culture matters

Guest Post: ‘Almarks: An Anthology of Radical Poetry from Shetland’, edited by Jim Mainland and Mark Ryan Smith with poem ‘The desert is only as deadly as the circles we walk’ by Gina Paola Ritch

This is the second in a series of guest features by editors of recently published anthologies from Culture Matters. Here, Jim Mainland discusses the book ‘Almarks‘, Shetland life, and the richness of its poetry. It’s a really interesting read, and the book is great. You can buy a copy of the anthology Almarks, here:

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JM“When Mike Quille of Culture Matters suggested putting together an anthology of radical Shetland poetry I discussed the notion with a friend of mine whose political acumen I usually respect.  He gave me chapter-and-verse why such an undertaking would fail.  Shetland wasn’t a radical place and didn’t have any of the ingredients required to fuel such an anthology – there were no particularly active feminist groupings, BAME groups, or LGBT+ organisations.  The local Trades Council has been moribund for decades and political parties have no real impact locally and rarely spearhead campaigning, certainly not in national terms.  And even where there was a presence, there was certainly no evidence of a literary wing to them. However, this starkly negative prognosis only made us all the more determined to accede to Mike Quille’s request.

almarksWe did this because whatever the overall radical potential of Shetland writing, we believe that poetry from Shetland is in a strong place at the moment.  The poet and novelist Kevin MacNeil said as much a few years back when he was Shetland’s Writer-in-Residence.  He said that what was missing wasn’t the talent but the self-confidence, the self-belief.  It was also our feeling that an anthology of Shetland verse with a progressive remit would be a worthwhile event in any case. Moreover, it can be argued that Shetland does have a solid radical poetic tradition to build on, in the work of J.J. Haldane Burgess, Hugh MacDiarmid, Billy Tait, and Laurence (Lollie) Graham particularly.

And although Shetland is known throughout the world for its ponies, its Fair Isle knitwear, its nature and natural, rugged beauty, Shetland also has its food banks, its own social problems, and has always been economically precarious, and vulnerable to economic exploitation.  And there has always been a strong sense of community here, an ingrained duty to look out for one another, and rally round in time of need.

In the event, the call-out met with a good response. We have to thank the facilitators of the various writers’ groups in Shetland for encouraging poets to submit, and for individuals who sent in contributions.

Unsurprisingly, some poets were unsure if what they sent in could be described as ‘radical’.  Others, like Gina Paola Ritch, were very clear:  “Is [the radical aspect] the subject matter or the style in relation to ‘cosy reading of traditional themes’? And does poetry highlighting social injustice constitute radical or are you looking for something that questions and challenges the system and authority in general?” Yes, yes and yes! Poets who wrote mainly in Shetland dialect were among the first to respond, keen to dispel any notion that dialect poetry didn’t deal with radical themes and perhaps hinting that even to write in dialect these days could itself possibly be interpreted as a radical act.  Ultimately, therefore, the contributors’ response has shaped the definition of radical and has given the collection its guiding principle. We decided to call it ‘Almarks’ – an ‘almark’ is the Shetland name for those particularly thrawn and awkward sheep who will jump walls and break through fences into common ground.

Many of the poems here are, broadly speaking, issue-based – they strike an attitude.  Others are more observational and personal or reflective.  Some are clearly political, others radical in terms of subject-matter or style.  Appropriately, some are in English, and some in Shetland  dialect, or Shetlandic, as it has recently come to be known.

Christine De Luca has for long shown that the small, diminishing, rich and enriching word-hoard of Shetlandic can still be an effective vehicle for acerbic contemporary comment and the telling contrast.  For Laureen Johnson, it is the natural voice of ordinary folk, free from ‘bullshit’ and pretence, whether commenting on the waste of war or the loss of a livelihood, a fishing birthright, brought about by the insensitive bureaucratic meddling of the faceless and the conscience-free.  Sheenagh Pugh, whose poems are always models of clarity, is a poet who has always championed the underdog, and not always the ones you would expect, in her work. Her novel set in Shetland, ‘Kirstie’s Witnesses’, deals harrowingly with a notorious case of injustice from 19th century Lerwick dealing with homelessness and misogyny and has clear contemporary resonances still. Raman Mundair, whom I first heard give an electrifying performance of her poem about the murder of Stephan Lawrence to an audience in Lerwick, has always written strongly from an activist perspective.

