identity

Pink Pyjama Suit by Deborah Alma

white middle classWhen a person walks out their door, whether going to the shop, to work, or for a night out, I imagine it is only the lucky ones, who are not conscious, or made conscious of, who they are. I imagine the stereotypical, white middle class male, irrespective of their political hue, on this journey imbibing the day without constraint; not physical, psychological, nor spiritual. They may believe they are completely unbiased in respect of how their position, influences their decisions, or perspective when dealing with other people. They may give to charity, volunteer, despise racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, whilst at the same time, feel totally at peace with the world – that for all its faults, see the world moving in the right direction. And on the whole, they are right – headline figures, which the late Hans Rosling so eloquently showed, see many indicators of human development (child mortality, mortality, rates of disease, etc.) on a positive trend. However, this position is also the problem. On whose backs were these improvements in quality of life carried? Often, it was either the existing poor, and when there weren’t enough of them, immigrants, such as the Windrush generation.

The problem of discrimination is usually seen to be individual or institutional; but a collection of the individual across a spectrum of institutions, is the opaque face of ‘steady-as-we-go’. Organisations such as the English Defence League, are quite rightly the poster boys of racism and violence. And evil clowns like Toby Young or Katie Hopkins feed this extremism. But the tut-tutting of the liberal middle is not enough. Well-meaning and instructive journalists like George Monbiot, Larry Elliot, and Johnathan Freedland, who expose the corruption and inequality of the elites, are part of that privileged collective. We don’t see them resigning and making way for a more diverse set of journalists; and we see the same with politicians, academics, and I’m afraid to say those who gate-keep poetry (there are some exceptions, with Michael Mackmin at the Rialto introducing the editing development programme some five years ago).

WWM DEB ALMA (50 of 50)Deborah Alma’s poignant poem ‘Pink Pyjama Suit’ I feel encapsulates this ‘problem’ of difference, in particular when identity is far from monolithic and when you have to walk out that door, conscious of who you are and what people might think of you. I must have been just five,/ in my pink, shiny shalwar kameez.// Mummi-ji, I don’t want to wear it to school./ North London laughs too easily,/ makes fools of us and this mix-up family, this/ half-caste council-estate bastard.’ I have never been one to use identity in selecting poets, it has always been about the poem. But I also know that I won’t get the diversity of voice, without the diversity of the individuals. As you will see from Deborah’s bio, she is part of that diversity of voice, both in background and foreground.

This sentiment of the oblivious liberal elite, was more succinctly and directly made by Lisa Mackenzie, (author of Getting By) at an Oxford Union debate of all places, when saying: “I met Jonathon Dimbleby the other day, he thought it was hilarious that he met a working class academic, couldn’t understand it, he said: ‘how can you be a working class academic, You’ve got a Phd?’ my response was, ‘Working class people can read books’.” QED.

You can hear Deborah read her poem on BBC Radio’s Woman Hour here (from 32 mins)

Deborah Alma is a mixed-race Indian/ English woman, born in London and now living in the Welsh Marches. She is a UK poet with a MA in Creative Writing, Honorary Research fellow at Keele University & taught Writing Poetry at Worcester University. She has worked using poetry with people with dementia, in hospice care & with vulnerable groups. She is also Emergency Poet prescribing poetry from her vintage ambulance. She is editor of Emergency Poet-an anti-stress poetry anthology, The Everyday Poet- Poems to live by (both Michael O’Mara) and #Me Too – rallying against sexual assault & harassment- a women’s poetry anthology (Fair Acre Press).  Her True Tales of the Countryside is published by The Emma Press and a first collection Dirty Laundry (published by Nine Arches Press, May 2018).

Pink Pyjama Suit

I must have been just five,
in my pink, shiny shalwar kameez.

Auntie, Karachi, pinched my cheeks,
Chorti pyara, like a doll
like a little blonde doll.
Walk this way, try some dancing.
Behen! Now you have
your little blonde doll to play with!

Mummi-ji, I don’t want to wear it to school.
North London laughs too easily,
makes fools of us and this mix-up family, this
half-caste council-estate bastard.

Miss Minchin, one arm shorter than the other
knew how North London could laugh, and said:
Knock on all six doors and tell them
Miss Minchin says I must show the children
my clothes from Pakistan.

Mummi-ji, the glass on the doors is too high
and all those eyes
as I turn round and round, up on teachers’ tables
to twist in my pretty pink pyjama suit
like a little blonde doll.

‘Barbie’ & ‘Freedom’ by Elaine Baker

barbieNext year Barbie will be sixty years old. Some might say she hasn’t aged a bit; still has that long blond hair, 19 inch waist, the perfect match for the most eligible bachelor in the world. Others would agree that she hasn’t aged a bit, but argue that is the problem. In 2010, Mattel produced a book with Barbie as a computer programmer – impressive? Well, not when she is still reliant on men, “I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!” Then in 2015, Barbie was said to be a feminist in an advert entitled, ‘Imagine the Possibilities.’ I have to admit, it is a good advert. A number of girls, aged around 8 or 9, take on adult roles with responsibility – football coach, Professor, Museum tour guide; and in those roles their audience is the general public who have no idea this is an advert for Barbie. That, however, is the problem. The lead Barbie at the end, is still the iconic, soon-to-be 60 year old, never looked better, blonde haired version, who is surrounded by those more reflective of today’s society. Although, all of them are still tall and slim. In response to such developments, in Nigeria there is now a ‘Queen of Africa’ doll that outsells Barbie. (more…)

Poems of Working Class Lives by the New and Next Generation Poets

As part of this project I seem to be developing, I will be giving a paper at the Institute of English Studies conference: “New to Next Generation 2014: Three Decades of British and Irish Poetry” on March 13th (come along). I am on a panel entitled Promoting an Inclusive Poetics (I should be careful what I wish for). So as part of developing the paper, I thought I better get to know who the ‘Generation’ poets are.

