Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and arts editor, and co-managing editor of Culture Matters.
A woman sits on a fold-up chair, with a sign – 'Hello, can you stop for a talk?' – inviting passersby to stop for a chat about nuclear proliferation. An elderly woman stands on her own with a sign 'No to nuclear war' round her neck. A sandalled foot sticks out from under a police van, whilst a polieceman leans on the van, smiling uneasily at the camera. A man stands with a paper bag on his head, covered in instructions on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.
CND Rally, Hyde Park, London, 1981. Copyright Edward Barber.
'Peace Signs', Edward Barber's collection of arresting and moving photos from the early eighties, taken at Greenham Common and elsewhere, is currently on exhibition at the IWM in London. The photos capture the protests of people from a hugely diverse range of ages and backgrounds, though most are women.
Some images show the creative, almost playful aspects to the performance of protest, as demonstrators try to obstruct, disrupt and prevent the smooth running of the murderous war machine of Britain and its U.S. ally. Lines of singing women join hands around the fences of the missile base. Activists lie in the roads in the shape of the CND sign. Demonstrators and pickets supply an endless stream of volunteers to block the paths of supply lorries, tractors and bulldozers. Women stage a Die-in outside the Stock Exchange.
Women from Greenham Common stage a Die-in outside the London Stock Exchange during the morning rush hour as President Reagan arrives in Britain, 1982. Copyright Edward Barber.
In several more sombre images, we see protesters stare unsmilingly at the camera, returning our gaze. In some ways they look vulnerable and helpless. What chance do young children, older people and women have, ranged against large numbers of blank-faced, uniformed policemen? Yet the strength of their determination and conviction also shines through these beautifully clear, well-printed images, and the challenge of their anger comes vividly across the 30-odd years that separate us, mutely willing us to continue their resistance.
A protester from the Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common after keening in Parliament Square, London, 1981. Copyright Edward Barber.
As befits the anti-nuclear cause, the protests are peaceful, and in a forerunner of the Occupy protests they are often playful and witty, part of an unscripted collective performance. It's a kind of folk art, facing off against the bleak, regimented lines of policemen, lifting and dragging their protesting, prostrate bodies off roads and pavements.
There are no prosaic notes accompanying the photos, giving details of the locations and events depicted, because although they would have given documentary precision, they would have limited the power of the exhibition to creatively communicate its still-relevant messages.
Instead, the photos are arranged to echo the creative, chaotic nature of the protests they document. Then, towards the end of the exhibition, Barber's 'mind map', connecting rough ideas and movements with arrows using a thick marker pen, gives some context to the protests. It maps them into a tradition of creative and collective action, reaching from the fifties to modern day protests by Jeremy Corbyn and others.
'Embrace the Base': 30,000 women link hands, completely surrounding the nine mile perimeter fence at RAF/USAF Greenham Common, Berkshire, 1982. Copyright Edward Barber.
“I saw this as preventative photography” says Edward Barber, about his collection of photographs. “I intended to document, celebrate and warn. It attempts to foreground both individual and collective engagement, courage and resilience.”
The exhibition can hardly be said to have prevented the continuation of the immoral threat to world peace represented by Britain's arsenal of nuclear weapons. But it is certainly a celebration and a warning. It is a celebration of a peculiarly British kind of humorous, angry and incredibly determined type of commitment to persistent protest against state power and militarism.
Protestor at Bank of England. Copyright Edward Barber.
And it's a timely warning of the evils of nuclear proliferation. Just when the genocidal threats implict in the Trident missile programme are being renewed by the Government, the exhibition itself echoes and confirms the protesters' critical resistance to war, and renews their creative call for peace.
Peace Signs is on at IWM London until September 4th.
I spent yesterday at the Durham Miners' Gala, one of the largest and longest lasting festivals of politically conscious working class culture in the world. Every July, the various pit-based communities of Durham come together, expressing solidarity with each other and with like-minded trade unionists, politicians and activists not only from elsewhere in the country but from around the world.
With its community-based brass bands, lodge banners, speeches, and chance to meet up and have a chat and a drink, it's a great day out. It's an enjoyable, inspiring celebration of the kind of art and culture that Culture Matters aims to present and promote. Some great photos of the event, which was of course addressed by Jeremy Corbyn, have been posted up on the festivals/events section.
Over the last month we've published a number of great new pieces. We try and feature most pieces on the home page for a little while, but do check the different sections (arts hub; culture hub etc.) for new material. We're receiving quite a lot of material and you might not catch it while it's on the home page.
On the general culture hub, we have posted a topical article on the Hillsborough findings by Professor Michael Lavalette. Roland Boer continues his series with an article on Marx's revolutionary readings of the Bible, and Andrew Brown presents a revolutionary reading of the Ascension story. Joel McKenna reviews a new book on Marxism, literature and the arts; and Derek Wall gives a brief life of Raymond Williams and a review of the new book about his politics and writings.
In the music section of the arts hub you can find No-One's Little Girl: gender and guitars in post-punk music, by Phil Brett. Under visual arts, there are pieces on Mona Hatoum by Christine Lindey; a review by Andrew Warburton of a special edition of Crisis and Critique which focused on art under Stalin; another article from Amir Darwish, presenting art from Syrian refugees; some new political art from Mina Boromand; and most recently, another article from Marc James Léger, looking at the last works of Richard Hamilton.
In the theatre section, Professor Gabriel Egan continues his series of articles on Shakespeare, and Paul Foley reviews Stowaway. In the fiction section, Professor Kimberley Reynolds joins us with a great introductory article on radical children's literature. We hope to be posting up more articles on that topic in the coming few weeks, and we also hope to attract some new radical writing – like Andy Croft's piece, Snig – for children (teenagers or kiddiewinkies). From who? From you!
We continue to receive some excellent poetry. Our call for Brechtian poems following David Betteridge's poem has been answered by Keith Armstrong, Alexis Lykiard and Kevin Higgins: more please! Alan Dunnett's fine poem The Dog's Tongue is illustrated by an equally fine original artwork by Ignacia Ruiz. There's a review of Mike Jenkins's latest book of poetry with some of Mike's poems in it. And Mike Quille contributes a long article on the American worker-poet Fred Voss, also containing several of his poems, and an interview with him. The One Percent by Steve Griffiths is unfortunately likely to be topical for a little while longer.