As I write this, radical measures are being enforced as the world hunkers down before the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, in what many would argue is a foretaste of what is to come, albeit from a different threat.  Whatever kind of society emerges from this, one thing is certain – the need for radical, committed poetry will be all the greater.

Poetic doomsayers are fond of quoting what W.H. Auden famously said in In Memory of W.B. Yeats: “poetry makes nothing happen”.  However, if you follow his argument to its conclusion, it is far from negative: “…it survives, /A way of happening, a mouth.”

“A way of happening, a mouth.” That is what we have in this anthology: a variety of ‘almark’ mouths, young and old, in Shetland and English, never mouthpieces, never mouth-y, and never, as we say, ‘blate’ ( Shetland/Scots: timid, reserved).  It’s a good start.

GinaGina Paola Ritch is a consistently political poet, who, while working as a fisherman, wrote gripping, realistic, unsentimental accounts of the perils and travails and dignity of that particular trade. Then as now, authenticity has always been important as a way of validating her voice.

Her poem, ‘The desert is only as deadly as the circles we walk’ relentlessly catalogues the harsh economic realities faced by so many, an account which is all the more effective because it is based on the poet’s own experience.  But it also includes those who are at the sharp end of capitalist exploitation, and suggests they are no better, despite their apparent ‘success’ and drive for ‘growth’. They, too, perhaps even more so, are unfulfilled and empty.  But poetry’s fragile art, the poem suggests, can transcend the economic treadmill, the marketing deadmill; its integrity is a fragile, tenuous hope, a light in the darkness.

‘The desert is only as deadly as the circles we walk’

Scraping by on the minimum wage
and the tips that a waitress scrapes from the tables
pissing my life away
in the grind to survive
like a thousand faces I see everyday
of the damned and the dead and the drowned
floundering in the rut
or clinging to a ladder
with no way up
and no way down;
the marketing men, the junior clerks
the lawyers, accountants
financial advisors, property managers
sales assistants,
ruthless nobodies who are somebodies in oil
and the loveless family with nothing more to say
as they impatiently wait
in a world where everything is too late,
and I am no different
pissing my life away
in the monotony
trapped in the banality, the stress, the fear, the race,
the slave to the mortgage
and the monthly pay
where my only escape
is the half-finished poem in my pocket
that carries me through the madness
of being just one more wasted creature
dancing between the tables
of a wasted world
watching the wasted and featureless faces
that contemplate profit margins, cash projections,
structure, streamlining and cuts,
sales, commissions and deadlines,
costs and expenses to slash,
portfolios that perform
deadwood that doesn’t
equities and pension funds,
a budget break to Benidorm
or any God-forsaken shit-hole in the sun.

My half-finished poem
my passion, my heart,
my destruction, my salvation,
my part that stops it all from becoming bearable.
And when asked,
‘Why not quit and try to making a living from your art?’
I simply say,

‘Poetry doesn’t pay the bills.’
And God how I pray,
sweet merciful Jesus how I pray
that it never will!

You can buy a copy of Almarks here

‘A Class Act’ by Chip Hamer (of Poetry on the Picket Line)

I am more than happy to be featuring Chip Hamer today. Chip has been a stalwart of the political poetry scene for more than a decade now. A proper selfless person he has led Poetry on the Picket Line raising thousands of pounds for striking workers. ‘A Class Act’ is Chip’s debut collection published by Flipped Eye, the incubator for many of our most highly regarded poets such as Warsan Shire and Malika Booker. Oh, and you’ve got to love the BJ pic from Chip’s day job back in 2012 (if you like, you can put a caption to it in the comments section below). So why not buy Chip’s book. You can get a copy here:

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Cyaant cummin“It’s good to have the book published. Though the timing has been strange. Just a bit off from the start. First spoke to Paul, from Lunar Poetry magazine, about the collection, in 2012. In 2013, I asked Niall O’Sullivan to do the editing and got stuck into pulling the poems together. Did a good job there, I think (though we left out one particularly dystopian poem ‘Planet of the Apes’, that doesn’t seem quite so unlikely in current circumstances. It might get an airing again, one day. We’ll see). Some quite political poems in there, some quite personal ones.

