Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards's first collection, My Family and Other Superheroes (Seren, 2014) received the Costa Poetry Award and the Wales Book of the Year People's Choice Award.

From Aberfan t Grenfell
Wednesday, 21 November 2018 13:45

From Aberfan t Grenfell

Published in Poetry

Jonathan Edwards presents the title poem from the new collection by Mike Jenkins, illustrated with images by Alan Perry, and introduces the collection.

From Aberfan t Grenfell

by Mike Jenkins

When I seen tha fire
blazin through-a flats
like they woz wax,
I thought o Pantglas
children an teachers,
graves of rubble an sludge.

When I seen ow
the Tories didn wanna know,
I thought o Lord Robens
an George Bloody Thomas,
of ower Council oo’d bin tol
of the tip movin long ago.

When I seen them people
come from all over
with clothes an food,
I thought of rescuers
from all over-a Valleys,
come t search
f life in-a ruins.

When I seen tha block,
a ewge charred remains
a dark memorial t the pooer
kept there like battree ens,
I thought of-a tip come down:
ow ev’ry sum an song
never knew an answer or endin.

Introduction

Put this book down now, and go to Newport, and you’ll find, bang in the heart of the city centre, some interesting folk. They gather in Friars Walk, the mega-corporate shopping centre which dropped out of the sky into John Frost Square a couple of years ago, a partially successful attempt to turn us into EveryCity and introduce al fresco dining and service charges where there had only been chewing gum spatters and shuttered shops. They sit on the benches outside Vacara, the legendary chippy, all day, like supersub footballers waiting and waiting for the manager to just give them their chance. All ages, both genders, they’ll ask you politely for money as you go past, and at five o’clock most days they’ll pool what they’ve got, pass it over the chippy counter for what it will buy, and sit back on their bench, sharing their plunder. One guy sits all day in the doorway of what was once Giles Sports, reading a cracked paperback from the charity shop across the road, his spot marked by cardboard and tattered groundsheet the way a holiday-maker might reserve his sunbed with a towel. Days, routines, lives are forged, progressing as surely as the making of this very square, from the Mayor’s first symbolic strike of the spade into ground to the no-expenses-spared ticker-taped and PA’d opening extravaganza.

I mention all this because I can and because, it seems to me, no books of poetry do. Dickens would have written about the sort of experience that those who subsist on the margins of Friars Walk endure, as would writers like Alan Sillitoe and David Storey but, when trying to pin down contemporary British poets who address this sort of experience, one might struggle. Poetry is often a process of upper middle class, conventionally educated people talking to other upper middle class, conventionally educated people and telling them that they’re lovely. If one really accepts that literature matters because there is nothing else anywhere near as good for recording, elevating and even redeeming human experience, for showing empathy for others, for expressing, whatever else is expressed, that all human beings matter, then those people out in the weather at Friars Walk, or in every other city in the UK, register the hole in the heart of literature, its central lie.

28 idden smog resized2

Thank God, then, for a writer like Mike Jenkins. In the fabulous poems of From Aberfan t Grenfell, he records and understands a range of lives which so much contemporary poetry turns away from. Among the many wonderful poems in this collection, I would urge you to turn immediately to ‘Idden smog.’ This brilliant monologue manages to pin down an experience that people have across the Valleys and, indeed, across the UK, as a young man who feels trapped by the lack of opportunities in a small town dreams of getting out, describing his experience, in a brilliant image, as ‘an idden smog inside me.’ Similarly, ‘Ow far down’ movingly records the experiences of someone with depression, his journey through unemployment, the benefits system and homelessness.

steak locks down icelan

But let’s be clear on one thing. As always with Mike Jenkins, these are highly entertaining poems, and the important political and human messages are balanced with great humour. From the security locks put on steaks in Iceland to the stink of people on the local bus, from the implications of getting a drone for Christmas to a man outside a pub who slurs ‘Merthyr is Vietnam,’ the poems glow with Valleys humour. Valleys towns are places of carnival and community, and From Aberfan t Grenfell gives us a whole host of local characters, from Steve the Bus, the old man who passes days riding to Swansea, Cardiff, Newtown on his bus pass, through the local ‘Spice’Eads,’ who fill the streets and news in Wales at the moment, to the man who has a season ticket for Cardiff City ‘but never sees is children.’ If I look out through the window or go for a walk outside, I will see lots of people just like those Mike Jenkins describes, but rarely do you see these lives in the pages of poetry books, or described with the empathy, understanding and love that Mike Jenkins describes them with here.