Finally, there's a sensitive and perceptive review of Maggie Nelson's new book The Argonauts by a new contributor, Prue Chambelain. It's in our poetry section as Maggie is a poet, but her book is a genre-bending mixture of memoir and cultural and political theory and Prue's article is an excellent introduction to it.
When I asked Fred Voss if we could do an interview by email, little did I know what would happen. In response to my prosaic questions, he sent back a stream of prosepoetry, an inspired, Whitmanesque outpouring of creative thinking and feeling.
'How did you do that?' I asked him afterwards, amazed at what I'd read. 'It was your questions, they sparked something in me' he said, modestly. But as you will see, there was nothing special about my questions, they are the usual ones all writers get asked. The answers, though, are anything but usual.
However it happened, I feel privileged to have sparked this torrent of imaginative prose, and am very proud to present it to you here on Culture Matters. I hope you feel something of the surprise and joy I felt when I opened his messages. And I hope you agree that if ever proof was needed that culture mattered, then surely this is it.
Q. Can you tell us what it's like to live in Long Beach?
I have lived in Long Beach for 40 years, and I love it. It is Los Angeles County’s second largest city, located 20 miles south of L.A. on the Pacific Ocean, and its port of Long Beach/San Pedro is the largest in the U.S.
It has a long history. It was a navy town for many decades, had one of the most famous amusement parks and roller coasters (The Pike on the beach) in the U.S., and was home to Douglas Aircraft Company, builder of aircraft for the U.S. WW2 war effort and of airplanes for the world after the war.
Star Kist was one of many tuna canneries on the waterfront, there was a ferry from Long Beach to San Pedro across the harbor, Todd Shipyard and the Naval Shipyard employed thousands of blue collar men, a statue of Harry Bridges the famous Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) union hero stood beneath the green Vincent Thomas Bridge, oil refineries and oil islands and oil derricks dotted the landscape, the downtown streets were full of all-night movies showing men’s movies and cowboy movies, bars with names like The Pink Elephant and The Poop Deck and the V Room full of pool hustlers and sailors with peanut shells strewn across the floors were on every corner, there were old Hollywood sound stages and the Villa Riviera 1928 hotel with a green copper roof where Clark Gable and Rock Hudson and many other movie stars liked to stay (the ghost of Clark Gable is still said to haunt Ocean Boulevard). In Visions of Cody Jack Kerouac mentioned visiting Long Beach in the 40s and seeing the downtown streets full of guys in cowboy boots.
It is an eccentric city of nearly half a million, and when I moved here in 1976 The Pike Amusement Park was shutting down and the International Long Beach Grand Prix was starting up, making the downtown streets shake. I got a job at Douglas Aircraft Company where over 50,000 people worked, joined The United Auto and Aerospace Workers union and began my career making aircraft parts.
There were hippies in the parks playing softball and sometimes throwing rocks at police, the Morningland religious cult with its purple banners on 7th Street, witchcraft stores selling oils and herbs, and poetry readings in the many bars. California State University at Long Beach, with its 32,000 students, has fostered a strong creative writing poetry tradition since the late 60s inspired by the literary legend Dr. Gerald Locklin, and Charles Bukowski gave several of his first readings in the early 70s at the university and in the city’s bars where he drank and read his poetry in defense of the down and the defeated and the working men and women and the joys and laughs of going crazy and rebelling against the American bourgeois way of life.
An editor of the Long Beach poetry magazine Maelstrom Review, the late Leo Mailman, said he thought there was something magical about Long Beach that made people write, and I’d have to agree, having written 7 novels and 3,000 poems here at kitchen tables as motorcycles roared and old ladies hobbled down sidewalks on canes. On Grand Ave. I lived next to door to Big Ivan from Russia who told me stories from his days wrestling professionally at the storied Olympic Auditorium in downtown L.A., then drank himself to death after his drunken wife went crazy throwing furniture at the walls and singing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” and was hauled away in a police car. How can you not write when you share a paper-thin wall with people like that?
For 26 years I have lived happily two blocks from the sea with my wife the poet and publisher Joan Jobe Smith, founder and publisher of Pearl magazine for 40 years, close friend of Charles Bukowski and author of “Charles Bukowski: His Art & His Women, and I have enjoyed rubbing shoulders with Long Beach’s vast array of roustabouts, pipefitters, bartenders, welders, electricians, tree trimmers, construction workers who walk hundreds of feet up in the air, bookmobile drivers taking Dickens to old people in wheelchairs, nurses, waitresses, shipyard workers, dishwashers, professional wrestlers and truck drivers with the black asphalt roads of America in their bones, graveyard shift janitors and candle makers and pool hustlers as we shared smiles and stories and raised schooners of beer to life.
Long Beach is indeed some kind of a magical city, the land of workers and poetry.
