I have been heartened by a number of things in poetry recently. As previously featured, Poetry on the Picket Line, is a great initiative to support striking workers in dispute with their employers; most notable in London has been the refusal by Picture House cinemas to pay their staff a Living Wage, as well as cleaners at the LSE. Saturday before last, I read alongside a number of poets, in a benefit gig at the Betsey Trotwood (a good pub in Farringdon) to raise funds for the strikers. It was a great night and raised over £300 – I bid successfully for Billy Bragg’s solidarity signature. Hats off to the organisers, Nadia Drews, Mark Coverdale, and Chip Hamer, and hosting from Tim Wells and Janine Booth.
Last week, I received my contributor’s copy of On Fighting On, an anthology of working class poetry published by Manifesto Press (supported by Unite union), through the Culture Matters, which is skillfully edited by Mike Quille. It was part of a competition they ran earlier in the year. I am alongside a number of poets who have appeared on Proletarian Poetry, such as Fred Voss, Fran Lock, Owen Gallagher, Mike Jenkins, Steve Pottinger, and coming up soon, Martin Hayes.
In keeping with the punk ethic of working class poetry and do-it-yourself, I got a fantastic pamphlet by the poet Robin Houghton, of the indie co-operative Telltale Press. It is called Footwear, and is a short memoir-like set of poems to do with, yes, you’ve guessed it, ‘footwear’. Robin made the pamphlet herself, as well as the poems of course. With my Proletarian hat on (I must get an actual one), I really liked the penultimate poem, ‘Handmade in Guangzhou 2.’ “Long tables in the machine room/ ribbons of women/ pressed together in pairs, bowed/ as if praying to the Western god/ of sports & leisure.” You can find out how she did it here. Robin made fifty (mine is number 9), it is a great idea.
Finally, on that note, I want to give mention to Tim Wells poetry fanzine ‘Rising’, which he hands out for free at different events, the latest of which is Issue 69 and includes the brilliant Paul Birtill, Phil Jupitas (Porky the Poet), Jemima Foxtrot, Salena Godden, and many more.
So the true meaning of the word ‘anarchism’, i.e. of doing it yourself, is alive and well, in working class poetry at least.
I only came across the term ‘permission’ in regards of writing when being mentored by Jo Bell. Her wonderful project, 52 had given over five hundred writers the safe space to share their poetry with others in a similar position; the project had essentially given many of them permission to write. Recently I received a different type of permission when attending the Stairs and Whispers event at Ledbury Poetry Festival; the permission to accept that I have a disability.
This was the launch of the anthology of “D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back”, edited by Sandra Alland, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman, and published by Nine Arches Press. From the perspective of someone whose hearing and sight is not particularly impaired the event was a multi-media experience of poetry films, readings, and questions, supported by sign, subtitles, and the full text of poems. The editors described themselves for those with sight impairment, and in a large hall it felt like the most intimate and captivating experience.
However, it was only afterwards, when I went away, sat in a café and took a breath that it resonated with me more personally. I have a number of autoimmune conditions; Addison’s Disease, Underactive Thyroid, secondary hypopituitarism (causing low testosterone), low Vitamin D, along with asthma, high cholesterol, chronic fatigue, periodic chronic pain, and depression. I am lucky, as I don’t have to rely on welfare, beyond NHS treatment and free prescriptions, and there are times when I am relatively healthy and able to exercise. So I have had no need to register as disabled and go through the horrendously cruel process that the austerity government has implemented in the past seven years.
Just a short post to let you know that I have now compiled an alphabetical index of the poets (with their poems) who have appeared since the site began in September 2014. There are over 120 poems, from the great and the good of poetry, to the great and the good of poetry. I will be updating it to include a couple of lines from each poem, as well of course adding to it, as and when.
Here is the link: https://proletarianpoetry.com/index-of-poets/
Thank you all for following the site, I really appreciate it. I will continue in my quest to get more poems of working class lives out there to show that we are much more than hard work. I still have hope of writing/editing a book on the project in the future, and to do more events; but this may not happen until next year when my own collection is published by Smokestack Books in April (which as you can imagine has a few poems about the working class in).
To paraphrase an old REM song, “It’s the end of work as we know it. But I feel fine.” In the not-too-distant future, this will be the end game for politicians. Although there is a continuance of, and even in the case of President Agent Orange, a revival of the policy of creating more jobs, the reality is that under the current capitalist trajectory, there aren’t enough to go round. We are already seeing it with the rise in automation and the precariat and gig economy; people are scraping around for part-time jobs that are unsustainable economically. Politicians will have to find ways of keeping people happy (however that is defined) outside of work.