steve the bus resized

And these poems, of course, are only half the story of this book. If Mike Jenkins loves the people in his poems, what is clear from his extraordinary illustrations is that Alan Perry loves these poems. So full of personality and detail, living such bright lives in their black-and-white, these images, which spill across the page, which will not be contained, are an extraordinary hymn to the lives in these poems, the poems in these lives. It is difficult to think of another poetry book where every single page is such a visual masterpiece. The readers I have shown these pages to have Ah’d and Oo’d at the sight of each new page, and this is before they even get to the words. A gifted poet himself, Alan understands these poems and these lives deeply and has re-imagined them visually. Every image crackles with visual jokes and personality, gifting us the world on the page.

carn catch a criminals resized 2 resized

Back in the real world, meanwhile, back in Friars Walk, a woman is joining the back of the queue in Vacara and a man is flipping to the final page of a novel and wondering if they’ll let him swap it for another when he takes it back to the charity shop. It’s too fanciful to think that a book like From Aberfan t Grenfell can change these lives, that next time I see that man he’ll be flipping through the pages of this book, or that it might inspire him to have a go at his own. But alongside their joy, their celebration, their humour, these poems offer us an important message – that all life matters. By documenting and recording these experiences, by living and loving them, this book can help to change minds. It’s extraordinary what words can do. As I write this now, for example, sitting in the window of a middle-class coffee shop in Friars Walk, a woman approaches the man in the doorway, holding out a coin in her hand. He looks astonished but, more than the coin, she hangs around for a moment to talk to him. A few words. In a moment the woman is off, away up Charles Street in the evening sun, but it’s enough. The man leaps to his feet, looks around the square, gathers himself, and – one foot in front of the other – he’s on his way again.

From Aberfan t Grenfell, great poems by Mike Jenkins with wonderful images by Alan Perry, is available here.

Power Play
Saturday, 27 October 2018 20:30

Power Play

Published in Poetry

Jonathan Edwards introduces Power Play, Mair De-Gare Pitt's new collection of poems, with images by Jill Powell.

What is politics? When I was a younger person, growing up in the South Wales Valleys in the late 1980s, a far-off and mythical land where cornflakes were splashed not with milk but rather with stories of the Miners’ Strike, where usually sober, chapelgoing ladies saw Margaret Thatcher on the television and hissed at her like cats, where the songs of the Manic Street Preachers boomed through bedroom windows into terraced streets, and nobody knew what they were saying, and liked it—when I was a younger person, I thought I knew exactly what politics was. It was people shouting at each other.

At the age of fourteen or so, my political career reached its peak, when I met Lord David Sutch, lead singer of the Monster Raving Loony Party, in a local pub. Here, I felt, was the future. My house, conveniently located next to a polling station, offered the perfect site for campaigning on his behalf. My mother would not allow his leaflets in the living room window, and I was banned from actively picketing in the street so, come election day, I plastered my bedroom window with his posters, and sat there on the windowsill, shouting down at people on their way to vote, ‘Look up here!’ Some of them did. Lord David Sutch did not retain his deposit.

Now I am older and less wise, the importance of politics is much clearer, and it’s taken me a good old while to grasp what was clear to others from the start. Politics isn’t people shouting at each other. It is people. The drowning of Capel Celyn in the 1960s to provide a reservoir for Liverpool, for example, was a significant political event, which changed the relationship between Wales and England and, some have argued, paved the way for devolution. But how much more important does that event seem when one sees photos of the people who lived in Capel Celyn—the pensioners, the children, their faces, their clothes—sitting on a bus on its way to Liverpool, to campaign to save their village. They raise their cups of tea and look through the camera lens at us from the years they’re in, with all the reality of their experience etched into their faces. It is this connection, this empathy, which matters.

This is among the reasons why I adore the poems of Mair De-Gare Pitt. From its very first poem, its very first line, this collection focuses on the human and, through its brilliant lyricism, elevates the experiences it describes into something like beauty. The collection understands that the real way to political change is  by moving people, by getting hold of their hearts, by writing memorably, and the poems do this again and again. Was there ever a more arresting opening line to a collection of poems than ‘Today I am wearing a child’s afternoon’?