Then a few things happened, and few things didn’t happen. I had a living to earn, the Poetry on the Picket Line thing kicked off (worked hard on the anthology, published by Culture Matters) and this book wasn’t a priority. Nevertheless, we finished the editing, chose the title poem ‘A Class Act’, and gave Paul a nudge.

class act coverHe did a few edits and then… it all went a bit quiet. Niall suggested Flipped Eye and I was keen (a pretty good fit, I reckon) but didn’t want to let anybody down. Anyway, it drifted a bit. Waited too long, to be fair. In the end, to cut a long story short, a big thank you to all at Flipped Eye for getting it out and doing such a good job with it. Published on May Day too! By then, though, we were all on lockdown. So, no big do at a pub. No little do, either. There will be one, though, trust me.

I’m very pleased with the way it has turned out. None of the poems in there are from later than 2013, and I’m proud of the way they stand up. Looking forward to gigging them again, too. Particularly to doing them with some of the newer material. I really hope this book shifts a few copies, as I’m keen to get the next one out in much shorter order (the poems are written, and the early edit work is underway). How to sell it, though? Proper gigs are out of the question for the time being. The only way right now is with a soft launch and a bit of an online push. Any positive reviews most welcome!

Considering doing some short films of the poems, reading them and talking a little about them. Maybe answering some questions I’ve had about particular poems. Then putting those clips online and seeing what sort of response they get. I’ve always said that my poems need to work both on the page and on the stage, so I can’t complain, but I do miss the live work. That little bit of crackle and nervous energy. Never quite know how it’s going to turn out, now do we?

I’m going to leave you with the last verse of ‘Hippy Chicks’. Just to capture that tension between hope and experience. It’s still happening, even now. Especially now.”

‘The fierce young patriots go out and put the fear of someone’s god
Into some women who have chosen an identity behind the veil.
The politicians argue about matrimony, man to man,
The trickle down they spoke of now revealed as faecal gravity.
It’s a hard rain, watch it fall.
They keep calm and carry on regardless,
We carry the can,
Suppress the rising tide of panic in our hearts
And hope the hippy chicks are proved right, after all’.

An active trade unionist and founder member of Poetry on the Picket Line, Chip Hamer is not the man you hoped to meet. He never forgets his mates, nor who his friends are. His first collection ‘A Class Act‘ was published by Flipped eye in May 2020. You can get a copy here.

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Boris 2012

BJ: Hello, who are you? Chip: Your worst f**king nightmare!

Guest Post: ‘Onward/Ymlaen’ anthology of contemporary Welsh Poetry edited by Mike Jenkins, with poem ‘No memorial f lisa’

Culture Matters is publishing a series of important anthologies of working class poetry. ‘Witches, Warriors, Workers‘ edited by Fran Lock and Jane Burn. ‘The Children of the Nation‘ of contemporary Irish poetry. Most recently, ‘Almarks‘ radical poetry of Shetland. And the subject of today’s guest post ‘Onward/Ymlaen‘ anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales, edited by Mike Jenkins. Here’s Mike talking about the anthology (and lots of other fascinating insights) with a poem ‘No Memorial F Lisa ‘from upcoming collection ‘Anonymous Bosch’ which will be published by Culture Matters early next year. You can buy the anthology here:

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The Spirit of 1831 –  ‘Onward/Ymlaen!’

DSC_3052 (1)“The anthology ‘Onward/ Ymlaen!’ published by Culture Matters comprises left-wing poems from Cymru rather than ‘Wales’. Why do I stress this? As the Welsh language poet Menna Elfyn rightly points out in notes to her poem ‘Neb-ach’, the very words ‘Wales’ and ‘Welsh’ are both associated with being ‘foreign’ : we call ourselves what others have chosen to call us, namely the English.

I choose Cymru because it means ‘fellow-countrymen’ and is intrinsically about belonging and co-operation.

Poetry has always been fundamental and not peripheral to our society. Every year at the National Eisteddfod we crown a bard for his/her free verse and chair another for their work in cynghanedd ( an ancient verse-form).

