The 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…)
This coming Sunday, 22nd July five working class poets will be reading at the Torriano Meeting House (the Torriano has a rich history of supporting working class poets for a number of decades). Each of us are, or will be published by Culture Matters, a co-operative, which promotes socialist and progressive art, culture and politics. The authors are Fran Lock, Alan Dunnett, Martin Hayes, Nadia Drews, Alan Morrison and myself. Our books cover many aspects of working class life, including work, politics, and culture.
Below are details for each poet: we hope to see some of you on Sunday.
THE POETS (more…)
Precarious was published by Smokestack on April 1st this year, and I have been on a Precarious Tour around the country, with the novelist and poet Richard Skinner (whose book The Malvern Aviator is also published by Smokestack) . So far we have read in Oxford, Huddersfield, Newcastle, and London – with Bristol and Swindon to come later in the year. I have also read in Derby, St Albans, and London (at the launch of Jane Commane‘s book launch of Assembly Lines), and later at Ledbury Poetry Festival, Cork, and Merthyr Tydfill. (more…)
A Poetic Coupling of the Communist Manifesto by Peter Raynard (with Karl Marx)
Counting in at around 12,000 words, can there be a more influential book with so relatively few words, than the Communist Manifesto? Today (21st February, 2018) is said to be the 170th anniversary of its publication. Written in a six-week rush, after the Communist League imposed a deadline on Marx, its take up has been phenomenal and its relevance remains today, if not more so.
Much is planned to mark the occasion, especially as it is also the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth on May 5th. I have read the Manifesto a number of times over the years. However, as a poet, I hadn’t given it much thought in my writing until I was introduced to a poetic form ‘coupling’, devised by the poet Karen McCarthy Woolf. Coupling is a line by line poetic response (that includes rhyme, repetition, and assonance) to an existing text; it can be applied to any text but I think works very well with political writing, either as a way of making it relevant to today’s readers, or as a (satirical) polemic against it. In writing a poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto I took the former approach but with a critical eye. The book will be published in May in time for the 200th anniversary. Below is my coupling of the infamous ‘preface’ of the book, as well as Marx’s ten ‘commandments’ of communism.
“In accordance with my state of mind at the time lyrical poetry was bound to be my first subject, at least the most pleasant and immediate one….Poetry however, could be and had to be only an accompaniment; I had to study law and above all felt the urge to wrestle with philosophy.” [Marx’s letter to his Father, November 1837]
A spectre is haunting Europe
— the spectre of communism
that loose blanket in need of tucking in
All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre
this unholy spectre come to remove the opium and Xanax flow from the ennui of its existents
Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.
Pope and President, Merkel Macron, autoimmune free radicals of capitalism, each playing I spy with my belittling eye
Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power?
Karl saw a gap in the market before the market had been fully formed
Where is the opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of communism
no-one likes us, no-one likes us, no-one likes us, we don’t care, we are commies, new-born commies, we are commies from over there
against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries?
we are coming with sickles and fists, hammers and molotovs, balaclavas and masks, & pen and paper (just in case)
Two things result from this fact:
I. Communism is already acknowledged by all European powers to be itself a power
albeit a power with a crackly track record of misuse, one dictatored by substance abuse
II. It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world
come out and tell it how it is FFS, it has been 170 years but it’s never too late!
publish their views, their aims, their tendencies,
they tend to hang to the left, last I heard, but added ingredients can make it absurd
and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself
ring a ring a roses you pocketful of posers, atishoo, atishoo, we will knock off your crown
To this end, Communists of various nationalities have assembled in London
to mark the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, to honour his will, to update his worth
and sketched the following manifesto
give him a deadline and he’ll give you a tract, the theory, the practice, revolutionary acts
to be published in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish languages
& Bakunin translated it into Russian, and we all know how that turned out
Marx’s Ten Commandments of Communism
…………..in most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable
behold, the secular ten commandments, scribed in the original Manifest der kommunistischen Partei
- Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purpose
I suggest we begin with cutting the hedge funds, the casino capitalism, the prospecting close your eyes and pick a card path to prosperity
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax
in the heated climate of today’s reprobates, they’ll not be much need for public debate
3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance
can I keep my granddad’s watch, it’s broken, it’s worthless, it means a lot?