This collection’s three sections—‘Children,’ ‘Women’ and ‘Society’ —elegantly organise these poems’ concerns. Blake, who knew a thing or two about making political points because of the reality of children’s experience, presides over the poems of the first section as a sort of guardian presence. I was very taken by the moving focus in this section on difficulties of communication in poems such as ‘A Child Tries to Read Aloud in Class’ and ‘Elective Mute.’ These are highly empathetic pieces, and I was also struck by the irony of this experience being explored by a writer who communicates so beautifully—though difficulty and great success in communication are of course great companions. ‘Black to Grey’ is a poem which perfectly encapsulates how the South Wales Valleys have changed over a generation. Its last, ringing image speaks so eloquently for an experience which is being lived now on the streets of Newport and Newtown, Abersychan and Abertridwr.

The second section offers, arguably, even more powerful poems. ‘The New Suit Man’ takes a step towards the public poetry of writers like Auden and Betjeman, but at the heart of this section is a collection of unforgettable character portraits, documenting all sorts of female experiences. The poems range from the troubles of ‘Our Lady of the Rags’ and a ‘Woman Sleeping Rough at Cardiff Castle’—a poem with an astonishing ending—to an old lady answering the phone, and astute and powerful depictions of motherhood in ‘Respect’ and ‘Fruit-Picking at Berryhill Farm.’

In ‘Society,’ the collection opens out to explore a range of subjects. ‘A Minister of Health’ is a powerful poem of protest which reminded me of some of the political writing of Carol Ann Duffy, while ‘Voices from the Great Flood’ is a fabulously ambitious, multi-voiced poem. The collection concludes with a heartbreaking monologue about Grenfell which again shows this poet’s understanding of the importance of putting people front and centre.

This collection is wonderfully illustrated by Jill Powell, the images and poems now endorsing each other, now opening each other up to new possibilities. It’s a great thing to see a publisher putting together a sequence now of beautifully- written, wonderfully produced pamphlets, which seem to be doing something important and different in British poetry.

As for you, reader, mysterious or fedora’d ghost who may or may not be there, though I’m shouting this at you now, as if you’re the magnolia or wallpapered wall of this room I’m writing in— I hope you’ll love these poems as much as I do, and join with me in hoping that there will be many more of these poems for us to read, from a writer who is so refined, her voice so much her own, her poems so special, her concerns so significant.

I’d say this collection is important because it’s political. But I’ll say more. It’s important if you’re human.

Power Play is available for purchase here.

 

Matthewstown, aka 'The Tynte', South Wales Valleys
Thursday, 12 May 2016 15:53

Abandon the Valleys

Published in Poetry

Jonathan Edwards reviews Nobody's Subject, a new poetry collection from Mike Jenkins.

I write this two days before the latest round of elections for the Welsh Assembly Government. As usual, I have little notion on which way to vote. Left-leaning by family and inclination, much of the literature I most love, from Robert Tressell’s absolutely astonishing The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, to Alan Sillitoe, George Orwell and Tony Harrison, wears its political heart firmly on its sleeve. My nan, who was about the mildest-mannered person anyone could ever wish to meet, would curse and kick the air every time she saw Maggie Thatcher’s perm on the TV. My dad once gave Neil Kinnock a lift to work. Yet I came of age in the 90s, and the first election I could vote in was the one in which Tony Blair became Prime Minister. So for almost all my voting life the Labour Party hasn’t really been the Labour Party. Who were the left-wing party of the noughties? For a few elections, I alternated voting for the Communist Party, when a candidate ran, with voting for the Monster Raving Loony Party.

The re-emergence of Labour as a genuine left-wing party, the debates around Europe and devolution, and the particular sense of what it means to be Welsh as we move towards the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the Welsh Assembly Government, make this a fertile time in Wales to discuss politics. And who better to do it than Mike Jenkins, whose passionate and heartfelt political poems have been setting light to audiences at readings and in schoolrooms for decades? One of my favourite poems in his latest collection, Nobody’s Subject, is ‘Abandon the Valleys,’ an angry and satirical critique of the argument – which currently has some currency among some economists – that the answer to the South Wales Valleys having outlived their industries is simply to move everyone out, regardless of the communities, the families, the sense of identity:

ABANDON THE VALLEYS

Let’s all abandon the Valleys
so they can turn them into an industrial museum,
a theme park of past glories

they could drown every one
and it would make Tryweryn
seem a piddling puddle by comparison

they could leave it to the animals,
bring back the wolves and wild cats
and let the adventure-tourists loose

they could cultivate market towns
with lots of cutesy craft shops,
places peopled only by Groggs

let’s abandon the Valleys,
they’ve outgrown their uses;
let opencast prevail without protest

let all those wasted Valleys folk
move coastward to the cities;
it’ll be like one long Saturday

let’s all abandon the Valleys
to the march of conifers and SAS training courses,
shift every building to St. Fagan’s.