During the ceremony the Archdruid (who is, at present, Myrddin ap Dafydd: represented in this anthology) calls for ‘Heddwch!’ and the entire audience responds by calling out that Welsh word for peace.

Bards have traditionally come from many different backgrounds and one of the most renowned was ‘Hedd Wyn’ (bardic name of Ellis Humphrey Evans) who was a shepherd who fought and died in the 1st World War. An avowed pacifist, he was chaired posthumously at the Eisteddfod in 1917 , when they draped a black cloak over the Chair in his absence.

In Cymru, poets have also invariably had close associations with their ‘milltir sgwâr’, areas of belonging and identity, and you see this in the work of many  here, such as Ness Owen from Ynys Môn (Anglesey) and Gemma June Howell with her Caerffili dialect poems.

Ness writes in both Welsh and English, with the language and her feminism at the fore in her work –

    ‘Tonge-tied
excusing our way through
we breath in Mamiaith’

While Gemma hails originally from a working-class estate in Caerffili called Graig yr Rhacca, writing in the voices of its inhabitants, for all their faults so full of humour and energy –

    ‘A’rite? Nairmz Rhiannon
an I leve on thuh Rock.
I luv drinken ciduh
and I luv sucken cock.

welsh coverAs co-editor of ‘Red Poets’ magazine for 26 years (we annually publish left-wing poetry from Cymru and beyond) I am acutely aware of the importance of socialist and republican politics to our poets.

The majority in this collection will have appeared in that magazine over the years and, in particular, I think of Herbert Williams, Alun Rees, Tim Richards and Jazz who were there, at the very beginning.

The power of satire is vital to most of these, and Rees’s ‘Taffy is a Welshman’ deservedly won the Harri Webb Prize. It takes a well-known nursery rhyme and develops it into a scathing look at the history of the Welsh working-class, fighting imperialist wars –

    ‘He’s fought the wide world over,
he’s given blood and bone.
He’s fought for every bloody cause
except his bloody own.’

For many, their poetic heroes have been the likes of Idris Davies and Harri Webb, uncompromising poets never afraid to take on the burning issues of their times : Davies dealing with strikes and the Depression and Webb with the rise of Welsh nationalism and sense of Cymru as an oppressed colony.

In the 60s when Alun Rees, Herbert Williams and Sally Roberts Jones came to the fore, the worlds of Welsh and English language poetry were largely separate. Nowadays, poets like Sn Tomos Owen and Rufus Mufasa move between both their languages, often within individual poems.

Rufus is also a quite amazing performer, somewhat like Kate Tempest but with more singing and an emphasis on dub rather than rap. Her work on the page is quite distinct from her performance poetry, though both move easily from Welsh to English –

   ‘ Y bwrdd cadarn, caer / our fortress made of blankets’

From the multi-cultural society of Cardiff to former industrial heartlands of slate, iron and coal, there are a strong feelings of injustice and anger shared by many working-class communities throughout the British Isles.

One younger poet, Hanan Issa (who I met and read alongside at the Homeless World Cup in Cardiff) draws on her Muslim background, here reflecting on an incident in Marrakech –

    ‘ Immersed in the maelstrom
of a Marrakech market
.’

Yet, it has to be said that the emerging and enthusiastic independence movement,  which many of these poets are part of and which is led by non-partisan groups like Yes Cymru, has created a sense of hope more akin to Scotland in recent years and I wanted to reflect this in the title ‘Onward/ Ymlaen!’ I took it from Patrick Jones’s poem ‘The Guerilla Tapestry’ to encapsulate this spirit .

    ‘Following the dream of emancipation
     Your power we shall decline
     Ymlaen  Ymlaen

merthyr risingJones’s own journey from Labour supporter to embracing the emerging Indy movement is one which truly reflects our politically fluid times.

And the same word is echoed in Phil Howells’s poem about the Merthyr Rising which took place in my home town in 1831 when the ironworkers rose up against their masters to take over the whole town and, it’s claimed, raise the red flag for the first time.

Picture 1

image: dave lewis

In Welsh the slogan we’ve used for decades has been ‘Fe godwn ni eto!’ (we will rise again). Despite the Tory victory in the Westminster election, there is still plenty of room for optimism and these poems are sure indicators that the spirit of 1831 and the Chartists lives on.