Q. What have been the main influences in your life?
Watching the stars and planets with my father on our front lawn
as a young boy
infinity gripped me
H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe at age nine
Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and Hemingway at age 11
Playing basketball in High School age 14-15
Emerson and Kant and Whitman and Hart Crane and Camus’s The Rebel
and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Doors and getting kicked off
the varsity basketball team for going to a Doors concert instead of a game
and James Joyce’s Ulysses at age 15 -16
Rimbaud and LSD and demonstrating against the Vietnam War at The University of California
at Riverside campus and Pindar and Baudelaire and Blake and Beowulf and Pink Floyd and Heraclitus and my first girlfriend at 17-18
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at 19
Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and blues blues blues music and Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski at 20
At age 22 after dropping out of the U.C.L.A. Ph.D program in English literature and going to work
in the factory world my father
came to my side and became a big influence again
my rudder against crashing against the rocks of the real world
as I lost my way and life became a nightmare my father
told me of his wanderings across the country in Great Depression 1933 America
and told me I could make it through the long dark subterranean night of my soul to the light
of some kind of dawn
and working in a steel mill with blast-furnace-burned-face and slivers of cut steel piercing my palms my dawn
was setting pen to paper
and writing 7 novels
to the syncopated rhythms of Thelonious Monk’s piano
the golden midnight tones of Miles Davis’s horn
the angry black throbbing explosions of Charles Mingus’s bass
(always I was close to the soul of the American black man as I floated down the Mississippi with Huck and escaped slave Jim)
then the great Marvin Malone
editor of The Wormwood Review poetry magazine entered my life after I submitted the first 4 poems I wrote to him in 1986 and he told me I would survive in literature
the main magazine publisher of the great poet Charles Bukowski
Bukowski a huge influence on me since the age of 20 (I was 34 now) with his poetry and novels made of slaughterhouses and lettuce pickers and bicycle factory and post office Neruda
Henry Miller Herman Melville Mark Twain Richard Wright Tennessee Williams Robinson Jeffers
among my heroes as Marvin Malone published over 100 of my poems and I met my wife Joan Jobe Smith on the pages of Wormwood Review: 105 (we had our poems published together on its pages) and later I met her in person at a Long Beach California poetry reading
and Joan and I were married
Joan the founder and editor of Pearl the leading Long Beach poetry magazine for 40 years now
became the second great editor of my poetry
each weekend morning
she hears my latest poem and helps me with her brilliant instinctive poetry ear
listening to my voice as I read my poems aloud to her
and then John Osborne published 100 of my poems in Hull’s Bete Noire literary magazine
and Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books published my first poetry book Goodstone in 1991 (published in the U.S. by Joseph Cowles of Event Horizon Press) and The Poetry Society
booked a whistlestop tour for my wife Joan and I
and we crossed the Atlantic and set foot on the emerald isle of England for the first time
and rode the Brit rails to Hull and The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and The Poetry Society of London and The Bristol Poetry Festival and since then I have been blessed
by being published by some of the best publishers in Britain
Martin Bax in his galvanic avant garde literary magazine Ambit
Alan Dent in his hard hitting Penniless Press and Mistress Quickley’s Bed magazines
Michael Curran in his beautiful limited edition hardbound Dwang
Joan Jobe Smith and Marilyn Johnson at Pearl magazine
and Dan Veach at Atlanta Review are regular publishers of my poems
and I have grown to love classical music these last 20 years
Ives Stravinsky Shostakovich Duke Ellington Mahler Debussy Beethoven
and with me always as inspiration is the great Edward Hopper
with his paintings of the lonely American pushing a rake or standing nude at a window
or cutting hair or sitting in a bright lonely diner
swallowed by American night at 3 am
and Van Gogh’s sunflowers Gauguin’s dreamy-eyed Tahitian women
Eakins’s swimmers Grosz’s
fat piggy cigar-chomping capitalist Berliners
and always Neruda
with the foam of his Chilean beaches his ghost of Magellan
on Cape Horn rocks and Buk
smiling over his typewriter just finishing a poem with a bottle by his side grinning as he laughs
at bourgeois America
and always Joan
my incredibly wise and loving wife by my side with her brilliant sense of humor
inspiring my comic relief Frank and Jane poems
and always the factory workers
the never-boring real-as-nails funny exciting bow-down-to-no-man
never-say-die infuriating inspiring shocking x-rated brutally honest indomitable working men
who keep these poems alive.
Q. What brought you into writing?
I needed something
I had the fierceness and realness of a steel mill I was working in
and I worked at a blast furnace burning the moustache off my face
then moved into the machine shop where the razor-sharp teeth of shell cutters sliced
through ¼-ton steel standards and threw red-hot
chips of steel onto my neck where
they stuck and sizzled
but I needed something more
something that would keep me from feeling empty and hungry inside
I needed to find a spirit within me
as fierce and real as that steel mill
I needed to nail it down onto a page
I needed to bring art into this steel mill of blank tin walls and ticking time clocks
and snarling foremen where no Vincent Van Gogh sunflower had ever
no Beethoven DA DA DA DA crescendo ever heard
no Hemingway Cuban fisherman old man ever dreamed of African lions sleeping on the beach
I needed to dream I could change the world just a little bit
like Nelson Mandela stepping out of his Robben Island prison cell
Jim Morrison breaking on through to the other side
free at last
Q. Do poetry, music and the other arts have anything to do with economic and political realities?
The great ships have circled the globe and stolen the Mayan gold
200 + years of industrial revolution
and 900 lions are left on this earth
as the tiger and the gorilla
barely hang on….
as America has become an oligarchy/plutocracy mouthing words about free speech and voting rights but enslaves its masses in economic chains of exploitation
America ruled by men with clean hands who shuffle the papers and walk the 80th-floor offices
as the earth enters its death throes….
My viewpoint is from the earth-level shop floor where men get their hands dirty. Whitman and Neruda and Brecht are on my shop floor. Neruda’s father worked for the railroad, my father was an outdoors man swimmer and mountain climber (his grandfather a Nebraskan homesteader) who hopped freights in the Great Depression and could walk up to any man on the street and start up a conversation with him and be at ease with him.
I am walking with Brecht’s Mother Courage as she forges ahead through a war-torn landscape.
I am with Whitman walking down his open road and taking off his hat to no king Neruda escaping the fascists by horseback over the Andes Charles Bukowski saying, “The worst men have the best jobs and the best men have the worst jobs.”
I am with Charles Ives the great iconoclastic American composer writing symphonies and songs of marching bands passing each other in the American streets and the sounds of Central Park in the dark and Emersonian universal brotherhood and small town dance bands playing “Turkey in the Straw”, Ives who sent up Wall Street greed with the cacophonous insanity of his 4th symphony’s 2nd movement.
I am with John Huston and his classic American film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that shows how we rip gold from the earth and how money can ruin and take our marvellous gift of life by dividing men against each other.
I am with Whitman and Blake and D.H. Lawrence and the great American artist Thomas Eakins who believed in the honesty and dignity and holiness of the naked human body the laboring human body and I believe in the soul of the labouring man not in top hats and gold and guns and locks and locked vaults full of money and $2,000 suits but bread
for all free concerts in the parks openness and caring for all Yosemite National Park and Sequoia redwood trees for all
I believe in the common man the man of the earth of sweat of shouts in the street and meetings on street corners of Van Gogh’s coal miner potato eaters Eakins’s shad fishermen Goya’s blacksmiths Hemingway’s old Cuban fisherman Santiago battling the sharks Hugo’s Jean Valjean carrying Marius through the Paris sewers Melville’s sailors and his mighty white whale Steinbeck’s farmers Mark Twain’s escaped slave Jim Neruda’s mineworkers Diego Rivera’s mural glowing with assembly line blast furnace flame Philip Levine’s Detroit auto plant workers Thoreau’s homemade cabin on Walden Pond Kerouac’s Sierra Mountains fire lookout August Wilson’s black trash truck driver Troy Maxson Arthur Miller’s thrown-away-like-an-orange-rind-by-the-company salesman Willy Loman Lautrec’s cancan dancers Homer’s warriors Shakespeare’s gravedigger Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony of revolution Stravinsky’s peasant dance folk music as Jim Morrison sings, “What have they done to the Earth?” and The Rolling Stones sing “Salt of the Earth.”