Some commentators are beginning to write about the post-work economy and how today’s politicians are wrong in their promise to create more jobs. In a provocative essay, “Fuck Work!” the historian James Livingston claims that the belief in work as a central factor of what it means to be human, “has become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills – unless of course you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.” Similarly, Yuvi Noah Hariri describes this situation in a more apocalyptic fashion, “The new longevity and super-human qualities are likely to be the preserve of the techno super-rich, the masters of the data universe. Meanwhile, the redundancy of labour, supplanted by efficient machines, will create an enormous “useless class”, without economic or military purpose.”
The poem, The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of our Hand by Fred Voss, laments the state of the capitalist economy at a place he has worked for over thirty years; even though “it’s a pretty good job we have /considering how tough it is out there in so many other factories /in this era of the busted union and the beaten-down worker /but paradise? /and we walk away toward our machines ready for another 10 / hours inside tin walls /as outside perfect blue waves roll onto black sand Hawaiian / beaches /and billionaires raise martini glasses.” But in response to an ironic comment (“Another day in paradise,”) from a workmate, he asks the question: “why not a job /joyous as one of these poems I write /a job where each turn of a wrench /each ring of a hammer makes my soul sing out glad for each /drop of sweat /rolling down my back because the world has woken up and /stopped worshiping money.” Everyone needs a sense of worth, even in a mundane job, where they don’t feel exploited and undervalued. For as Fred beautifully writes, [there is] “nothing more noble /than bread on the table and a steel cutter’s grandson /reaching for the moon and men /dropping time cards into time clocks and stepping up to their /machines /like the sun /couldn’t rise /without them.” The challenge now is create a sense of this nobility both inside and outside the workplace.
38 years ago Fred Voss walked into a steel mill and put on a hardhat and picked up a torch and a wrench and then a pen to write of souls sold in the job market, lives fed into time clocks, men owned and ordered like they were hardly men at all, by bosses and owners too good to shoulder a load or grab a pickaxe, as the earth is covered with concrete and the trees and tigers die. Fred Voss looks for the day when all this will be changed when women and men with dirt on their hands and gold in their souls will no longer be treated like children but given the power and respect the true makers of this world deserve. Voss has published three books of poems with Bloodaxe: Goodstone(1991), Carnegie Hall with Tin Walls (1998) and Hammers and Hearts of the Gods (2009).
The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of our Hand
“Another day in paradise,”
a machinist says to me as he drops his time card into the time
clock and the sun
over the San Gabriel mountains
and we laugh
it’s a pretty good job we have
considering how tough it is out there in so many other factories
in this era of the busted union and the beaten-down worker
and we walk away toward our machines ready for another 10
hours inside tin walls
as outside perfect blue waves roll onto black sand Hawaiian
and billionaires raise martini glasses
sailing their yachts to Cancun
but I can’t help thinking
why not paradise
why not a job
where I feel like I did when I was 4
out in my father’s garage
joyously shaving a block of wood in his vise with his plane
as a pile of sweet-smelling wood shavings rose at my feet
and my father smiled down at me and we held
the earth and the stars in the palm of our hand
why not a job
joyous as one of these poems I write
a job where each turn of a wrench
each ring of a hammer makes my soul sing out glad for each
drop of sweat
rolling down my back because the world has woken up and
stopped worshiping money
and power and fame
and because presidents and kings and professors and popes and
Buddhas and mystics
and watch repairmen and astrophysicists and waitresses and
there is nothing more important than the strong grip and will of
like I do
nothing more important than Jorge muscling a drill through
steel plate so he can send money
to his mother and sister living under a sacred mountain in
nothing more noble
than bread on the table and a steel cutter’s grandson
reaching for the moon and men
dropping time cards into time clocks and stepping up to their
like the sun
The following was recently published on Queen Mobs Tea House.
How to Write the Working Classes by Peter Raynard
(somewhat after Binyavanga Wainaina)
The collective noun for the working classes is ‘These People’, never ‘The People’ or ‘My People’; use of the latter terms will get you the sack for empathetic tendencies. Terms such as rank and file or blue collar are too political, whilst plebeians and proletariat outdated. Chavs has become common parlance, but only use that term to show how they are described by others. Try to maintain objectivity in this regard, as ridiculously hard as that may be.
It is essential to make the reader believe there is but one type of working class person; they can be of a different age but they must look related, ideally inbred. The main type will be a saggy clothed, got a loyalty card from Sports Direct, Union Jack pale-faced male who claims he can trace his ancestors back to Neanderthal times, which in reality is just before the Second World War when his great granddad ran off with a Polish woman – but don’t talk about that obviously. Always have them accompanied by a muscle shaped dog, preferably tight-leashed, with a 70s punk rock sell-out dog collar, white drooling jaw, and a ravenous appetite for the calf-muscle of an outsider, which is basically anyone born within a mile of their ends.
