Statement By 115 Poets in Support of the Labour Party
We, the undersigned, representing a section of the poetry community, pledge our support to the Labour Party in the upcoming general election because we want to see its radically transformative and compassionate manifesto come into effect. The manifesto shows a commitment to social justice and equality not only in its comprehensive policies of state support for consumers and producers of the arts and culture generally, but also in its social and economic policies to support working people, including:
An end to austerity and the ideological attack on our welfare state An end to the malicious work capability assessments of the sick and disabled and PIP An end to the political scapegoating of the unemployed An end to the two child benefit cap An end to discriminatory rhetoric at the dispatch box An end to the "hostile environment" for immigrants and refugees An end to rough sleeping An end to zero-hour contracts An end to unpaid internships An end to tuition fees An end to creeping privatisation of the NHS
We want to see these Labour policies implemented:
A National Education Service A National Care Service A Universal Basic Income Pilot A reintroduction of private rent controls and greater rights for renters A restitution of Legal Aid Free prescriptions in line with Scotland and Wales A green industrial revolution A culturally transformative Charter for the Arts A Race and Faith manifesto
Keith Armstrong Anne Babson Bruce Barnes Christopher Barnes Amy Evans Bauer Bob Beagrie Brian Beamish Peter Branson Jane Burn Gale Burns Lesley Burt David Cain Ushiku Crisafulli Andy Croft Alan Dent Matt Duggan Steve Ely Dr Naomi Foyle Harry Gallagher Owen Gallagher Raine Geoghegan Harry Gilonis Prof John Goodby Maria Gornell Chris Gutkind John G. Hall Colin Hambrook Chip Hamer Emma Hammond Robert Hampson Oz Hardwick Bruce Harris Martyn Hayes Kevin Higgins Clare Hill Luke Hoggarth Bernadette Horton Keith Howden Zekria Ibrahimi Andy Jackson Kevin N. Jelf Nicholas Johnson Fred Johnston Strider Marcus Jones Tom Kelly David Kessel Mark Kirkbride S.J. Litherland Fran Lock Marilyn Longstaff Hannah Lowe Rupert Loydell Chris McCabe Niall McDevitt Rachel McGladdery John McKeown James Mainland Caroline Maldonado Char March Dez Mendoza Rob Miles Christopher Moncrieff Stephen Mooney Alan Morrison Graham Mort John Muckle Pete Mullineaux Mark Murphy Nicholas Murray Chris Nash Christopher Norris Dr John O'Donoghue Clive Oseman Antony Owen Ben Parker-Jones Ian Parks Tom Pickard Steph Pike Mair De-Gare Pitt Winston Plowes Dr David Pollard Steve Pottinger Alan Price Prof John Quicke Mike Quille Frank Rafferty Peter Raynard Sally Richards Karl Riordan Lisa Rossetti Anne Rouse Dave Russell Bernard Saint Stephen Sawyer John Scott John Seed John Short Ken W. Simpson Fiona Sinclair Richard Skinner Linus Slug Barry Smith Geoff Smith Theresa Sowerby Steve Spence David Stoker Peter Street Paul Summers Dr Andrew Taylor FRSA Laura Taylor Angela Topping Ruth Valentine Jo Walton Rob Walton Stephen Watts Merryn Williams Gareth Writer-Davies Wendy Young
Co-ordinated by Alan Morrison (The Recusant) and Mike Quille (Culture Matters Co-operative Ltd), December 2019.
Joe Solo is an award-winning musician, writer, poet, activist, broadcaster and washing machine engineer from Scarborough. He has a growing reputation as both a performer and political raconteur. Chris Guiton interviews him about his music and his politics.
CG. Who are the main musical and poetical influences in your life and how has your music and poetry evolved over the years? What was the spark that got you interested in the first place?
JS. I can remember the exact moment the spark ignited me. A friend of mine dropped the needle on 'Go For It' by Stiff Little Fingers and 'Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae' blasted out. This was 1983. My whole life just went BANG and I knew there and then that what I wanted to do was give people the feeling that record had just given me. It's strange because I've never been very good at being an academic, so my politics tends to come from experiences of people and circumstances rather than dry tract. If I'm really honest, if you stripped everything down, the words to that song are probably still the basis for my entire belief system....."Equal rights and justice for one and all...." or "Comfort the afflicted and keep them from harm. Let age be protected and the infants be strong" or "Pass the bowl to make the food go round" or "Don't fight against no colour, class or creed cos on discrimination does violence breed". It's all in there. I think sometimes the headline a lyric gives you becomes a foundation to build on. That's important when you're a kid, or when you're a little lost. Politics can seem really daunting from the outside, but songs give you confidence and a little courage. They give you a place to start.
