Dreams of war: reportage in verse

Red Pepper shadow poet laureate Adrian Mitchell introduces the winners of the Iraq Occupation Focus poetry competition

December 1, 2004
5 min read


Adrian Mitchell was Red Pepper's 'shadow poet laureate'.


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Usually, I hate poetry competitions. Most of them are pretentious lotteries, the main aim of which is to make an easy profit out of aspiring poets. They tend to produce a kind of Cliff Richard poetry that tries desperately to please everybody. And, worst of all, they give the idea that poetry itself is a competition. It isn’t.

But the Iraq Occupation Focus poetry competition won’t make anybody rich. The object is not money or prestige, but enlightenment. It was obvious that among the millions who marched against the invasion of Iraq, the longing for peace and an end to all war was running like a tidal wave.

The emotions and dreams and visions of those people – us – were bound to overflow into conversations, speeches, banners, paintings, songs, dances, plays and poems.

These poems are poems that had to be written. Many of them, I guess, were written through tears. But they weren’t written to make the poet feel better. They were written to share feelings and thoughts with other people, to shed some light on what is really happening in the world today, and what might happen, for better or worse, tomorrow.

I read 276 poems and chose the ones that seemed most true. Of course, there were entries that were hardly poems at all: angry remixes of news items cut up into rough lines of prose or forced into dogged rhyme. But there were also many real poets: people who actually read the work of the best poets of the past and present; poets from all over the world.

(For a picture of political poetry, mainly in Britain in the 20th century, may I recommend the anthology Red Sky at Night: socialist poetry, which Andy Croft and I edited for Five Leaves recently.)

These poems are not simply cries of pain, frustration and anger. The winning entry describes the agony of survivors and yet is beautiful because it is written with great care and love for the people in the poem and for the English language.

A poem written without love is bound to wither soon. So is a poem written simply out of fear or despair. Fear leads to bad actions. Despair leads to no action. Love is creative action and leads to good action. (I am 72 so I can do a short sermon once in a while.)

To generalise wildly, I would have liked more humour and wit. One way to fight the masters of war is with explosive jokes. But I’m not complaining. There were so many poems I enjoyed – many of them with passing references to dogs, I’m glad to say – that I have demanded four third prizes instead of two and have named 10 more poems as ‘highly commended’.

To all the poets, thank you. Please continue to work for peace in the streets and in your poems. Maybe you include the next Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Neruda. But remember, poetry is not a competition. We are all in this together.

Red Pepper will publish the third-place poems in future issues. To access the Iraq Occupation Focus newsletter and to read about 5 December’s Occupation and Resistance in Iraq teach-in, visit www.iraqoccupationfocus.org.uk

The winner

Everything I know about war,

I see in Shairah’s face as she arrives

and kisses me one two three four five times,

this cheek, then that. Salaam Aleikum. How are you?

I’m fine. Wrenched to this winter, widowed after two

decades of invasion, she gets here early

for the food – white bread, tomatoes, chilli,

cheese, digestives, supermarket hummus,

or home-made halva, pistachios and spices,

a plate of Burmese noodles. Everything

I know is in the faces of these women

even when they smile, in their generosity,

in places language cannot reach. I see

fragments of their houses under fire

from bombers that are launched in Gloucestershire

above conservatories where people sip Darjeeling

out of willow-patterned china. Everything

I know about war, I know from the silence

after Marie cries J’ai pas la force,

J’ai pas le courage, when the lawyer’s letter

says she has no grounds to stay and must prepare

for deportation. Everything I know, I know

from sitting here with bags of baby-clothes,

from the Rwandan teenager who’s too shy

to speak, from the corner where Shareem prays

white-lipped in Ramadan for the Home Office

to relent, for a letter or a half-promise.

Everything I know, I know from the survivors,

Our lives are over, it’s the children now who matter.

No, there’s no official war in Yemen, just three guns

for every person, there’s no war in Afghanistan,

no war in Algeria, no war in Congo,

but on the battleground of female bodies. No,

there’s no war in Iraq, no war in Iran

where Azar has fled the politician-

husband who disabled her, but since gender

is not race, religion, nationality, member-

ship of a particular social group, or a political

opinion, she does not fit the bill.

Together we push war towards the edges,

for two hours drink tea in twenty languages,

distract the kids. But nothing rinses off

the memories – Suleika’s daughters locked

inside the engine-box because the man

she paid to bring them here insisted that

they had to be silent or die. Every-

thing I know remains when almost every-

one has left and Jedira who’s eight

with butterflies face-painted on her cheeks, says

Can I stay, can I stay please and sweep the floor?

by River Wolton

For safety and confidentiality, all names have been changed


Adrian Mitchell was Red Pepper's 'shadow poet laureate'.