Where do most of us spend most of our lives?
behind bus wheels at sheet metal bending machines behind donut counters at cash registers over jackhammers gripping wrenches flipping burgers serving coffee laying floor washing windows tarring roofs punching out motorcycle gaskets sitting in cubicles looking at inventories on computer screens where we barely feel human where we need poetry and art and music and theater and film to find us and tell our stories
Let Jackson Pollock paint the wall of a factory
Let a symphony grow from the booms and bangs and rattles and groans of an assembly line
Let the grease on a concrete shop floor be full of soul
Let Rembrandt set up his easel beside steel cutters
Is it the maintenance man gripping the monkey wrench that will save the earth?
Is it the heart of the man straddling the machine big as a locomotive that will save the tiger?
If men who stir red-hot molten steel with 20-foot-long rakes are treated like humans could it
keep the polar icecaps from melting?
men who walk the earth where panthers and giraffes and Buddha and Jesus walked
men who keep wheels rolling
old people walking and breathing
with their hands
Can they save the earth?
Q. What's your vision? What do you aim for when you're writing poetry and prose?
Dropping out of the U.C.L.A. Ph.D program in English literature in 1974, my writer’s instinct told me to leave the dryness and cynicism of the academic ivory tower and turn toward life.
“God is a cry in the street,” Stephen Daedalus said in James Joyce’s Ulysses and my writer heroes were
Jack Kerouac hungry for life rolling automobile wheels across America toward a San Francisco bebop jazz club
Hemingway risking his life on the 1937 Spanish earth fighting the fascists and writing For Whom the Bell Tolls
Whitman putting his arm around a dying soldier on the American Civil War battlefield
Melville on a military ship in his white jacket high up in the crow’s nest in the freezing wind and ice rounding Cape Horn
Richard Wright showing how quickly a black man’s life can turn into a nightmare in 1930s Great Depression America
Mark Twain guiding his steamboat around rocks through the fog on the mighty Mississippi
And I was drawn into the world of the factories and went into a steel mill
the fierceness and realness of a steel mill was what I needed
I was not studying Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I was Sir Gawain
in 1977 entering a new strange world of adventure and vernacular speech raw open emotions earthiness the sensuous beauty of toil the honesty of working with hands
humor exuberance shouting with 2-ton drop hammers pounding sizzling of cutting torches hissing of welding rods everything outsized and exploding with life
the backbones of cities ready to be carved and stamped out of red-hot molten steel ex-cons out of prison sweating and straining desperate to remake their lives
laughs and curses and screams all the wild guts and heart and passion of man living life hard
And I started writing novels of truth and fortitude and survival until in my last novel, Making America Strong, written in 1985, my vision and aim for my writing truly began to take shape. It was a short novel set entirely in a machine shop where a defense contractor, Goodstone Aircraft Company, is making nuclear bombers and raking in the big money from the Reagan-era military industrial complex.
Writing Making America Strong I had a vision of the corporation as America and suddenly realized corporate capitalism defined America as much or more than democracy did. In the novel workers without any say in company direction or management and forced to follow often insulting and senseless rules and procedures, turn to harassing and abusing each other like humiliated children, using drink and drugs and falling into racism and violence.
In 1986 I started writing poetry and this world of work became the subject matter of my poetry.
My poetry has been greatly affected by the men I’ve worked with in the factories all these years and the fact that I was a poet in the factories.
At first I thought (as we’ve been taught) the men were somehow less than human
less than poetry
less than me
but as the layoffs hit me and I learned what it felt like to know
I might end up living in the street
as I saw men going on gripping wrenches with hands swollen with arthritis
going on as bosses screamed at them
and aching and tired still smiling at the end of the workweek walking out into the sun like man
must never give up hope
and someday we must all be free
those men didn’t look down on me
because I didn’t yet understand how they could still laugh
between tin walls in the face of firings wrenched backs crazy bosses in this loud grinding factory
where no flower
they didn’t look down on me because I didn’t know
what a micrometer or a ball peen hammer or a compound angle was
they handed me their tools
wise with a lifetime of steel dust and driving their rollaway toolboxes down highways
and rolling them through countless machine shops and going on with a twinkle in their eye
I didn’t know I would soon begin writing poems about them
or that years later when they found out and read them
they would like them
who says this world contains
We can begin to see workers in factories are just as human
firemen orchestra conductors tightrope walkers ship captains ambassadors
nurses and novelists
we are all Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp twirling his cane walking down the open road at dawn
Toulouse Lautrec laying down paint onto canvas celebrating the high-kicking legs of cancan dancers though his crippled stunted legs ache
getting up off his stool and coming back out of his corner though he was almost knocked out
in the last round
we invented the gods
built the cities
made the wheels the axles the chimneys the wings the masts the scalpels the rudders the valves
the rails the keys
and no corporation should ever stand above us.
"I want to change the world, I want to strike the spark or kick the pebble that will start the fire or the avalanche that will change the world a little." - Fred Voss
Why have mortality rates amongst middle aged working class Americans suddenly increased? Why is inequality increasing, so that the top 1% of the U.S. population own 35% of the wealth, and why are bonuses on Wall Street more than double the total annual pay of all Americans on the federal minimum wage? Why has support swollen so rapidly for a buffoon like Donald Trump? And finally, in such darkly unequal times, what can poets do about it?
Mortality rates for white working class Americans declined steadily until around 2000, as you might expect following the postwar years of peace and prosperity, the 'golden age of capitalism' as it is sometimes called. But in the last few years they have got worse, for the first time since records began. White working class men who never got beyond high school now have an absolutely worse mortality rate than black, Hispanic or any other demographic.
What are the causes of these early deaths? Drugs, alcohol and suicide, mostly. Basically, these men have killed themselves with drugs and drink because the rich and powerful American ruling class, running the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world, do not need or want them any more. They're on the economic scrapheap, or on their way there. There are simply not enough jobs for them, and the few jobs around are increasingly badly paid.
Those groups who have been on the margins of the capitalist USA for a long time have weathered the recession better because they have always had nasty, short, precarious lives. But white baby boomers, brought up to expect a brighter future, are discovering that they are going to be worse off than their parents. Most of their efforts to cope with, come to terms with, or struggle against this legalised robbery of their labour, their health, wealth and happiness, are failing. They are becoming more and more desperate, and so are voting for the dangerous, delusional fantasies of Donald Trump, when they are not drinking and drugging themselves to death.
