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21st Century Poetry with Andy Croft: February 21, 2022

While the enemy’s ideas of culture are disfigured by money, snobbery, ignorance and dullness, the left still has the poets with something to say

AT A time of deepening structural inequalities in British life, the world of contemporary poetry publishing is increasingly remote and inaccessible. It is hard to be heard. But while the enemy’s ideas of culture are disfigured by money, snobbery, ignorance and dullness, the left still has the poets with something to say.

Here are four strong new anthologies that try to bear witness to the dangerous and absurd world of the 21st century.

A Fish Rots from the Head: A Poetic and Political Wake (Culture Matters, FREE e-book) is a flash-anthology addressing the “lawless folly” of partygate. Edited by Rip Bulkeley, these poems were written as the Downing Street comic opera began to unfold.

It’s a fantastic collection of squibs, satires, parodies and limericks, ridiculing the bunch of knaves and fools who lead this poisonous Tory government. There are some terrific poems here – notably by Jim Aitken, Owen Gallagher, Christopher Norris, Alan Morrison, Mike Jenkins, Antony Owen, Steve Pottinger, Mark Ashworth, Martin Zarrop, Janine Booth and Rachel Davies.

And it is worth getting hold of this e-book just for Deborah Cox’s A Press Conference with Boris Johnson, Martin Rowson’s How Do You Solve a Problem like Boris? and Caroline Jackson-Houlston’s clever An Old Song Resung:
“This proverb is still true today: the weak go to the wall. / Rich men can booze the night away, but the poor man pays for all.”

Swirl of Words/Swirl of Worlds (PEER/Shoreditch Library, £20) is a wonderful bilingual collection of poems written in all the languages currently spoken in Hackney — 3,000 copies of the book are being given away free to users of Hackney libraries.

The poems have been “gathered” by poet and translator Stephen Watts in order to celebrate the varieties and continuities between different poetic traditions from around the world.

Poetry and translation, he argues, are inherently “acts of potential subversion.” “Poets are not unacknowledged legislators and have no need to be, or to try to be. Poetry, rather, is the world: something most politicians have no semblance of knowing.”

There are poems here translated from 94 different languages – from Afrikaans and Bambara to Yoruba and istZulu. Because it is a bilingual anthology, it contains some spectacularly beautiful scripts like Telegu, Georgian, Lao, Pashto, Dari, Tamil, Kashmiri and Sinhalese.

A few of these poems are by very famous poets (Apollinaire, Ritsos, Mayakovsky, Lorca, Hikmet). But some of the most effective are by poets not previously published in Britain, like Azem Shkrerli’s Departure of the Migrants, Kayo-Lampe’s Europe, Zeyar Lynn’s My History is Not Mine and the wonderful Greetings to the Peoples of Europe by the Amharic poet Slenu Tebeje: “braving seas and leaky boats, / cold waves of fear – let salt winds punch / our faces and your coast-guards / pluck us from the water like oily birds! / but here we are at last to knock / at your front door, / hoping against hope you remember / all the lovely words your fathers preached to ours.”

Finally, two big anthologies edited by Ambrose Musiyiwa. Black Lives Matter: Poems for a New World (Civic Leicester, £9.48) consists of 107 poems by 95 writers from all over the world. As with any big anthology, it is a bit uneven at times, but there are some terrific poems by Jenny Mitchell, Sandra A Agard, Jem Henderson, Mellow Baku and Musiyiwa himself. Arun Jeetoo describes racism in the UK as “a leopard concealing / itself in the tall grass / disguised / as ignorance.” Meanwhile Selina Nwulu locates the source of the problem in “Till all that’s left is white paper”:
“I found my body parts at the / bottom of an editor’s bin... a slow smother / an obsessive throttle / a constant murder.”

Poetry and Settled Status for All (Civic Leicester, £9.78) consists of 114 poems by 97 writers from around the world. Introduced by Claudia Webbe, the MP (until recently, the Labour MP) for Leicester East, the book is a call for Settled Status or Indefinite Leave to Remain to be given to those with insecure or undocumented immigration status. Those who, as Diliana Stoyanova points out, are here already: “The rootless, the tongue-less, the restless, / The helpless, the aimless, the reckless, / The outcast, the voiceless, the faithless, / The exiled, the faceless, the state-less, / The immigrants, / The differents.”

The most memorable poems here – notably by Laura Grevel, Rob Lowe, Alice Herve and Etzali Hernandez – try to address the inhumane attitudes that make us fear those who we don’t know, and the inhuman system that is quick to demonise those we don’t understand. As Loraine Masiya Mpolela asks: “What does it take / For me to qualify as a good immigrant? / Good at what? / Am I not good enough as I am?”

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