This poem was in Iris, number 7, November 1983. This was an Irish Republican magazine published by Sinn Fein. The poem is about the Black Peoples’ Day of Action after the New Cross fire. LKJ’s poems It Dread Inna England and Forces of Victory were published as well.
This nautical pub was just off the Haymarket. As well as Apples and Snakes gigs, Billy Bragg also ran a night before he made it big. I was his keyboard stand on a few occasions.
There were some great line ups at Apples and Snakes in the early days, this flier from 1985 has Seething Wells, Levi Tafari, Little Brother, Porky the Poet, Nick Toczek, Surfin Dave, the Mad Kiwi Ranter and more.
The Winter 1989/90 issue of Poetry Review, the Poetry Society’s august organ, Vol. 79 No. 4, looked back over the 1980s with a number of poets looking back over the decade. This was when the Poetry Society was based in Earl’s Court and had little but sneers for spoken word. Most of the poets penning their opinions on the decade don’t get further than academia and the establishment but James Berry brings some welcome observations.
The ’80s expanded our vision a little. Fear, prejudice and injustice under attack, a little fresh consciousness seemed to emerge in the vision of our society’s institutions. They seem to have come round to looking at some cruelly excluded people’s situation. This means that protests, ongoing battles, struggles and clamours of past decades finally broke down some traditional race, sex, academic and general elite-barriers in the ’80s. Black people and women express increased participation in public life as in the arts, poetry writing reflects this.
For black writers who draw on a Caribbean culture, their participation on the British scene has meant that the narrow trail they ignited in the ’70s exploded widely in the ’80s. With their cultural distinctiveness, the Caribbean-background poets broke through and launched a poetry performance revolution. Best known as the main contributor to that enlivening of things is Linton Kwesi Johnson. In his role of both performer and recording artist Johnson’s voice rang from the ’70s to the 80’s. In his impact and influence, and with the poetry scene appearing to obviously need a fresh distinctive Black-British poet’s voice, Benjamin Zephaniah emerged.
Personally, as one of those writers whose poem was picked anonymously from thousands of entries – being the 1981 winner of the National Poetry Competition – when I was told I burst out with shocked laughter with the thrill and surprise of it. Then, later on, another pleasurable poetry involvement happened: being editor of News for Babylon working with Andrew Motion, then the Chatto Poetry Editor. To see that book arrive in print in 1984, all ready, with the work of 40 poets whose voices and experiences shared a book that had never come together before under the heading of Black-British poetry, I could hardly believe it. And still, the book makes me feel that getting it into print was a unique opportunity for me. But, also, Paula Burnett’s scholarly treatment of Penguin Caribbean Verses in 1986 amassed the overall wealth of Caribbean poetry from ‘oral’ to the ‘literary traditions’. It was good to see that self-imposed undertaking that got people’s voices together so wall as they trekked through a painful history. And now, also as editor, adding to his own prolific output, E.A. Markham works to let 1989 deliver Hinterland, the Bloodaxe Books Caribbean Verse. Significantly too, the year 1988 gave us Right of Way, some prose and poetry from the Asian Women Writers’ Workshop. Can we now look forward to a comprehensive anthology of Asian poets in Britain in the coming decade?
Released from a Russian labour camp in 1986, Irina Ratushinskaya cam to Britain and brought the opportunity to hear her readings and feel the unusual spirit that appears from he work.
While poetry on TV has stayed with the comic stuff and the non-appearance of serious or simply straight contemporary writing – not given space like, say, music is – those exceptions of Derek Walcott on the South bank Show, filmed in the Caribbean, and Tony Harrison’s BBC programme ‘The Blasphemer’s Banquet’ for salmon Rushdie exposed samples of the word art that the public was denied ordinarily, and also showed the success a wholehearted commitment to poetry can achieve. And, with radio, giving the format and space it has come to allow ‘Time for Verse’. Radio 4 has made popular radio look as if it wants to stop being condescending with the poetry it offers its listeners.
Of all the poetry books of the decade I have looked at, bought and read, none has won my admiration as much as Voices Within the Ark. Edited by Howard Schwartz and Anthony Rudolf and published by Avon Books, New York, 1980, this amazing international anthology received that kind of unflinching commitment which brought 350 modern Jewish poets together from over 40 nations and coped with translations from more than 20 languages.