Fred Voss expresses the situation poetically as
Shadows We Will Never Escape
All day as we work
out the rolled-open tin door at the 50-storey downtown L.A. WELLS FARGO
and BANK OF AMERICA and CITICORP
in the sun with all their wealth and power
to keep our children fed
trying to keep from losing hope
and throwing in the towel
on our low wages
with hangovers making us teeter and hold our stomachs
over pitted concrete floors
and stumps instead of fingers
we go without glasses and teeth and hope of anything
in old age we
stick our chests out and throw around 100-pound vices and try not
to get strung out on drugs
or pick up guns and go crazy as we work
in the shadows
of those buildings
with so much wealth and power we stare
out at those towering shining buildings
from the shadows on the concrete floor
of our factory
until we truly begin to know what it feels like
to be buried alive.
At the point of production, there is no democracy, no land of freedom and opportunity, not even adequate material rewards for punishingly hard work. For growing numbers of poor working class men and women there is only naked exploitation, built on centuries of racism and violence. In this impoverishing environment, suicide, madness and prison are only
One Hair's-Breadth Away
I sit on my steel stool at work at break and read
the news article
about the genocide we Americans committed against the Red Man
and read about the genocide
we Americans committed against the Black Man
and butcher knives
the apology in these articles
that we as Americans could ever have allowed such genocides
then look around
this factory just like so many thousands of factories in this land
at the men
who cannot afford a pair of glasses a haircut shoelaces
a meal a room
one hair’s-breadth away
getting poorer penny by penny each hour each day each year
without hope of a raise
white men black men men from Mexico and East L.A.
and Guatemala and Vietnam and Russia
with twisted backs and tired tombstone eyes
and I wonder
where are all the articles full of concern and shock and horror
about them I wonder
why the only genocides that make our papers are the ones that are already
And where, you might wonder, are all the poems about work and the working class? The problem here is that
Only Poets With Clean Hands Win Prizes
The homeless woman pushes her little boy and girl in a shopping cart
down an alley to the trash cans
where she desperately looks for scraps of food
as the poet
writes about whether or not an ashtray on his coffee table
the man works 50 then 60 then 70 hours a week in a factory
so he can live in a tiny cheap room with another man
instead of in a car
and the poet
leans back pleased with her image
of a red teacup
sailing through a wall
are polishing lines about the shadows inside ivory bowls
and what time really means
as old people
must choose between their medicine and eating
people in agony with no health insurance spend nights sitting in chairs
waiting in crowded emergency rooms
go to prison for the rest of their lives for stealing
is writing about looking in a mirror
as a wave curls
over his shoulder and he knows it is all
while men are thrown out onto the street
where they will pick up bottles
or needles that will ruin their lives because
there are no jobs
as the poets
work to polish words that prove the ticks of a clock
Voss knows the ticks of the workplace clock are horribly real signifiers of oppression and exploitation. Not because of the work itself, but because of the conditions of employment which people work under. Voss sees and expresses the actual evil of capitalist production, but also the potential for good under different arrangements. And he expresses it clearly, lyrically, without ever losing sight of the factual, material basis of life, and the equally straightforward way things could be different. As he says in 'Bread and Blood', he is making parts for attack helicopters in Iraq, when he could be making socially useful things like wheelchair wheels.
Voss's dialectical understanding of capitalist production also connects the energy of work in his machine shop to universal values. See how in the following poem we move smoothly, seamlessly, from the sweaty, oily detail of early morning machining in a metalwork shop, to some of the finest scientific and artistic accomplishments of humanity, and from there to happiness, fulfilment and liberty.
By interpreting the world in this way, Voss is surely helping to change it. His poems sing out hope and possibility to us like Whitman's poems and Kerouac's prose and Ginsberg's poems and The Doors' music did for an earlier generation, or like a
Saxophone on a Railroad Track
There is nothing greater
than the energy in a lathe man at 6:07 am throwing every muscle in his body
into the steel 100-pound tailstock of an engine lathe
his steel-toed shoes into a concrete floor and leaning
into the 100-pound tailstock and flexing muscle shoving it across the tool steel ways of the lathe
until the foot-long drill in the tailstock’s mouth meets
turning brass bar and begins to chew
an inch-in-diameter hole through that brass bar’s dead center
it is the energy
that raised the Eiffel Tower
the shore in a canoe that crossed the Pacific
it is Einstein breaking through years of thinking to find time stops
at the speed of light
daring to look through a telescope and prove the earth isn’t the center
of the universe
it is Houdini
breaking free of every lock and shooting up out of the river gasping
the air Van Gogh breathed
the minute he brushed the last stroke of oil across his canvas full
look at the smile on the lathe man’s face as he turns the wheel
forcing the drill through the brass
it is the roar
of the tiger the ring
of the Liberty Bell the laugh
of that lathe man’s baby girl as she sits on his shoulder and reaches up
for a star and the lathe man puts everything he’s got
into turning that wheel
because little girls laugh and planets revolve and telephone repairmen
climb telephone poles and train wheels carry a saxophone
toward a music shop window so a man
who has picked himself up out of a skid row gutter can blow Charlie Parker’s notes
off a green bridge again
as the butterfly wing cracks open the chrysalis and Nelson Mandela
steps out of prison
a free man.
Do not think that the clarity of expression is artless. At first sight Voss's poems look like chopped-up prose, but read them aloud and you will hear their sinuous, resilient rhythms, winding onwards like a Whitmanesque river, developing an idea from an initial striking title and first few lines, towards an always memorable resolution.
Here's a good question:
Can Revolutions Start in Bathrooms?
in front of the bathroom mirror washing up after another day’s work
all my life
I’ve seen the working man beaten down
as CEO salaries skyrocket and stockbrokers get rich and politicians
talk of “trickle down” and “the land of opportunity” and “the American way”
and Earl on the turret lathe keeps tying and retying his shoelaces that keep breaking
and blinks through 30-year-old glasses and finally
gives up his car to ride
the bus to work
and Ariel on the Cincinnati milling machines turns 72 heaving 80-pound vices onto steel tables
with swollen arthritic fingers and joking
about working until he drops
all my life I’ve wondered
why we men who’ve twisted chuck handles until our wrists screamed
shoved thousands of tons of steel into white-hot blast furnaces
under midnight moons
leaned our bodies against screaming drill motors meeting cruel deadlines until we thought
our hearts would burst
as the owners build their McMansions on hills and smoke big cigars driving a different
$100,000 leased car to work each month
why after bailing out the banks
losing our houses
seeing our wages slashed and our workloads rise I’ve never heard one word
and Teddy the bear of a gantry mill operator walks into the bathroom to wash
all the razor-sharp steel chips and stinking black machine grease off
his arms and hands
he’s been driving the same cheap motorcycle
for 20 years and says,
“Hey which front office person is driving that brand new Jaguar
I see parked out there now?”
and none of us can answer
as we raise our heads from the sinks
“Well, whoever it is,” Teddy says,
“They’re making too much money!”
