Can poetry provide a means for change? Dave Toomer, Christina McAlpine and John G Hall, the editors of Citizen 32 magazine, believe it can. Here they explain the importance of combining poetry and activism
The contemporary black American poet Amiri Baraka declared that ‘art should be used as a weapon of revolution’, and indeed poetry has always been used as a way of attempting to provoke change.
His British counterpart, Lemn Sissay, has described poetry as ‘the original CNN’. Poets were the conveyors of information and stories long before the printing press. And they are difficult to censor: governments can burn books, but it is much more difficult to silence the poet and the poem in his or her head. Poetry still has the power to hammer out messages of protest and change. There is no shortage of poets producing that kind of work and Citizen 32 magazine was launched to give a voice to new political poets – with each publication focusing on a theme, from war and peace to sexuality and race.
But Citizen 32 has become much more than just a magazine. It is a movement to fuse together poetry and campaigns against war and injustice. Citizen 32 gives a voice to new poets, certainly, but the magazine’s banner can also be seen on demonstrations, on pickets and showing solidarity with the oppressed. It has literally become the place ‘where art meets activism’. The magazine champions both victimised poets and trade unionists, providing a vehicle for those who would not normally find an outlet for their work and actively supporting a variety of campaigns in Britain and across the world.
A new generation
In the US, a new generation of poets has been inspired by the lasting influence of the ‘counterculture’, as personified by writers such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Jack Hirschman and Amiri Baraka. While Ferlinghetti is recognised in Britain – being difficult to ignore as the man who gave Allen Ginsberg a voice by publishing his controversial poem ‘Howl’ – many of his contemporaries are not. Yet Hirschman, whose poetry has been adopted as a voice for the homeless in the US, has produced countless volumes and has read at events across the USA and continental Europe. And Baraka has been a huge influence on revolutionary black writers in the USA.
After the assassination of Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka became more and more influenced by African nationalism and Sunni Islamic ideas. The FBI has kept a growing file on his activities for decades, especially since his views moved away from narrow nationalism towards Marxism. Baraka believes a poet’s artistic responsibility is to inspire and educate the oppressed and to expose and distress the oppressor. Most of his work achieves that – most notably his post-9/11 poem, ‘Somebody blew up America’. The poem is a stream of questioning, posing questions about the US and Israel’s role in the world.
When he broadcast the poem in his capacity as state poet laureate of New Jersey, its criticism of Israel provoked accusations of anti-semitism from the Anti-Defamation League – a charge Baraka vehemently denies. The governor of New Jersey, James McGreevey, demanded that Bakara resign as poet laureate. When he refused, the governor simply abolished the post. Baraka is now suing the state ‘for attacks on my character. Not to mention the fact that they owe me 10,000 bucks.’
In Britain, Citizen 32 has provided poets for May Day and ‘Love Poetry Hate Racism’ gigs, and was at this year’s Tolpuddle Martyrs festival hosting an open mic slot for new activist poets. From the poetry of the Chartists to the present day, there has always been a strand of poetry linked closely with day-to-day struggles. Citizen 32 is an attempt to revive that tradition.
Not separate from society
No matter how much some ‘professional poets’ would like to think they are separate from society and the real world, the fact is they are not. Poets such as Adrian Mitchell or Harold Pinter understand this, and their poems are often immediate responses to events and issues ranging from homelessness to war. Pinter’s hard-hitting War collection provoked a reaction unsurpassed in modern poetry, from vilification to reverence, and helped earn him the Wilfred Owen award, one of the highest honours for a modern writer on war.
Since his early career, Adrian Mitchell’s work has engaged with the issues of the day (see Mitchell’s poem ‘At the crossroads’, p56). In many ways he has become more militant as his career has progressed. In a heartfelt scream of protest in reaction to the fawning adoration of royalty, Mitchell emerged as the shadow poet laureate after an invitation from Red Pepper. He said it was the official elegy for Princess Margaret by poet laureate Andrew Motion that proved to be the last straw, and so, in a secret midnight ceremony, the shadow poet laureate was installed, writing passionately about love and death, war and peace.
Mitchell believes that poetry can play a part in effecting change in society. In an interview with Citizen 32, he said: ‘It is a small part of the fight for peace and justice and can illuminate things. Brecht wrote some brilliant poems about individuals – one poem in particular about a servant girl who gets pregnant and has her baby in a latrine and murders the baby.
‘It’s a very simple poem, almost like a newspaper report, but it breaks your heart and makes you want to do something.’
Benjamin Zephaniah is another poet whose life and work is linked closely with the Citizen 32 manifesto. From the battle against apartheid in South Africa to challenging the hysterical post-9/11 Islamophobia that has accompanied the so-called ‘war on terror’, Zephaniah has been there – both as poet and activist.
His work is forged in these struggles and is imbued with an optimism informed by experiences that might have caused lesser spirits to lose heart. ‘I believe we will win if we continue to chip away at this evil,’ he says. ‘I think Marx said capitalism will eat itself and I believe that. That doesn’t mean we have to sit back and expect it to happen by itself. We have to keep chipping away at it.
‘I’ve done a fair bit of travelling. There are groups of people labelled anti-capitalist. I find that when I talk to people in Calcutta they are saying the same things as people in Brasilia and Beijing.’
Politics and poetry have been inextricably linked in Zephaniah’s life. He is as renowned for campaigning for justice for his cousin Mikey Powell, who died at the hands of the police, as he is for a body of poetic work that is now taught in schools. In the early 1980s his words could be heard on demonstrations and gatherings against the sus laws, high unemployment, homelessness and the National Front, as well as on the dancefloor.
This fusion of activism and art has deep roots. Chartist activists found time to write hundreds of poems commenting on their struggle for the radical Northern Star newspaper in the 19th century. The paper reached a circulation of 50,000 among the intelligent and influential portion of the working classes, and the movement received a valuable political education in its struggle to implement the ‘People’s Charter’ of 1838.
Ernest Jones was a Chartist who was imprisoned for sedition after making a speech saying that ‘the green flag of Chartism will soon be flying over Downing Street’. As he wasn’t allowed pen and ink in prison, legend has it that he wrote his epic poem The Revolt of Hindostan on prison prayer-books in his own blood.
Yet his dedication to poetry was not unusual: the Star got so many submissions that it had to be merciless when it came to ensuring that only the best quality work was used, provoking some savage rejections by editors. Here’s one example of a rebuttal from editor William Hill in 1838: ‘W M … desires us to alter any word we think proper, or put in any new words that may be needed in his verses. The best thing we cant [sic] suggest to him is, to alter all the words, or, what might be still better, take them all away, and leave the paper blank.’
Poetry was central to the way working-class communities expressed themselves, both politically and otherwise. While much of the poetry reflects the social upheaval of the period, it also deals with everyday issues such as love, nature, deaths and births. This ethos is taken up by Citizen 32 in the belief that politics is in everything we do. It gives progressive activists from all backgrounds a chance to carry on the tradition of the Chartists.
Citizen 32 can be found at: http://www.citizen32.co.uk/
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice.
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform