) and ended, “Cava Tuesday hic!”. With myself he is a member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen as well as a Fellow of The Complete Works, along with Mona, which is a national development programme for Black and Asian poets. He has a debut collection coming out next year with Nine Arches Press, which I am really looking forward to reading, please welcome, Rishi Dastidar (at 20 mins, 20 secs). His poem for PP was Diagnosis: Londonism.
Our next poet helped me get through a very difficult time last year as I tried to recover from the Conservative victory in the General Election. She sent me a number of poems that are both angry and funny; likening Ed Miliband’s head to a Pez dispenser and Cameron’s head poking through his suit like a big toe. I had met her at a Poetry Review reading and bought her wonderful collection, The Mystic and the Pig Thief. She is a dog whisperer, cardigan wearer, and won the Ambit Poetry Competition in 2014 and came 3rd with her fantastic poem, Last Exit to Luton, in the National Poetry Competition. Please welcome, Fran Lock (at 32 mins, 13 secs). Her poems for PP were, “Decline and Fall” & “On Guillotines”.
A book by our next poet was one of the first I ever bought. This makes her sound old, but I’m a recent convert to poetry, hence why I may sound a bit born again evangelical about it. “Look, Clare, Look” is a poetry travelogue of a six month round the world trip she took in the early noughties. In that collection, her poem “China” perfectly summed up the great development contradiction we have today in the world’s first/second largest economy, of using a capitalist economic plan to develop a communist model of government. She has just completed a tour of Ovid’s Heroines and her new book Incarnation will be published next year by Bloodaxe. Please welcome, Clare Pollard (46 mins, 20 secs). Her poem for PP was, “China“.
Our next poet is one of the great promoters of literature, both to readers with his own books but also writers in his position as Director of Faber Academy, where he has helped give birth to many debut novelists. He also runs his own publishing arm, Vanguard Editions and Readings. He is a novelist and historian, his latest book is about the feted Busby Babes, and is a poet of two collections published by Smokestack. He draws on his own historical research in his poem for Proletarian Poetry, The Dark Nook about mining in the Isle of Man in the 19th century. Please welcome, Richard Skinner (at 55 mins, 20 secs). His poem for PP was “Dark Nook“.
After my short career as a bookie, I went on to work for an NGO with a focus on international development. So a couple of years ago I was intrigued to meet our next poet who manages to combine poetry with her work with NGOs. She is one of the wonderful Keats House poets, with whom she runs a number of workshops and the monthly poetry event, which has the best open mic in my opinion. She has most recently co-led ‘Bards Without Borders’, where poets from refugee and migrant backgrounds respond to the work of William Shakespeare. Please welcome Laila Sumpton (at 1hour, 5 mins, 55 secs). Her poem for PP was “Morning Prayers“.