After 40 years of silence
I can’t help wishing his words could be like the musket shot
that set off the storming
of The Bastille.
Voss never loses the sense of what work is really for, and what the ideal communist society might look like. He lifts his poetic hammer, verbally envisioning redemptive change, helping to create the communist and compassionate political movement needed so that all of us – but especially the poor – will be able eventually to restore our health and happiness and eat
Broccoli and Salmon and Red Red Apples
Let the poet lift a hammer
let the poet break bread
with a man lying down in a bunk in a skid row midnight mission homeless shelter
let the poet come out from behind the walls of his ivory tower
and feel the steering wheel of a downtown Long Beach bus in his hands
as he steers it toward a 66-year-old grandmother
who rides it to work at a factory grinding wheel
let him feel the 12-hour sun the lettuce picker feels beating down on the back
of his neck
let him pull a drill press handle
hook a steel hook through a steel pan full of motorcycle sidecar yokes and drag it
100 feet across a gouged concrete factory floor as drop hammers pound
let him grease a gear turn a wheel
crack a locknut serve a plateful of crab
drain a panful of oil plant
a stick of dynamite hook a tuna
in the deep green sea dig bulldozer bucket teeth
into the side of a hill feel
how good the sun feels on his face Sunday morning
when he’s finally gotten a day off after 72 hours behind windowless factory
how good a tree looks
or a river sounds or a baby feels
in his arms
when he’s earned his bread with the sweat on his back
how true a star
and the notes of Beethoven and the curl of a wave around the nose of his surfboard are
when he’s thrown his arms around a 1-ton bar of steel
and guided it into a furnace full
of white-hot flame
how much a wildflower or a fire truck siren or a pick
in the fists of a man in the depths of a coal mine
when he earns his bread by getting the dirt of this earth
on his hands
we all are covered in soft skin and pulsing
with warm blood and deserving
of a roof over our head and a bed under our bones and a laugh
around a dinner table piled high
with broccoli and salmon
and red red apples.
Finally, here is one of Voss's most complex and successful poems, weaving themes of beaten-down oppression and class division with utopian aspiration and a willed determination to achieve human – and indeed universal – reconciliation through socially useful, unalienated work. It is a vision of
The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand
“Another day in paradise,”
a machinist says to me as he drops his time card into the time clock and the sun
over the San Gabriel mountains
and we laugh
it’s a pretty good job we have
considering how tough it is out there in so many other factories
in this era of the busted union and the beaten-down worker
and we walk away toward our machines ready for another 10 hours inside tin walls
as outside perfect blue waves roll onto black sand Hawaiian beaches
and billionaires raise martini glasses
sailing their yachts to Cancún
but I can’t help thinking
why not paradise
why not a job
where I feel like I did when I was 4
out in my father’s garage
joyously shaving a block of wood in his vice with his plane
as a pile of sweet-smelling wood shavings rose at my feet
and my father smiled down at me and we held
the earth and the stars in the palm of our hand
why not a job
joyous as one of these poems I write
a job where each turn of a wrench
each ring of a hammer makes my soul sing out glad for each drop of sweat
rolling down my back because the world has woken up and stopped worshiping money
and power and fame
and because presidents and kings and professors and popes and Buddhas and mystics
and watch repairmen and astrophysicists and waitresses and undertakers know
there is nothing more important than the strong grip and will of men
like I do
nothing more important than Jorge muscling a drill through steel plate so he can send money
to his mother and sister living under a sacred mountain in Honduras
nothing more noble
than bread on the table and a steel cutter’s grandson
reaching for the moon and men
dropping time cards into time clocks and stepping up to their machines
like the sun
Fred Voss' poetry is rooted in factory life on the West Coast of California, but rears up and stretches our imaginations as we read it, taking us across time and space. It lives in the here and now and works to the tick of the factory clock, but transcends our 'cold competitive time'. Like Blake's poetry, it sees the world in a grain of sand, tells truth to power. And like Blake, Voss combines the precision and realism born of years of skilled craftworking with a sweeping, lyrical imagination and vision arising from years of reflection on work, on the working class, and on the dreadful but alterable material realities of the world around him. Voss's sword will clearly not be sleeping in his hand, any time soon.
Voss writes prophetic poetry with a deep spiritual content, focused on the point of production. He connects the inherent, present harshness of class conflict under capitalism with the ultimate, future promise of communism, a 'warmer way to live' as he says in the poem below. It can be ironic, satirical and even angry, but it always retains its dignity, warmth and humanity. He is searingly honest in description, visionary in imagination, and is surely one of our greatest contemporary poets, tirelessly lifting his poetic hammer and striking the spark of revolution into our hearts and minds.
Let him have the last word, as well as the first. This is a poem about making
A Clock as Warm as Our Hearts
As I sit at this milling machine cranking out brass parts
at the precise rate of 21 per hour
I wait for the sun to creep its way across the sky until it shines
through the high windows
in the west wall of this factory onto the top of the blue
upside-down funnel on the workbench
beside my machine
and then my fingers
the way it always does.
There is an order to things
men in caves
before sundials and hourglasses
higher than staying competitive by turning out 21 parts per hour in this factory
or losing your job
in the sky that always returns
to shine upon my fingers
the way the dying leaves of fall return
the way our dreams return
and the comets
and as the boss comes down the aisle cold and angry
and screaming for parts
for the soothing touch of that sun on my fingers to tell me
we may put our cold competitive time clocks and bosses away
and find a warmer
way to live.
This article is also published in Communist Review. Thanks to Fred Voss, Bloodaxe Books and the Morning Star for permission to republish poems. Two collections of Fred Voss's poetry are currently available from Bloodaxe: Carnegie Hall with Tin Walls, £8.95 Bloodaxe Books 1998, and Hammers and Hearts of the Gods, £8.95 Bloodaxe Books 2009.
