Chip Hamer introduces the squad of activist poets which supports striking workers.
Poetry on the Picket Line sounds a little unlikely, but it works: a squad of writers prepared to turn up on picket lines and read poetry. Something a little different and it usually goes down pretty well.
It started off by accident, a few years ago now, during the dispute at the National Gallery. The campaign against privatisation was heavily supported by the PCS Culture Group, whose members were taking action to protect their jobs, terms and conditions. It was a long struggle, during the course of which some of the writers involved with the Culture Group decided to read poems (rather than make speeches).
The poetry provoked an enthusiastic response – surprisingly, perhaps – but then a change is as good as a rest, and some informed entertainment provided something different for the pickets and their supporters. Following this the poets put a gig on - outside the gallery – which was a resounding success. It coincided with the day the management finally agreed to terms, so they spun it that it was the poetry that won it. It was about much more than that, of course - 111 days of strike action, apart from anything else.
Word spread quickly (these are quality operators) so now Poetry on the Picket Line are in demand, having done work with other PCS disputes across the Culture Sector (but also at the Equality and Human Rights Commission), the junior doctors, the cleaners' strikes at LSE and SOAS, the Bart's strike and the BECTU cinema workers dispute (see below). Most recently being very active on UCU picket lines.
They do what it says on the tin. Turn up at pickets and demos and read poems - with a mic, without a mic, through a bullhorn, whatever. Pickets are generally pretty pleased and surprised to see them. They appreciate the support, and some of them even appreciate the poetry!
Plus, it's unusual. So pictures get taken and videos get made and shared on Fb, Twitter and other social media. that helps raise the profile of the dispute (which, in the case of something like the current Picturehouse campaign, where there's a boycott of the cinema chain, is vital), and it helps to raise the profile of the poets too.
Then, when they do gigs the poets talk about the work, pass the hat round, sell T-shirts and badges, with the money going back into the various strike funds. It's all about the solidarity, and it works.
It matters because it brings poetry onto picket lines and picket lines into poetry. Real people connecting with real poetry in the real world. That's got to be a good thing!
Culture Matters is about to publish a new anthology of poetry from PotPL.