Twenty nine years ago at Clwb-y-Bont in Pontypridd, a strange creature was born. Then called Red Poets’ Society (as in the film Dead Poets’ Society), it later morphed into Red Poets. It was founded by me and Wrecsam’s Marc Jones, both activists in the left-wing group Cymru Goch. We remain co-editors to this day. We have produced annual magazines of leftist poetry (predominantly from Wales), reviews, articles and translations, but are also a performance group, with a hardcore of regulars. When you consider our first launch, it’s a wonder this creature survived at all, let alone flourished. Our printers failed to deliver and we were left with no magazines, only a lot of covers!
Initially, the project was intended as a one-off anyway, with poems gathered from the newspapers ‘Welsh Republic’ and Cymru Goch’s monthly ‘Y Faner Goch’, alongside new, solicited material. Renowned writers like Harri Webb and Nigel Jenkins were featured.
Despite Cymru Goch’s prominence in the anti-poll tax campaign and other issues, their single most lasting legacy is this magazine and ‘loose collective’. Red Poets take a unique combination of amusing, angry and cutting verse to a remarkable variety of venues, often pubs in working-class areas where poetry has never ventured before.
On most occasions local people join in on the inevitable open mic, such as one time in Tredegar, when one man decided to do rap versions of Dylan Thomas in a camp voice and another, just out of prison, read raw, confessional poetry about his experiences inside.
Over the years we have given a platform to over half the winners of the John Tripp Prize for Spoken Poetry, including Clare Potter and Emily Hinshelwood. We also brought out a CD of one performance entitled ‘Live At Blackwood’, which can be accessed on our website. If you ignore the duelling blues harmonica chaos of the drunken finale (each in a different key!), it provides a real insight into what our evenings are like: full of verve and humour.
We’ve taken part in a number of benefits, from striking dockers to the closure of a local authority care home and, more recently, performed in support of the anti-opencast group in the Rhymni Valley, against the proposed site at Nant Llesg.
Many fascinating characters have joined our ranks during these twenty years. One has been Ray Joseph from the Rhondda, a true people’s poet who used to do his poems ‘door-to-door’ and sometimes only had a glass of water to thank for his efforts. Another was the well-known singer-songwriter Labi Siffre (famous for hits like ‘So Strong’), who moved to the Brecon Beacons and took up poetry. His starkly unsettling work about being black and gay was always powerful.
A highlight through the years has been the signature poem of the poet Jazz from Penywaun, near Aberdare. ‘Giro City’ is on ‘Live at Blackwood’ and he has accosted many an unsuspecting eardrum with his supersonic scream, including shoppers in Merthyr precinct and concert-goers at the Millennium Centre.
Music has gradually played a bigger part at our ‘gigs’, and this was especially true of Cardiff’s sadly-forgotten Riff Williams (from the band Little Miracle), Spike from Twp, Hastings & Pudner and Welsh language singer-songwriter Jamie Bevan.
In the early days it didn’t always work, such as when I organised an event with Merthyr rock band Original Mind. A great band, they just didn’t fit with the audience and blew poets and punters out of the room with their sheer volume. We have had a few other disasters along the way, like one party political social where we were asked not to come on at all for the second half because they wanted the disco instead. Jazz wasn’t impressed and their speaker took the full force of his boot!
However, we continue to change and develop and have been joined by exciting younger talents like Jonathan Edwards and Gemma Howell along the way. We have published the first collection by long-time contributor Tim Richards called ‘Subversive Lines’ and followed that up with ‘You’re Welcome to Wales’ by Neath poet Phil Knight the following year.
Scottish novelist and Booker Prize-winner James Kelman once described Red Poets as ‘the best thing happening in poetry’. I know of no other similar collective and magazine devoted to left-wing verse in the world. The creature thrives and breathes fire!
The Desolation of Holiday Homes
(St. David’s Day)
Today, prime-location rooms
are flooded with lake-light:
jellied, wobbling on walls, unseen.
Dust motes are gilded in this house
that is empty for ten months a year,
furnishings damp, hearth full of ashes.
The horns of some dead animal
adorn the hallway, a creature’s pelt
sprawls on the parquet floor.
Mirror-like windows – blind eyes,
blink as the sun plays Midas
with the sunset’s colours.
A forgotten piece of cheese
in the fridge hardens
to the consistency of toenail parings.
Weeds choke the flower beds
of pale daffodils in a froth
of algae green, drowned lemon.
A crinkle of dry beech leaves
crusts the driveway,
carries the scent of decay.
Fog-weary faces of daisies
hide in the overgrown grass,
beaded with secret dew.
Worn mountains look on –
holding the aspirations of the ages –
with their many scars, slippage of scree.
Mike Jenkins is an award-winning Welsh poet and author and unofficial poet for Cardiff City FC. His new book of political poetry, Nobody's Subject, is published in Summer 2016.