I have featured four of the Generation Poets on the site so far – from 2014: Hannah Lowe, Kei Miller and Helen Mort; and one from 2004, Patience Agbabi. None from 1994 as yet.

In line with my belief that all poets have written a poem of working class lives, I am going through the poems (at least the ones that are available online at this stage) of each Generation poet to find out if there is any truth to my belief. So this first instalment is a selection from the 1994 ‘New’ Generation – I have looked at eleven of them so far, there are others such as Don Paterson and Kathleen Jamie I know I will find poems from, but there are still a few that I haven’t found one for (e.g. Glyn Maxwell, Lavinia Greenlaw), though I haven’t lost hope.

1994

Moniza Alvi: The Country at My Shoulder is about Moniza’s country of origin, Pakistan, the poverty and gender divide there and how it weighs heavily on her identity.
the women stone-breakers chip away/at boulders, dirt on their bright hems./They await the men and the trucks….I try to shake the dust from the country,/smooth it with my hands.’

Simon Armitage: Clown Punk is very much a poem about identity, of how for some it changes, whereas others may believe it remains the same as exemplified in fading tattoos.
don’t laugh: every pixel of that man’s skin,/is shot through with indelible ink;/as he steps out at the traffic lights/think what he’ll look like in thirty years time.’ (more…)

Dance Class by Hannah Lowe

At fifteen I was a punk. I don’t have the spiky hair anymore (don’t have any in fact) but I still like to think I have a little bit of the ethos. My son is fifteen and into much the same type of alternative music, although his relates more to the various genres of heavy metal.  It is only now, however, I have spotted a contradiction in our choices, for although I reveled in being different, I also wanted to be part of a group who looked and felt the same.

Hannah-Lowe-wpWhat we all have in common, whatever identity we feel we have, is the need to belong to something. It may only be with four other boys playing Warhammer in Games Workshop on a rainy Sunday afternoon, or as in Hannah Lowe’s poem Dance Class, being with ‘the best girls posed like poodles at a show‘. But it is often not that easy to fit in, you may not be good at the game; you may be ‘a scandal in that class, big-footed/giant in lycra‘. (more…)

November Review – From Nana’s Luck to The Last Gang in Town?

It’s been a great second month for Proletarian Poetry (I would give you the stats but that’s a bit too geeky. I am however, warming my hands over them now).

I have got to know some great poets who have kindly agreed to have their poems featured on the site. As I’ve said before, in terms of working class lives, this is about the poems not the poets; I secretly believe that all poets have written a working class poem, they just don’t know it yet – it’s a class consciousness problem 🙂 Also as I write this, I am reminded how many of the poets I have seen read this month; all are great performers in their own right and way – you really can’t beat live poetry. For example, on Saturday I was at The Shuffle where two featured poets on PP, Inua Ellams and Karen McCarthy Woolf read alongside, Tom Chivers, Holly Corfield Carr, Gale Burns, and Harry Mann. The theme was the environment and there were a great range of poems on the subject.

This month’s poems have covered a number of themes to do with: family, gender, identity, racism, urban life, work and industry, food, and music (got to have the music). There are mothers, fathers, grandparents, butchers, assembly line workers, brass bands, activists, priests, loan sharks, and (to use the title of Inua Ellams’ poem) Lovers, Liars, Conjurers and Thieves. (more…)

I Come From by Dean Atta

Dean Atta Pic

Dean Atta

Following on nicely from Kim Moore’s My People, is Dean Atta’s kaleidoscopic ‘I Come From’. Here is a biography of many lives lived; ‘a wonderful mother‘, ‘griots and grandmothers, and her storytellers”, with people with a ‘story or poem that never made it into a book‘.  The poem moves at pace from food and its origins of the UK, Jamaica, and Cyprus (shepherd’s pie and Sunday roast/Jerk chicken and stuffed vine leaves), to travel, home, music, and how they make us the people we are. Dean has put everything into this pot and you truly get a sense of the person he is and the history of ‘his’ people, who have come from different parts of the world.

I will feast on this poem for quite some time (more…)

My People by Kim Moore

Kim Moore PicI always try to read the poems I feature many times before knowing what I want to say about them. But for Kim Moore’s My People it took many more. When I heard Kim read it at The Shuffle in the Poetry Café I knew straight away I wanted to include it on the site but wasn’t sure how I felt about it.

Take the title – My People. The term conjures up so many mixed and opposing images; from those whose ancestors were the victims of slavery through to its use by dictators to legitimise their rule. And I think this extremity of use of the term mirrors the paradox in how Kim describes the people of My People. On the one hand they are the backbone of what politicians call ‘hard working families‘ (nee working class); ‘I come from scaffolders and plasterers and shoemakers and carers‘, low paid people who have to strike for their livelihoods. Yet on the other, they have been in prison, can dip lightly into casual racism, and ‘in the time of slavery my people would have had them if they were the type of people who could afford them, which they probably weren’t.‘ (I love the irony of that). Kim then throws us a curve ball when saying, ‘If I knew who my people were before women got the vote, they would not have cared about the vote‘, which raises issues to do with apathy towards political elites, the role of working class women, as well as whether we are ever part of a people. I think it is a problem the Left has in political terms (and I like to think I am part of their People). The Right don’t care really. (more…)