As far as influences go I'm not really sure. All kinds of things inspire me, from music and books and films to ordinary stuff, the way people find a path through hard times, the stories you never hear; the silent struggles of millions of people too ordinary to grab headlines, but all poignant and heroic in their own way. As a songwriter those are the stories you want to tell, because those are the stories that ring true in ALL our lives. They have a magic that is universal.
And how has my writing changed over the years? I think I just got better at it. I'm older. I understand stuff on levels I didn't as a kid. That helps.
CG. There’s a lot of passion and commitment in your music. What inspires you and how do you go about writing your songs lyrically and musically?
JS. I usually grab hold of a phrase and play around with it while I'm driving. My job gives me a lot of hours behind the wheel and I use that time to beat ideas into shape lyrically, then work them out on the guitar when I get home. They always start like that. I can't remember the last time I picked up a guitar to write a song, they always come formed in my head first. The passion comes from the writing. It's important that you work out what you are trying to say before you start trying to make it fit together, that way you aren't crow-barring lines in just because they rhyme; if you start doing that the song stops being believable and you can't then sing it with conviction. If you've written the song properly the emotion should be in every word right there waiting for you when you start to sing. There's no need to force a good song when you perform it, everything you need is there already. It has been written in to every line.
And as for commitment, you have to have that. If you haven't you don't stand a chance. Not just in music, in anything. As an old friend of mine used to say: "Stand up for what you're standing up for".
CG. The great singer and activist, Nina Simone, famously said, “You can't help it. An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.” How do you define your politics – and what do you think the role of musicians and poets is in society today?
JS. Ms Simone is bang on there. Art defines our culture. It gives us signposts. We have a responsibility to tell those who come after us of our times. Sometimes we speak of them directly, and sometimes we just create a mirror which reflects what is going on around us. It's all a part of the same process. That doesn't mean everyone should be writing politics, far from it, sometimes it's what you don't say; and sometimes a 'bling and bitches' rap, for instance, tells you all you need to know about the artist and their cultural and sociological viewpoint. That does the same thing, just not in a positive way. In years to come people will hear it and think 'Could people REALLY have thought that?' and that in itself is a reflection of the times; rather like a statue of someone who history has redefined. It reminds you of your folly.
As for defining my own politics, I always describe myself as a man of the Left. As I said, I'm not an intellectual so I have arrived at this point through reason and experience, and through seeing firsthand what happens to people when bad politics are inflicted on them. I'm a Socialist, not because a book told me to be, but because shaking a stranger's hand means more to be than counting the money in my wallet. If you have that part clear in your mind, the rest is just details......and in my opinion, people get FAR too caught up in those details. That's why we always spend more time fighting each other on the Left as we do our real enemy. We forget the basics.
CG. What are your thoughts about the political situation at the moment, in particular the hope offered by Jeremy Corbyn and the dramatic shift in the position of the Labour Party?
JS. I think Mr Corbyn's arrival was both necessary and inevitable. I was 100% behind him from the start. The Labour Party had deserted the Centre Left and allowed itself to drift after an increasingly right wing Tory party. It deserted not only its traditional place on the political spectrum, but its core vote too and that part is unforgivable because it became a catalyst for apathy and alienation, and worse still, a breeding ground for far right parties who moved on to our estates and began spreading their bile. This, backed by the Murdoch press, fuelled an anger which has divided our communities along lines of race, colour, creed and class. I'm sure that wasn't the INTENTION of New Labour, but it was certainly the result; and they should have known better, they should have looked after the people who form the very backbone of the Labour movement. When Mr Corbyn arrived he proved something beyond all doubt, that if you offer people nothing but more of the same they will not lift a finger. The fight goes out of them. They get tired of being angry. But while they won't get out of their chair for more despair, they will march a million miles for hope. There was a vacuum on the Left of politics which Mr Corbyn walked into, and having witnessed the same explosion with our We Shall Overcome movement over the Summer of 2015, it was absolutely no surprise when he became leader with a landslide. People want something to fight FOR, not against. They want to feel a part of something again.
CG. At Culture Matters we are very interested in what an incoming Labour Government would do to develop arts and culture policies that reverse the impact of austerity, make the link between progressive culture and progressive politics, and support culture for the many not the few (to coin a phrase!). What are your thoughts on what a socialist arts and culture policy should contain?
