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Carrying on from the Chartists

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 […]

October 13, 2008
8 min read

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.

Chartist poetry

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/

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
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