Welcome to the Mayday issue of Culture Matters, as we march protesting through cyberspace with a long and vigorous procession of diverse material.
A Protest March is in fact the title of our first poem, by Catherine Graham.
Then, to go with the poems by schoolchildren in London written during Refugee Week, and as a protest against the recent intensification of bombing in Syria, there's a poem from an Irish poet, Sarah Clancy. Sarah's poem, What a Bomb Hits, is accompanied by an image specially sent to us by Peter Kennard, the 'Unofficial War Artist' at the Imperial War Museum.
Next on the march comes David Betteridge's poem, In Brecht's Bar, Glasgow. It's also illustrated, with a cartoon by Bob Starrett, who was the official artist for the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-In in 1972. We're very grateful to Bob for it. The piece also contains the Brecht poem which it references, 'Questions from A Worker Who Reads'. We'd like to invite poets (and would-be poets) to have a go at writing a poem in Brecht's deceptively simple style, and send it to us.
After another fine poem for Mayday from Alexis Lykiard, there are two articles on poetry and politics. One is about the American poet Fred Voss, who works in a machine shop, and has done so for 30 years. The article includes several very fine poems by Voss - Poetry From A Writer Who Works, maybe? They show just how insightful a poet can be on the precarious conditions of working class life in America – conditions which we are in danger of sliding into in this country. Next month you can look forward to reading an interview with Fred, who answered our questions in wonderful, Whitmanesque prosepoetry.
The other article on poetry is by Alain Badiou, which he says offers 'a proof of communism by way of the poem'. It's about the links between communism and poetry, with a particular focus on poetry arising from the Spanish Civil War. We're publishing it because of the way it complements existing articles on Culture Matters by Andy Croft and Alan Morrison. Thanks to M. Badiou and to Verso Books for permission to republish that article, and while we're at it, thanks to all our contributors for sending in such first class material, for no remuneration.
In the theatre section of the arts hub, Gabriel Egan continues his series on Shakespeare. In the film section, there's a review of Guzman's new film Pearl Button, the second film in his trilogy which like Nostalgia for the Light, is about the politics and culture of Chile, in particular the people who 'disappeared' under Pinochet's dictatorship.
In the fiction section, there's a short story by Ted Parry. In the music section, we start a four part series on music and Marxism, by Mark Abel. We hope it stimulates other contributions which take a broadly historical materialist perspective on music – and indeed the other arts.
Over on the culture hub, Roland Boer presents the next article in his series on Marxism and religion. And finally, there is an interview with Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West and Shadow Minister for Arts and Culture. Perhaps we can build on her contribution by inviting articles from other political parties on the left, about their ideas for arts and culture policies?
And we hope you enjoy Mayday, and the rest of the month of May.
Thangam Debbonaire, Shadow Minister for media, culture and sport and MP for Bristol West, recently gave the following interview about arts policies to Culture Matters and the Morning Star.
Q. Unlike some other previous occupants of your position, you’ve had direct experience in the arts, particularly music. How did that come about and how does it influence your outlook?
I was brought up surrounded by classical music. My maternal grandfather was on the car assembly line in Cowley, Oxford — his wife was a part-time nurse — and my paternal grandfather was an engineer in India. They’d both been exposed to classical music at a young age, by their parents among other people. My mother and father were both lucky enough to find their ways to excellent piano teaching and met at the Royal Academy of Music.
That was back in the days when students still got grants and scholarships and young working-class people could afford to get through college with the help of a bit of extra work.
This has taught me that no art form should ever be thought of as inherently and only ever for one class. Classical music was the balm of the working class a couple of centuries ago, when cheap tickets to Mozart operas and memorable tunes meant a labourer was just as likely to hum an aria on their way home from a night out as the landed gentry. The difference was that the upper classes had better seats.
Such socialist values inform my approach to the arts and culture. I don’t want working people to be excluded from appreciating or working in any of the things that can make life good and rich and enjoyable. That includes opera, ballet and classical music. The most immediate way art and culture influence my politics is that I want the enjoyment, fulfilment and inspiration I get from the arts and culture to be shared by the many, not restricted to the few. Classical music has always been in my life and particularly recently I needed the joy and calm it brings me — I’ve grown to love Beethoven symphonies at last, I love music for string quartets of all eras and in the last year I have been studying the work of Shostakovitch.
This again informs my politics — Shostakovitch suffered under Stalin and his perceived failure to honour what the latter had decided was good for “the people” caused him to be effectively barred from working and risk imprisonment or death. Eventually Stalin changed his mind about Shostakovitch’s music and the past was suddenly wiped away from official policy.
This should be a lesson for us all — dictating to people in the arts how to do their job is not the role of politicians.
As a former professional classical musician, with a strong interest in the opera and the theatre, the terms and conditions of musicians and actors — and everyone in the arts — matter to me.
Everyone thinks of the better-paid, celebrity musicians and actors but the vast majority are on very low wages or uncertain job conditions, often a life-time of what feels like zero-hours contracts, supplemented by casual part-time work.
Musicians have to train for years and practice or rehearse for hours every day to be any good and that sort of craft deserves to be recognised in pay and conditions.
Similarly, actors have to work their craft and be willing to travel and leave family life for weeks on end and this has to be recognised. I will continue to listen to Equity and the Musicians’ Union on how the Tory government is affecting rank-and-file musicians and actors.
During my campaign to be elected I was proud to be supported by my own unions, the Communication Workers Union and Unison, as well as my former union the Musicians Union. They believed in me and I value their support hugely. The Labour Party has its roots in the trade union movement and I will always honour that.
Q. Evidence suggests there’s a disproportionate amount of government money spent on art for the privilged minority. What’s your view on that?
The Tories are satisfied to leave the pleasures of some art forms to the better-off and that’s the key difference on all policy matters between Labour and them. We want the essentials and the good things in life to be enjoyed by the many, not the few, whether that be safe and affordable housing or a ticket to the opera.
The Tory and coalition governments brought about a reversal of the achievements of the last Labour government which, from 1997 to 2010, made significant progress towards democratising access to all art forms.
Really good outreach should be a condition of public funding. The Arts Council agrees that public funding should help with the fullest possible democratisation of the arts and that’s why its policy document is called Achieving Great Art for All and its funding is conditional on outreach. I would like that outreach to go further and I will be exploring how this would work under a Labour government with my colleagues and arts practitioners.