Mike Jenkins is an award-winning Welsh poet and author. He is widely published and is much in demand for his lively performances and writing workshops. He has performed at the Hay Festival and the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and has read and tutored at Ty Newydd, the National Writers’ Centre for Wales. Mike frequently appears on radio and television and is known among Cardiff City football fans as the club’s ‘unofficial poet’. (http://www.facebook.com/mjenkins1927; http://twitter.com/mjenkins1927)

NO MEMORIAL F LISA by Mike Jenkins


She ewsed t live above me
I could yer the comins an goins,
theyer larfter an  screamin.

Never knew she wern copin,
though she did joke once –
‘I’m even in debt to-a fuckin Food Bank!’

Mostly she wuz smiling
but sometimes I could see
the worries gnawin away –

rats in-a drains an sewers
bringin disease to er kids.
She woz a cleaner on fuckall pay.

Blokes ud come an leave,
er kids come first ev’ry time.
Few returned, sniffin, but not f long.

Er sister found er.
I know oo is t blame.
This town’s seen too many martyrs.

As we remember Tydfil
an, o course, Dic Penderyn ,
there’ll be no memorial f Lisa.

(Poem from ‘Anonymous Bosch’ which will be published by Culture Matters early next year, with photos by Dave Lewis of Pontypridd).

Photo –  Dave Lewis

On Alan Morrison’s Shabbigentile (with poem, ¡Viva Barista!)

shabbigentileIn novels and films, plays even, there are state-of-the-nation portrayals aplenty; from Dickens to Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem the rich and the poor are double acts of a political stage that is the United Kingdom. In poetry? Not so much. The Waste Land comes to mind of course, and the writing of such poets as Fran Lock, and performances by Luke Wright, tell of the political scene in different forms (historic & contemporary). So, in reading Alan Morrison’s brilliantly titled ‘Shabbigentile’ you will be bowled over by the constant stream of anger-flecked images, which properly reflect the ill-state-of-the-nation we find ourselves in today. (more…)

Bread and Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award

HAPPY NEW YEAR FOLKS!

Bread and Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award

Culture Matters has launched the second Bread and Roses Songwriting and Spoken Word Award. It is sponsored by the Communication Workers’ Union, and the Musicians’ Union. There are five prizes of £100 each.

The purpose of the Award is to encourage grassroots music-making on themes relevant to working-class life, communities and culture.
Send your entries in the form of audio or live/pre-recorded video files (MP3/4 format or video) via email to entriesculturematters@gmail.com.
The deadline is March 2nd 2019 – so get writing and singing, and send them the results!

(more…)

Working Class Poetry Heroes of 2018 – Poets on the Picket Line

john mcdonnellIt’s been really hot at times this year – pushing into the 30s at times back in the summer. It’s been really cold at times this year – pushing into the minuses at times in the mornings. And yet, they are there, rain or shine, supporting the workers who are having to strike in order to either get proper working conditions or a living wage that they more than deserve. The heroes of Poetry on the Picket Line (PotPL) are the likes of Chip Hamer (Grim Chip), Nadia Drews, Mark Coverdale, and Tim Wells. And their support doesn’t stretch to reading poems, they have raised vital funds for the striking workers. Proper activist poetry, making a real difference to peoples’ lives when they most need it. So after little discussion with myself of the leading contenders, Poets on the Picket Line are Proletarian Poetry’s Working Class Heroes of 2018 (and 2017 & 2016 as well). (more…)

‘Persona Non Grata’ anthology edited by Isabelle Kenyon, with poem ‘The Refugees’ by Jennie E. Owen

HandsThe other week, I was helping out Culture Matters at the Poetry Book Fair, hosting a reading with the wonderful Fran Lock and Nadia Drews, both of whom have upcoming collections with the press. Mike Quille and I shared the space with Andy Croft of Smokestack Books, and Isabelle Kenyon of the relatively new press, ‘Fly on the Wall Poetry’. Isabelle has been a tour-de-force on the poetry scene recently, first of all editing the mental health anthology, ‘Please Hear What I am Not Saying’, in support of the charity MIND. It was awarded ‘Runner Up for Best Anthology’ at the prestigious Saboteur Awards this May and to date, it has raised £500. (more…)