When trying to find one of them to interview, go to a Saturday market on a rainy day where the salt-of-the-earth traders shout ‘cum an’ ‘av a look, pand a bowl’ or similar sounding unintelligible whooping noises, in order to get you to buy their rotting fruit and veg. When approaching them try to speak in their tongue by swearing and commenting on the weather. Begin with the question, ‘how’s business?’ which actually means much more than in the literal sense. That is your ‘in’. Then go onto questions like, ‘do you think there are too many immigrants living in your back garden?’ or ‘how would you feel if your daughter came home with a Caribbean man who claimed he was a rapper?’ Similarly you could ask how they would feel about their son coming home with a gay bloke, who happens to be ‘a coloured’, and is a lawyer or a doctor. Get the camera man to zoom into their yellow teeth as they speak, then pan down to the blue blur of tattoos that sail across their wrinkled forearms, which they got when drunk at sea.
Once you’ve ‘got them’, ask if you could have a look at where they live. This will not only give you a cheap entry but also a safe one. Tell them that you come from a working class estate yourself and that you often go back to visit your withering ancestors. When describing the environment make sure adjectives like concrete, boarded up, brutal, dank, bleak, pepper your sentences like a well-seasoned steak. Highlight the fact that pie and mash shops are all but extinct, although their cultural appropriation is in train from bearded hipsters.
Get them to heap blame on the metropolitan elites (like yourself), who they feel rule over them like hand-me-down warlords from Henry the VIII; politicians will be the main target, but feel free to engage them in wider diatribes against big business, estate agents, and middle-class teachers who try to get their children to learn foreign languages.
However, never, ever bring the Royal Family into this part of the conversation. Reserve that for when you move them into nostalgia, about how life was much better in the good old medieval days, even though many of them died before the age of five and none of the adults had their own teeth; why do you think they like soup so much? Then move on to Brexit and listen to the range of opinions on this newly found independence, from ‘we can now take our country back’ to ‘we can now send them back’. Pretend to take copious notes at this point to induce a feeling they are finally being listened to.
Ask them about any problems with the estate but direct it towards people; e.g. where five or so years ago you may have inquired about a paedophile problem or the prevalence of ASBO kids, your focus must now be on Muslims, or people with an Arab or South Asian appearance, however vague. Get them to use their senses to describe the stink of the immigrants’ food; then go on to ask them what their favourite meal is when they’ve been out for a gallon of pints with mates – if you’re lucky they’ll say a ruby murray and bingo you’ve got them on the contradiction train. Talk also about the noise from the immigrant’s string-whiny music and the wailing from the wild amount of kids they have. They’ll probably go onto to how these families jumped the queue to get their council house in which they cram so many generations, some have to live behind the wallpaper.
Never refer to any musical or other cultural interests they may have themselves, although it will be very surprising if you found such interests. The only exception will be if they know someone’s second cousin removed who got to the regional semi-finals of Britain’s Got Talent with their rendition of God Save the Queen whistled entirely through their left nostril (the other one will have a ring through it). Of course, they may talk about their pigeons or how they collect Nazi memorabilia, but don’t pursue this because you’ll end up in some rotting smelly shed, being offered a roll up and a mug of quarry brown tea.
Finally, before leaving, slip a score (that’s a twenty btw) into the palm of their hand like a Priest’s Vaticum bread, give ‘em a wink, and say it’s been real. Rush off home to submit copy and then furiously shower yourself as if you’ve just been raped.
Imagine a city built from nothing. A city that didn’t begin its life as a series of villages. A city, once a wasteland that now houses hundreds of thousands of people who work in the purpose-built factories, to make goods for the capitalist world in order to service a communist dream.
Lanzhou Xinqu is said to be China’s newest city, hewn out of the country’s northwest mountains, which by 2020 will have half a million inhabitants. These cities literally start completely empty. Such utilitarianism has given rise to the most aggressive form of industrial development in human history. One that is driven by a technological revolution backed by authoritarian rule. What will happen when a particular city’s utility ends, especially if only one product is being made? Will they simply close the city like a shop?
The lessons from western democracies, similarly driven by capitalist development, is not a good one. Local economies, founded on a single product or industry, are at the mercy of fickle and itinerant globalisation. The poster child of such a change is Detroit, the motor city. Once a thriving metropolis, now whole swathes of it are empty, with the population dropping by 25% in the first ten years of this century.
We saw something similar in the UK at a smaller scale with the mining industry, and now more recently in steel. As the base price of steel falls, the owners such as Tata in the North-east of England decide that’s it – up sticks and leave. Julie Hogg’s poem, Detroit Driftwood is a Philip Levine inspired lament for Middlesbrough, where in nearby Redcar over 2,000 workers will lose their jobs. “A city is being sedated/Jesus Christ where are you now!/Listen, for God’s sake, to the almost incidental/silver-tongued debates.” (more…)