JS. This isn't really my area of expertise. I think art is instinctive rather than something you can plan. I think if you set out what you want culture to look like it will rebel, that's what it does. But, on a mechanical level, I think it is vital we get funding into the arts because otherwise people are put off taking part, and there is no doubt that being involved in music, or drama, or creative writing, or whatever, enriches us as human beings and changes our perspectives on the world around us; and it does this in subjective ways, each of us sees something slightly different while sharing the same experience. This broadens our minds and opens us up to possibilities, while giving us an appreciation and respect of others. These are Socialist emotions, that is why Tory governments always try to crush the Arts. They see no commercial value in it, and the last thing they want is people thinking for themselves. They want individualism, not individuality. People get those confused, and they really shouldn't.
CG. The ‘DIY culture’ that emerged with punk is still going strong. A grassroots approach to music and poetry is a great way of empowering people who might otherwise feel excluded from society. What are your thoughts on this, and how might the trade union and labour movement best support this?
JS. Totally agree. If anything it has only grown in the age of the internet. These days you can see something on the news in the morning, write a song at lunchtime, record it on your phone in the afternoon and have it trending on the internet by teatime. There has never been a better time for using music or poetry or video blogs to spread opinion and dissent....and they know it too, that's why they will come after the internet sometime soon. It is the new mass media and it's ours.
I see the start of new relationships between the Labour movement and culture. I see unions and local Labour Party branches going back to what we used to call 'socials' and recognising the value in all getting together and talking over a few beers and a band; not only in cementing relationships between the members, but in the shared experience of the gig atmosphere there is an energy that we have missed for many years. I play a lot of these events and witness it firsthand. There is a growing sense of solidarity out there, a sense of community, and it is inspiring.
CG. You’ve been involved in some really interesting campaigns such as ‘We Shall Overcome’. What do you think are the best ways of setting up these campaigns, engaging with audiences around the country and getting people involved in the political struggle?
JS. There is no magic formula. I wish there was. A LOT of these things start up and a lot of them flounder. All you can do is put your ideas out there and hope they catch on. And don't let it defeat you if they don't. It is nothing personal. It just wasn't the right time. With We Shall Overcome we wanted to create an umbrella movement, a banner to march under. There are thousands of benefit gigs all over the country in any given year, and they all raise money for either the major charities or local causes. What we wanted was for people to march under the WSO banner while retaining the individual nature of their own events. That way you create numbers, and more than anything that is what politicians fear. If we could all march together we would demonstrate a truly mass movement against the way the world is being run. People can engage with the wider politics as little or as much as they want, but if you are running events to help people who need assistance then it is a political act in and of itself, you are recognising a need which a failure in politics has created, you are already protesting. We hoped people would see the value in standing together under the one banner and demonstrating the scale of our problems at street level. It's still a work in progress, we fight on.
CG. Can you tell us something about your new album, Not On Our Watch, and how it builds on your previous albums?
JS. 'Not On Our Watch' is probably best summed up by the closing paragraph of a review on the Yorkshire Gig Guide site:
"It leaves us with the certain conviction that we owe it to those who came before us, and, indeed, to those who come after, to continue to fight oppression and inequality in all its many forms and to make the world a better place in whatever way we can."
That's what I hoped people would hear in it.
CG. How do you combine music, poetry and writing in your life?
JS. With great difficulty. Even when I'm not gigging I'm straight in from work (where I've often being writing and honing ideas while driving) and in to the other side of it all. There's rehearsing, there's booking gigs, there's promotion, there's website updates, there's Hull Pals research, there's We Shall Overcome, there's May Day Festival of Solidarity.....all on top of a wife and two teenage sons. It's often midnight before I close my laptop.....and that's a day off!
Luckily I'm good at multi-tasking and I have a high threshold for pain.
CG. It sounds like 2018 is going to be a busy year for you! Can you tell us a bit about your plans?
JS. More of the same really. As many gigs as I can fit in, as much support for Labour and the unions as is asked of me, writing, recording and We Shall Overcome. There are two new albums in planning, the first a look at how the First World War changed class politics, and the second is still circling around in my head, but the songs are coming thick and fast so watch this space.
One thing's for sure though, 2018 will not be dull!
Joe blogs at: joesolomusic.com, where you can also find information on his upcoming gigs, other news and where to buy his new album, Not On Our Watch.
I want to change the world, I want to strike the spark or kick the pebble that will start the fire or the avalanche that will change the world a little.
- Fred Voss
Everyone can see the growing inequality, the precarious and low paid nature of employment, the housing crisis in our cities, the divisions and inequalities between social classes, the problems of obesity, drink and drugs, and the sheer everyday struggle to pay the bills for many working people. In this situation, Fred Voss is like a prophet. He is warning us of the consequences of the way we live, he is telling truth to power, and he is inspiring us with a positive vision of a possible – and desirable – socialist future.
