Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2017
Friday, 22 February 2019 10:46

Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2017

Published in Poetry

Len McCluskey introduces the Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2017.

As working-class people, we know all about economic struggle. It’s a constant struggle for many people nowadays to make ends meet on low incomes and inadequate benefits, because these have been deliberately frozen and even cut by governments of the rich and powerful.

The chaos and cruelty around the introduction of Universal Credit is just the latest example of the deliberate attack on the poor by the Tory Government.

It’s hard work just to keep your job these days – let alone get more pay, win better terms and conditions, and get some satisfaction out of work. The trade union movement, which is by far the largest voluntary movement in Britain, is vital to protecting working people’s economic interests, but it has been limited and obstructed by successive governments.

That is why political struggle is so important for us in the labour movement. It’s why we need to campaign politically as well as economically. It’s why we need to vote for political parties which will genuinely try and change a system which is so obviously rigged against us.

There is another struggle, though – the cultural struggle. And culture is not just the arts, it is all the things we do to entertain, educate and enlighten ourselves, usually with others. It includes the arts like music, films, theatre and poetry. But it also includes sport, television, eating and drinking, the internet, religion – all those activities which bring meaning, purpose, enjoyment and happiness into our lives.

In each and every one of those activities, working people face a struggle. It’s getting harder to become a musician or actor or writer without rich relatives to support you. The ticket prices for football games exclude families on tight budgets from attending together. Cuts and curriculum changes mean our children are being deprived of good arts, sporting and other cultural educational activities, at primary and secondary schools.

Libraries and other cheap or free cultural facilities are being cut back, part of the deliberate class war being waged by the rich and powerful on working people. State funding for the arts – money that comes from our taxes and our Lottery tickets – is overwhelmingly focused on the London area, benefiting mainly the already well off, and tourists.

Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union, believes that our members, and working people generally, have an equal right to join in and enjoy all the arts and cultural activities. We believe we should be able to afford them, be near to them, and be able to enjoy them.

Most of all, we believe artists and leaders of cultural institutions – not only theatres, art galleries, concert halls and poetry publishers, but sports clubs, churches, and broadcasting and media corporations – should seek to engage with all sections of the community, particularly the least well off.

That’s why we sponsored the first Bread and Roses Poetry Award. Organised and managed by the Culture Matters Co-Operative, the Award attracted a huge response. Over a thousand poems were sent it, many from people who would not have otherwise have dreamt of taking part in such an exercise.

Here’s what Jilly O’Brien, one of the entrants, said:

Please find attached my three poems for the Bread and Roses poetry competition. I'm glad you are running this competition because poetry sometimes disappears up its own bum of elitist, out of touch carrying-on. And yet we know that the working class have always been the storytellers – just take a visit to any pub on the Clyde on an average afternoon and you'll see what I mean.

The judges – Andy Croft, the poet and publisher, and Mary Sayer, a Unite official working in the field of cultural education – were very moved by the quantity and quality of the entries. They felt the exercise showed the collective strength of writing by working people. Here’s what Mary said:

I began to appreciate what a privilege it was to share the outpourings of so many committed and caring individuals. It was almost impossible to shortlist, and we did so on the understanding that we could highly commend a long list of entries and do justice to the rest by publishing as many as possible, in an anthology.

So we asked Culture Matters to put together an anthology, and it has now been published. Unite are grateful to Culture Matters, to the judges, but most of all to the entrants, for all their hard work. We’re very pleased and very proud to have supported such a successful project, and we will be repeating the exercise next year.

It's the kind of democratising, energetic exercise that we see behind so much of the support for Jeremy Corbyn. His message of hope and the possibility of real change has inspired new generations to look afresh at politics and express their support creatively.

Let's build on that - and work to keep our cultural activities open to the many, not the few.

The Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2017 is available priced £5 (plus £1.50 p and p) from here.    

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2017
Friday, 22 February 2019 10:46

Bread and Roses Poetry Award 2017

Published in Poetry

The Bread and Roses Poetry Award, sponsored by Unite in partnership with Culture Matters, was instituted this year. The idea is to stimulate the writing of poetry about working class lives and communities, by people who otherwise might not write or enter competitions.