Recently I went to an open rehearsal in Bristol for the National Children’s Orchestra under-13s in Bristol’s Colston Hall. The orchestra is ethnically diverse and I also noticed that instruments traditionally dominated by men in professional orchestras were very gender-mixed.
When I was in local and national youth orchestras in the 1980s, we were in the dying days of the peripatetic music teaching system whereby children in most local authorities could learn the instrument of their choice and be given one on loan, for free, from good quality teachers in their schools. Saturday morning orchestras and bands supplemented this — again, all free.
This was something which flourished under Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s and was cut to ribbons by Tory administrations from 1979-1997. And here we are again — funding which increased under the 1997-2010 government for arts and culture for young people has been cut once more.
During that period, Labour governments supported many arts programmes to increase effective outreach, providing free tickets to school children from low-income areas and introduced the Creative Partnerships Initiative which brought the arts to the children in their schools and in incredibly imaginative ways which made a lasting impact on those children and young people.
Local authorities are doing their best. But the pay, terms and conditions for specialist music, dance and drama teachers is often now so poor that they are leaving the profession.
Q. What do you think about the difficulties faced by minority ethnic groups in the cultural industries?
The removal of arts from our education system is a tragedy. It reinforces the exclusion of the working class, including young people from minority ethnic groups, from the arts as employees and consumers. It needs addressing and that’s one of the things I will be working on with my colleagues in the shadow education team.
There needs to be more people from minority ethnic groups and disabled people on boards of trustees of arts and culture organisations and for principles of diversity to be more embedded.
Organisations need to look and feel like places that people from minority ethnic groups and disabled people can be comfortable and inspired in, not alienated by.
There is a need to help arts organisations to reflect diversity in everything they do and I know the Arts Council is working on this. But this has to be balanced with the fact that Tory policies are also doing their damage.
Q. Apart from education and outreach, should the arts be subsidised?
Yes — take the cinema, which rarely requires direct subsidy as it can stimulate larger audiences and profit. But, again during the Labour 1997-2010 government, support for Channel 4 and tax subsidies for film production meant that the proportion of British GDP from film production multiplied. That brought more jobs — technical as well as creative — to Britain and working-class people.
That’s what subsidies for the whole range of the arts and culture forms can do, democratise access to participation and employment in all those industries.
As socialists, we should all be in favour of that. The taxpayer gets a great return on that investment. Subsidies for the arts generate jobs inside and outside the sector, with an economic multiplier factor that helps boost economic growth and good jobs in the area where the subsidy is spent.
Q. What should be done about the different levels of arts provision between the north and south in England?
That disparity concerns me hugely. Part of my role will be to work on this with colleagues in the arts and culture industries and with people across the country to work out how we can remove this barrier to consumption and enjoyment.
There have been significant Labour achievements to balance this out. The Labour Gateshead council, supported by the Labour government, invested in world-class venues the Baltic art gallery, the Sage music and conference venue and a massive piece of public art, the Angel of the North statue by Anthony Gormley.
All attract pride from, and create jobs for, locals and stimulate tourism from around the world to one of the poorest regions in the country. Labour did a brilliant job of recognising that investing in arts and culture across the board increases the sum of human happiness, democratises access to employment and enjoyment and also helps with urban regeneration, as it did in Gateshead and Liverpool, to name just two of our northern cities.
Add to that the Creative Partnerships programme and good outreach by arts organisations and you have something that was really working to help spread the reach of all art forms to all people.
One reason for the funding disparity is that so many of our national arts institutions are based in London. Of course, we outside London can go and visit them and often do. But many cannot afford to, or would not know how to access them. Even so, many national companies bring their work to the regions through touring and live cinecasts and the last Labour government supported the development of more national iconic cultural institutions around the country, such as the various Tate galleries in Cornwall and Liverpool.
Q. Working-class people are finding it increasingly difficult to get into the arts as a career and, due to spending cuts and the sheer cost, to enjoy the arts as consumers. What should be done about that?
The tragedy is that we have now gone into reverse to what Labour were doing. A Tory government prefers the patronage approach, whereby funds are increasingly drawn from private donations or trusts, with much less public accountability and often severe cuts to access and employment.
Young working-class people find it much harder to get a job in today’s arts and culture sector thanks to the decrease in support for apprenticeships, education and outreach. By contrast, current Labour policy development is as always informed by our socialist principles. Excellent art should be for everyone. This was reinforced from 1997 to 2010, with free entrance to museums, theatre, opera and concerts for young people. And there was the wonderful Creative Partnerships programme which helped bring arts and culture to children in schools.
Q. What developments in Labour Party policies might we expect from the new leadership and shadow cabinet?
I’m going to to help develop our arts and culture policy in collaboration with workers in the sector and Labour members and councillors across the country, as well as the performing arts unions. I’ll be holding a series of events nationally to bring the key people together to help answer the question: “How can we make Britain a place where excellent arts and culture is truly accessible to all? How do we in Labour support the arts to do what they do best, without dictating how they do it?”
By accessible, I mean for the full range, including disability and learning disability as well as race, gender, age, sexuality and class. I also mean access to creative careers as well as enjoyment. My biggest priority for policy development will always be education, education, education. Everything starts there. The audiences, as well as the performers, producers, directors and technicians of the future, are all currently at school. They need to be exposed to and be able to take part in art and culture of the highest order and of the greatest range. Arts and culture should feel like something all children and young people feel is for them, not just for other people.
Just Like You
by Hanna Abdullah
I am human
Just like you.
I eat and I sleep
Just like you.
I walk and talk
Just like you. I have a family and friends
Just like you.
I have an education and I study
Just like you.
I have dreams and aspirations
Just like you.
And I have a home
Just like you.
Except my home has been crushed and raided by soldiers.
I witnessed my friends get killed right in front of me.
My mother is being held prisoner.
My baby brother was taken away by soldiers.
And me, I am alone, trying to live a normal live in a foreign country.
Remember, I have a beating heart
And blood running through my veins
Just like you.
I am not an animal,
I am not an insect,
I am not trash,
I am human,
Just like you.
by Guste Bekionyte
Realising in the steam will make me,
Unforgettable pain that is still there.
Grief, not going away.
Ethiopia is where I was,
Extreme war was in my life.
We hate it here, it is very violent,
Empathy is what we need.
Enraged! We need justice,
Keeping hope in my heart.
These two poems by schoolchildren in Newham, London, are taken from the Newham Poetry Book, published by the Newham Teachers' Association and sponsored by the NUT. See