I first took to performing poetry in my late teens, back in the mid-80s. Washing powder adverts, benefit cuts, men-only stands at cricket grounds – all these and more got the poetic treatment from The Big J.
Like several fellow ranters, I simultaneously knocked together a fanzine with the help of some mates. ‘Blaze’ combined left-wing activist politics, chasing our favourite acts around reviewing their gigs and asking them trite questions, and laudable but forlorn attempts to make Peterborough sound interesting.
The fanzine lasted five issues (one of each saved for posterity in a suitcase under my bed) and the ranting poetry a few years longer. Ranting poetry was a great movement to be part of. It made it OK to just get up and vent your spleen, to be funny and fierce at the same time, to attack injustice and voice solidarity with those resisting it. And you got to go to loads of excellent gigs, meet inspiring people and make a few lifelong friends. I’d namecheck them, but they are pretty much all namechecked elsewhere on this blog already. Thank you to all of you.
I guess that for me, the content trumped the form. Having something to say, and saying it, was more crucial than the exact medium in which you said it. So as I got more directly involved in political activism, the poetry fell off the agenda. I was still ranting, but in speeches not poems, through megaphones as often as microphones, at conferences and pickets rather than at gigs.
By the end of the 1980s, I had stopped doing poetry. I honestly don’t remember making a decision to do so, but a great friend of mine recalls me saying that I didn’t think people would take my political views seriously while I got on stage and did silly poems. That is probably a sad reflection on either me or the political left, or both – and possibly on the difficulties that political women face in being taken seriously.
Last year, after a brief respite from rhyming of a mere quarter-century, and partly inspired by this blog, I started the poetry again. I reformed, but remain a revolutionary.
I hadn’t been in suspended animation in the interim. I’d managed to move to several cities more interesting than Peterborough; get two degrees and three kids; get elected to the national executives of two unions (NUS and RMT); be an active Marxist and Workers’ Liberty member; have two political books published; find out I’m autistic; and lose my right eye to a stray firework. And some other stuff too.
I’ve returned into a rather different performance poetry scene. First time round, there were drab poetry readings in libraries and there were ranters on stage in pubs and at gigs, and never would the twain meet (or so we thought). Now there is a vibrant ‘spoken word’ circuit. Rap and hip-hop have obviously had a positive impact on it. And it includes performers of all ages, genders, ethnicities, sexualities, disabled and not – without having to put a sign up boasting about how diverse it is. With all due respect to my fellow 1980s ranters, that just wasn’t true then, was it?
This time round, I have taken the trouble to learn what iambic pentameter is (quite a revelation at the age of 47) and to try out sonnets and villanelles alongside the more gut-level, spleen-venting rants. Oh yes, they are still very much there. Why? Because the injustices we rant against are still there. Alongside poetry nights, I’m turning in performances for political causes including socialist feminism, fighting cuts, and freeing jailed Iranian trade unionists. Thankfully, so are the struggles we rant in support of.
My first book of poetry will be out soon. It’s provisionally titled Mostly Hating Tories – which is what I have been doing all my life.