We're very pleased that it has been a tremendous success, although we were almost overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of submissions. Several hundred poems were sent in, of all kinds and from a wide range of writers across Britain and indeed across the world: America, India, Nigeria and Australia, to name just a few. Many entries were accompanied by notes saying how grateful the writers were to Unite and to Culture Matters for opening up what can seem a very exclusive and elitist artistic practice.

Two judges kindly agreed to the difficult task of studying, sifting, and judging the poems. They were Andy Croft, the poet and publisher of Smokestack Books, and Mary Sayer, an official from Unite working in the field of cultural education. In the light of the high quality of so many of the entries, the judges decided to divide the prizes equally between three poems, submitted by Helen Burke, Mair De-Gare Pitt, and John Wright. They will each receive £285.

The judges were extremely impressed by the entries. Here's what Mary Sayer wrote to us afterwards:

What a delight this has been – reading my way through the hundreds of remarkable poems entered into this competition. None of us had any idea there would be so many entries of such a high standard.

All of the poems were very readable and most of them were a real pleasure to read. I felt genuinely humbled having to 'choose' between such passionate and interesting poems. All were political and heartfelt - often funny and deeply moving - inspiring; I had no idea that there were so many articulate politicos out there.

But more than anything, as I read - I began to appreciate what a privilege it was to share the outpourings of so many committed and caring individuals. It was almost impossible to shortlist, and we did so on the understanding that we could highly commend a long list of entries and do justice to the rest by publishing as many as possible, in an anthology.

Thanks to Culture Matters for involving me in this competition and to my union Unite for sponsoring it. As co-ordinator of 'Unite in Schools' programme, this has inspired me to run a similar poetry competition in schools and colleges, around the campaigns and political issues chosen by students in our sessions.

 We will be publishing many of the poems sent to us, both online and in a printed anthology. We are very grateful to Unite for sponsoring the Award; to the judges, for all their hard work; but most of all to the hundreds of poets who sent in such wonderful poems. Please continue to send us poems that you wish to be considered for publication, especially on topical issues.

Here is one of the poems sent in, by Fred Voss. Fred works as a machinist in a metalworking shop in Long Beach, California, and has been published by Bloodaxe Books and by Culture Matters.

Billie Holliday Crooning a Rose Opening

by Fred Voss

All our lives we have known about great men
Teddy Roosevelt
on Mount Rushmore Paul Revere
riding his horse the marble eyes
of Lincoln looking out so wisely from his monument
but can standing at a grinding wheel 10 hours a day until your fingertips are scraped raw
be great
can holding onto a jumping pounding jackhammer
until your spine rattles
be great
in his 3-cornered hat is great Orville Wright gliding
over the sands of Kitty Hawk is great the top
of the Empire State Building and the Rock of Gibraltar
and Lindbergh stepping out of his airplane to ride down Broadway in his tickertape parade
are great but can oil cans
and concrete floors and twisted backs and crane hooks and whoops
of crazy delight from the throats of men who have run machines in the corners of tin buildings
for 40 years be great
can missing the dawn sun
as 2-ton drop hammers explode behind tin walls at 6 am and fists
that never give up closing around monkey wrenches and hammer handles and spirits
of men that can never be broken even after 7
layoffs and a thousand screams
of foremen in their faces
be great
can gnarled hands and ticking time clocks and greasy shop rags hanging out of back pockets
and men
who’ve clawed their way out of prison cells straightjackets
skid row gutters gangs and grabbed
machine handles and smiled again
be great
John Barrymore crossing a stage Caesar in a helmet Shakespeare holding his quill pen the tiger
leaping through jungle moonlight
are great but are the 3 teeth
left in the head of the engine lathe operator who lifts his wrench and laughs like he’s the luckiest
man on earth great is the man
who took the heroin needle out of his arm and learned to dial the razor-sharp edge
of a cutting tool into brass round stock and shave it
to a finish beautiful
as any solo
Miles Davis ever blew out of his trumpet
how can the sun a Joe Louis punch a marlin hanging in the air
above the sea Billie Holiday crooning a rose
opening any man
who ever worked his heart out to feed his child not
be great?