“You don’t have to be a poet, but a citizen you must be.”
This line is from ‘The Poet and the Citizen’ by Nikolai Nekrasov, written in 1856. The poem is a response to Pushkin’s ‘The Poet and the Crowd’ and written two decades after Pushkin’s death in 1837.
There is still much discussion about political poetry, can poetry be political?, can poetry change anything?
Ranting poetry was frequently political, and this continues on with Poetry on the Picket Line. I also think that who the audience for poetry is can often be political. Several poets who’ve done Poetry on the Picket Line gigs have asked should the poems they read be political? My response is that standing on a picket line to read poems is political in itself. The poems can be funny, romantic, whimsical… but it’s where you are reading them and to whom that is the political act.
There is plenty of working class poetry on this blog; from Chartists, to Black Panthers, prisoners, Ranters and Dub Poets. It’s interesting that Ranters and Dub Poets have been labelled separately in recent years whilst in the 80s it wasn’t a given distinction. We were all poets who read together, struggled together, and supported each other. One thing I personally got from poets like LKJ and Michael Smith was that if a poem in Caribbean voice could say so much and hit so hard; so could one in a Cockney, Manchester, Yorkshire one. The politics was in a working class person writing, and reading, to and for a working class audience.
The words are important, and poetry galvanises us as well as shares our voice, but actions are more important. I’ve never been one to knock on the doors of the Academy for acceptance. We’ve never been overlooked, we’re outside because that is where they want us. It’s telling to see so many poets looking to the literary establishment rather than building their own.
Linton Kwesi Johnson started writing poetry in formal English, he then switched to his own Jamaican voice. He says that one of his inspirations for doing this was Marcus Garvey who promoted people doing things for themselves. Burning Spear was a big fan too.
There are plenty of young poets doing solid work as poets and people, but given the amount of ‘woke’ young people at slams and poetry readings, and pouring forth on the interwebs, it’s a puzzle that the country, and the US too – it’s where most of Slam’s politics come from – has steadily got worse.
Lest this ends on a depressing tone, I’ll stay true to my own ‘Down with miserablism’ beliefs: to all the young ‘uns doing the do and fighting the fight – keep on keeping on. Forward ever, backward never.
A poem from Frederick Williams’ 1981 collection Me Memba Wen.
Dem Kicksy Sah
De young boy and gal dem a now a days
Dem kicksy sah.
First time wen mi go a dance an a dance quadrill,
Minto, rumba, bassanova, and even de ska,
Yu se man and woman drop som breed a foot,
Yu se man shake a leg and woman shimmy
Movie maker no know weh dem mis.
De man dem ina cream serge tight foot pants,
De woman ina dem flare or abble skirt,
We use to enjoy we self yaah.
Wat a way tings change.
Wey day, mi go to a dance,
So mi stan up ina one corna
Jus a fatten mi eyes,
Me notice sa every ting change,
De music to raggae,
De people, younger faces,
De dress, a bit of every ting,
De dance, well mi cant call dat dancing
Mi affe call it body movements.
After a wile fattenin me eyes,
Mi ask one nice looking girl
May I have a dance, she give a slow glance,
Den she hole mi roun me waist as hard as she could,
So me hole her too – belly touching belly,
We start fe wine rocking to de beat,
Wen de bass hit her mi feel she flip she hip,
Mi jus hole aan tight.
Wen de record dun, swet runnin dung me face,
De place crowded an hot,
But de password is kool runnins,
Mi ask a few more girls fe dance,
An mi get de chance fe experience
Dat rite here woman’s lib gain momentum,
For me se sa,
Ono man a dub dung woman agen,
A woman a dub dung man,
But it nice yaah,
Mi like it,
Yes, Man mi like it.
The mighty Michael Smith’s John Peel session from 24 April, 1982.
Linton Kwesi Johnson’s first Peel session was broadcast on 8th May 1979. John Peel introduced it by saying: “You might possibly accuse us of paying a kind of woolly Babylonian lip service to liberalism, but you couldn’t accuse Linton Kwesi Johnson of doing so, and that’s the important thing”
Down Di Road – Want Fi Goh Rave – It Dread Inna Inglan – Sonny’s Lettah – Reality Poem