The Bread and Roses Poetry Award, sponsored by Unite in partnership with Culture Matters, was instituted this year. The idea is to stimulate the writing of poetry about working class lives and communities, by people who otherwise might not write or enter competitions.
We're very pleased that it has been a tremendous success, although we were almost overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of submissions. Several hundred poems were sent in, of all kinds and from a wide range of writers across Britain and indeed across the world: America, India, Nigeria and Australia, to name just a few. Many entries were accompanied by notes saying how grateful the writers were to Unite and to Culture Matters for opening up what can seem a very exclusive and elitist artistic practice.
Two judges kindly agreed to the difficult task of studying, sifting, and judging the poems. They were Andy Croft, the poet and publisher of Smokestack Books, and Mary Sayer, an official from Unite working in the field of cultural education. In the light of the high quality of so many of the entries, the judges decided to divide the prizes equally between three poems, submitted by Helen Burke, Mair De-Gare Pitt, and John Wright. They will each receive £285.
The judges were extremely impressed by the entries. Here's what Mary Sayer wrote to us afterwards:
What a delight this has been – reading my way through the hundreds of remarkable poems entered into this competition. None of us had any idea there would be so many entries of such a high standard.
All of the poems were very readable and most of them were a real pleasure to read. I felt genuinely humbled having to 'choose' between such passionate and interesting poems. All were political and heartfelt - often funny and deeply moving - inspiring; I had no idea that there were so many articulate politicos out there.
But more than anything, as I read - I began to appreciate what a privilege it was to share the outpourings of so many committed and caring individuals. It was almost impossible to shortlist, and we did so on the understanding that we could highly commend a long list of entries and do justice to the rest by publishing as many as possible, in an anthology.
Thanks to Culture Matters for involving me in this competition and to my union Unite for sponsoring it. As co-ordinator of 'Unite in Schools' programme, this has inspired me to run a similar poetry competition in schools and colleges, around the campaigns and political issues chosen by students in our sessions.
We will be publishing many of the poems sent to us, both online and in a printed anthology. We are very grateful to Unite for sponsoring the Award; to the judges, for all their hard work; but most of all to the hundreds of poets who sent in such wonderful poems. Please continue to send us poems that you wish to be considered for publication, especially on topical issues.
Billie Holliday Crooning a Rose Opening
by Fred Voss
All our lives we have known about great men
on Mount Rushmore Paul Revere
riding his horse the marble eyes
of Lincoln looking out so wisely from his monument
but can standing at a grinding wheel 10 hours a day until your fingertips are scraped raw
can holding onto a jumping pounding jackhammer
until your spine rattles
in his 3-cornered hat is great Orville Wright gliding
over the sands of Kitty Hawk is great the top
of the Empire State Building and the Rock of Gibraltar
and Lindbergh stepping out of his airplane to ride down Broadway in his tickertape parade
are great but can oil cans
and concrete floors and twisted backs and crane hooks and whoops
of crazy delight from the throats of men who have run machines in the corners of tin buildings
for 40 years be great
can missing the dawn sun
as 2-ton drop hammers explode behind tin walls at 6 am and fists
that never give up closing around monkey wrenches and hammer handles and spirits
of men that can never be broken even after 7
layoffs and a thousand screams
of foremen in their faces
can gnarled hands and ticking time clocks and greasy shop rags hanging out of back pockets
who’ve clawed their way out of prison cells straightjackets
skid row gutters gangs and grabbed
machine handles and smiled again
John Barrymore crossing a stage Caesar in a helmet Shakespeare holding his quill pen the tiger
leaping through jungle moonlight
are great but are the 3 teeth
left in the head of the engine lathe operator who lifts his wrench and laughs like he’s the luckiest
man on earth great is the man
who took the heroin needle out of his arm and learned to dial the razor-sharp edge
of a cutting tool into brass round stock and shave it
to a finish beautiful
as any solo
Miles Davis ever blew out of his trumpet
how can the sun a Joe Louis punch a marlin hanging in the air
above the sea Billie Holiday crooning a rose
opening any man
who ever worked his heart out to feed his child not
Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and arts editor, and co-managing editor of Culture Matters.