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels
there’ll be no more capital flight, those runways closed at midnight
5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly
credit where credit is due, an economy not founded on a global debt of $233 trillion, phew!
6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State
yes traveller I’m just putting you through, can you believe it, no trains overdue
7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State
of factories, mere metal filings remain, big data now is the name of the game
the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan
I sat upon the shore/ Fishing, with the arid plain behind me/ Shall I at least set my lands in order (TSE)
8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture
you might need a little marketing advice, industrial armies doesn’t sound nice
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country
the green with the grey, cosmopolitan hue, no borders, no hoarders, no get in the queue
10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.
with child labour/girls denied education/born into sex work we mustn’t forget this is not done-and-dusted, those wheels have not come off yet, though they may be a little rusted
Marx’s Final Words
The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains
With links made of debt, disease, war, racism, sexism, capitalism, and more
They have a world to win
and win it they will, for as Prometheus was Bound to say, ‘defy power which seems omnipotent’
Working Men of All Countries, Unite
and women as well, and all those between
Peter Raynard is the editor of Proletarian Poetry: poems of working class lives (www.proletarianpoetry.com), which has featured over 130 poems. He has been widely published and his debut collection Precarious will be published by Smokestack Books in April 2018. His poetic coupling of the Communist Manifesto will be published by Culture Matters in May, 2018. He is also a member of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, a poetry collective set up by the poet Malika Booker.
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.
Is there enough anger in mainstream poetry today; in the journals/magazines and collections? In the US from Audre Lorde to Claudine Rankine, Terrance Hayes to Danez Smith, there is great anger in poems about the discriminations upon which that country is founded and governed. They make it into the pages of POETRY, and sell many books. Here in the UK, I’m not so sure. We may not have the scale of discrimination as felt by the US, but black men are still killed by police here, women are discriminated, abused, and killed by men, and let us not get started on the implications of Brexit and the hatred it has stoked.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive survey of anger in UK poetry, but off the top of my shiny head, there were the Liverpool poets, the original ranters of the 1980s who came out of punk; some still going strong like Tim Wells who chronicles those times in his site Stand Up and Spit. There are others in performance poetry and spoken word (as it is known); Anthony Anaxagorou’s Outspoken Press in London, which includes a number of BAME poets, such as Sabrina Mahfouz and Raymond Antrobus. There are other BAME poets, such as Kei Miller, Malika Booker, Roger Robinson, Nick Makoha (the latter published by the wonderful Peepal Press) who have great subtlety to the anger in their poems. Tony Walsh and Salena Godden from Burning Eye Books (to name only two from that stable) who have been treading the boards with their distinct brand of anger that is often done with humour. Smokestack Books, has consistently published radical, global voices, such as Amir Darwish and Steve Ely, for many years now.
Penned in the Margins publishes the aforementioned Tim Wells, and one of my favourite poets, Melissa Lee Houghton (who recently published Cumshot in D Minor, by Offord Road Press), whose poems of sexual abuse and misogyny burn. Of course, there are other publishers whose catalogue will include poets or poems of anger, e.g. Bloodaxe and Nine Arches Press, two of my favourite publishers, as well as some of Kim Moore’s past and present poems published by Seren. Then there are the online publications, with an overt social and political stance, which include Reuben Woolley’s ‘i am not a silent poet’ and Jody Porter’s ‘Well Versed’. (apologies for any glaring omissions I’m sure I’ve made, please feel free to add to the list in the comments below). However, I do feel these are on the margins.
Fran Lock, who has appeared on this site a number of times, is, along with Melissa Lee Houghton, one of those electrifying poets both on the page and the stage. Since Flatrock in 2011, to the wonderful The Mystic and the Pig Thief (Salt – which no longer publishes poetry), through to Dogtooth (Outspoken Press), and our feature collection Muses and Bruises (published by Manifesto Press) Fran has consistently shouted down those who discriminate against the working class, women in particular. As she says in her introduction to the collection: “I was told once that my writing was inauthentic because working-class women don’t think or speak that way. Bollocks. I am a working- class woman, and I do write and think and speak this way. There is no one homogeneous working-class voice, any more than there is a single monolithic working-class culture. No one has any right to set limits on the way we sound or the words we use.” The collection is complemented beautifully with collages by Steev Burgess, which “bring this to the fore,[with] a mixture of decadence and squalor; grind and grime with a lick of glitter.”