One solution which has been proposed to the situation of the Valleys of course is the Circuit of Wales racetrack, which is due to be built in Ebbw Vale. Whatever the outcome of the Assembly elections, one hopes that the Assembly’s problems in terms of backing what looks to be a wonderful project for the regeneration of the area can be resolved.

Politics is such a passion for Mike that he has inevitably passed this on to his family. One of my favourite poems from his previous wonderful collection, Shedding Paper Skin, was Niamh’s rocket, a brilliant poem of fatherhood. By the same token, one of the most affecting poems in Nobody’s Subject explores Mike’s relationship with his daughter, the Plaid Cymru Assembly Member Bethan Jenkins. What a wonderfully moving portrait this is:

OF POSSIBILITIES

You’re the politician I could never become:
giving speeches off the cuff,
devoted to your party like a second family,
while I’m on the outside
raising a fist and chanting.

Not that we didn’t get things done:
defeated the poll tax by civil disobedience,
mobilised thousands into doing something
by simply doing nothing,
till the bailiffs came knocking;
defeated the opencast when many
in my village declared – ‘You'll never win!’

But you – on radio, tv, committee meetings
and in the Senedd’s chamber,
leafletting on streets, addressing campaigns –
are what a politician should be.
Those Visteon pensioners even called you
their ‘Joanna Lumley’ and how funny
comparing you with such a toff luvvie.

I recall pushing you in a buggy
miles over the mountain in tamping rain
to Bevan’s Stones to protest
against unemployment in Thatcher’s days;
a speech by Dafydd El (once darling of the Left);
afterwards, Lord Dafydd Ellis Thomas
who sat and presided so haughtily.

That Assembly is and is not your workplace:
factories, doorsteps and schools
are the places where you thrive
with a vision of possibilities
beyond walls’ slogans, on a skyline
within reach for everyone.

Like family, another thing that goes hand in hand with politics in the Valleys is music. One has only to look at one of our most recent music icons, Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers, to know this. Mike has a keen interest in music, is a mean harmonica player in performance, and Nobody’s Subject has a number of poems about music, including ‘The Great Unsigned’ and ‘Whistle Test Fridays.’ The inheritance of the protest song is clear in a number of the collection’s poems, including ‘Fairwood Drive,’ or this cutting portrayal of the treatment of those living in the Credit Crunch Valleys:

NO BOOM, JUST BUST

Never seen a Boom in Merthyr
we’ve only ever seen Bust;
Government stats say it’s getting better
as we scrabble for a crust.

We’ll be back to searching
for lumps of coal on the hillsides;
Pound and Charity shops and Pawnbrokers
are the ones who thrive.

Get a job in the Retail Park,
get a zero contract or minimum wage,
stats claim there’s loads of work........
you’ll have to move to London to live.

They’ve cut all the benefits
like lopping off our limbs
and next come the Council cuts
making our brain-cells rust.

Cameron and Osborne claim it’s improving
and they’ve got the numbers to prove it;
tricking us with figures like loan sharks,
while debts are screaming the opposite.

Before committing himself full-time to writing, Mike was a secondary school teacher for decades, and he remains passionate about education, always looking for opportunities to help and support young writers. I’ve been lucky enough to get Mike to come to the school I work at for an inspiring workshop, and one of the most exciting pieces of radio I’ve heard in the past few years was his interview on the Jason Mohammad show on Radio Wales recently, when he made a passionate case for the importance of Literature as a GCSE subject. Here he is, in Nobody’s Subject, on the position of teachers:

NOBODY TRUSTS THE TEACHERS

Nobody trusts the teachers:
the Redtops blurt tales
of disgrace and sexual antics.

Politicians repeat about failures
and send in the trouble-shooters;
Councils threatened with Commissioners.

Teams of Inspectors invade schools
and deliver their damning judgments.
Heads ambush their lessons

armed with forms and tick-boards.
Parents e-mail to complain
about behaviour, results and testing.

Even the pupils....yes, even them,
after they’ve heard their parents moaning
as they read newspapers, watch television.

So the teachers don’t trust themselves
to ponder, plan, encourage and inspire;
with all that spying vision.

From the satirical to the familial, the angry to the affecting, from the gritty to the musical, from economics to education, Nobody’s Subject is a timely and essential collection whichever way you lean, whoever’s name you place an X next to when you’re in a polling booth, hopeful as someone who’s marking the place on a map where treasure is buried.

Nobody's Subject is published by BBTS Publications, 2016, £5.