The collection is in two parts; the first is a set of poems based on the muses of the arts from Greek mythology. Here is Clio, muse of history: “My mother was a Goddess, she could charm/ bees and her cheekbones were stunning./ Her silence gathered dust like an heirloom. //I am an unquiet child./ I see things and I must tell: //That man, grinning out from under/ the redacted oblong of his eyes, crawled/ from the comic opera of the past, dragging his period costume;” Similarly in the poem, Erato (muse of love poetry), there is the question of female identity from a patriarchal expectation: “And to top it all off, I’m expected to ride on a float, my face scraped on in a strong wind, all tits and teeth, rigid as any a hood ornament: winged Victory, pigtailed and pinioned. Bow to the crowd like Jackie O, glamming it up at an airport.” Fran is imagining Erato as a Connemara beauty queen who is not allowed to be seen as having any other ‘attribute’ than her physical beauty, and thus like the Greek muse, is imprisoned by it.
The second part of the collection is a wonderful grotesque imagining of a place called Rag Town and the girls who inhabit it, in particular the ubiquitous La La. In her notes on this section Fran says: “We have the right, and we deserve the space in which to be angry. I started writing the Rag Town sequence with this one thought looping endlessly in my head.” This was driven by Fran’s disillusion with what International Women’s Day has become; originally called International Working Women’s Day, the dropping of the ‘Working’ de-classed the day, so that in Fran’s words it has become divisive to raise issues of class as they relate to women’s oppression. “It’s divisive, for example, to say that white, settled, middle-class women “escape” from unlovable and undervalued domestic labour at the expense of working-class women, immigrant women, women in poverty.”
Towards the end of the collection, in the poem ‘Rag Town Girls see God’, there is almost an inverted elegy in its telling of the end of man as represented by the deity. “There he is, eyes half closed, doing the math of a difficult miracle, wrist-wearied, leaning into his swig, his pull of smoke. We assume he is God. He reminds us of a man we once knew: slender and insulted by life, mixing his blessings like strong drink, suicidally agile, tying a nimble noose the minute your back was turned.” The final poem in the collection has undoubtedly the longest and angriest title, aimed at the mainstream poetry world that ignores the ‘likes of us’: “Rag Town Girls Don’t Want to be in your Shitty Fucking Magazine/Anthology/Stable of Wanky, Middle-class Poets Anyhow.” These following lines from the poem end what is a brilliant collection masterfully complemented by the collages of Steev Burgess.
“How to fake it? How to keep it in, that jittery, impassable grief? Don’t scratch yourselves, girls. Bathe. Point your toes. Glowing in a backward light cast by everything you flee from. You like proper edges, incline a tin ear to the shrug and flutter of our debateable music. If we could only sing like you, a proficient, accredited language. But we can’t, so we won’t. La-la lit a fire instead. It ate a hole in everything.”
Fran Lock is a sometime itinerant dog whisperer and author of three poetry collections, ‘Flatrock’ (Little Episodes, 2011), ‘The Mystic and the Pig Thief’ (Salt, 2014), and ‘Dogtooth’ (Out Spoken Press, 2017). Her work has appeared in various places, most recently Communist Review, The Morning Star, POETRY, Poetry Review, and in Best British Poetry 2015. She is the winner of various competitions including the 2014 Ambit Poetry Competition, the 2015 Out Spoken Poetry Prize, and the 2016 Yeats Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the 2017 Bread and Roses Poetry Award.
Steev Burgess has juggled his career with an interest in music and art, releasing records and holding his debut art exhibition of collage art in “Red Bologna” with the help of the Circolo Ricreativo Aurora ARCI. Taking a break from music, he concentrated his efforts on making better art and extending his writing skills by “writing proper poetry” and founding the Y Tuesday poetry club at the Three Kings in Clerkenwell. His work caught the attention of the Libertine’s John Hassall. Steev and John now have a song writing partnership with his new band John Hassall and the April Rainers, whose debut album “Wheels to Idyll” has recently been released.
(images by Steev Burgess)
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