- Len McCluskey, General Secretary, Unite the Union
When I asked Fred Voss if we could do an interview by email, little did I know what would happen. In response to my prosaic questions, he sent back a stream of prosepoetry, an inspired, Whitmanesque outpouring of creative thinking and feeling.
'How did you do that?' I asked him afterwards, amazed at what I'd read. 'It was your questions, they sparked something in me' he said, modestly. But as you will see, there was nothing special about my questions, they are the usual ones all writers get asked. The answers, though, are anything but usual.
However it happened, I feel privileged to have sparked this torrent of imaginative prose, and am very proud to present it to you here on Culture Matters. I hope you feel something of the surprise and joy I felt when I opened his messages. And I hope you agree that if ever proof was needed that culture mattered, then surely this is it.
Q. Can you tell us what it's like to live in Long Beach?
I have lived in Long Beach for 40 years, and I love it. It is Los Angeles County’s second largest city, located 20 miles south of L.A. on the Pacific Ocean, and its port of Long Beach/San Pedro is the largest in the U.S.
It has a long history. It was a navy town for many decades, had one of the most famous amusement parks and roller coasters (The Pike on the beach) in the U.S., and was home to Douglas Aircraft Company, builder of aircraft for the U.S. WW2 war effort and of airplanes for the world after the war.
Star Kist was one of many tuna canneries on the waterfront, there was a ferry from Long Beach to San Pedro across the harbor, Todd Shipyard and the Naval Shipyard employed thousands of blue collar men, a statue of Harry Bridges the famous Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) union hero stood beneath the green Vincent Thomas Bridge, oil refineries and oil islands and oil derricks dotted the landscape, the downtown streets were full of all-night movies showing men’s movies and cowboy movies, bars with names like The Pink Elephant and The Poop Deck and the V Room full of pool hustlers and sailors with peanut shells strewn across the floors were on every corner, there were old Hollywood sound stages and the Villa Riviera 1928 hotel with a green copper roof where Clark Gable and Rock Hudson and many other movie stars liked to stay (the ghost of Clark Gable is still said to haunt Ocean Boulevard). In Visions of Cody Jack Kerouac mentioned visiting Long Beach in the 40s and seeing the downtown streets full of guys in cowboy boots.
It is an eccentric city of nearly half a million, and when I moved here in 1976 The Pike Amusement Park was shutting down and the International Long Beach Grand Prix was starting up, making the downtown streets shake. I got a job at Douglas Aircraft Company where over 50,000 people worked, joined The United Auto and Aerospace Workers union and began my career making aircraft parts.
There were hippies in the parks playing softball and sometimes throwing rocks at police, the Morningland religious cult with its purple banners on 7th Street, witchcraft stores selling oils and herbs, and poetry readings in the many bars. California State University at Long Beach, with its 32,000 students, has fostered a strong creative writing poetry tradition since the late 60s inspired by the literary legend Dr. Gerald Locklin, and Charles Bukowski gave several of his first readings in the early 70s at the university and in the city’s bars where he drank and read his poetry in defense of the down and the defeated and the working men and women and the joys and laughs of going crazy and rebelling against the American bourgeois way of life.
An editor of the Long Beach poetry magazine Maelstrom Review, the late Leo Mailman, said he thought there was something magical about Long Beach that made people write, and I’d have to agree, having written 7 novels and 3,000 poems here at kitchen tables as motorcycles roared and old ladies hobbled down sidewalks on canes. On Grand Ave. I lived next to door to Big Ivan from Russia who told me stories from his days wrestling professionally at the storied Olympic Auditorium in downtown L.A., then drank himself to death after his drunken wife went crazy throwing furniture at the walls and singing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” and was hauled away in a police car. How can you not write when you share a paper-thin wall with people like that?
For 26 years I have lived happily two blocks from the sea with my wife the poet and publisher Joan Jobe Smith, founder and publisher of Pearl magazine for 40 years, close friend of Charles Bukowski and author of “Charles Bukowski: His Art & His Women, and I have enjoyed rubbing shoulders with Long Beach’s vast array of roustabouts, pipefitters, bartenders, welders, electricians, tree trimmers, construction workers who walk hundreds of feet up in the air, bookmobile drivers taking Dickens to old people in wheelchairs, nurses, waitresses, shipyard workers, dishwashers, professional wrestlers and truck drivers with the black asphalt roads of America in their bones, graveyard shift janitors and candle makers and pool hustlers as we shared smiles and stories and raised schooners of beer to life.
Long Beach is indeed some kind of a magical city, the land of workers and poetry.
Q. What have been the main influences in your life?
Watching the stars and planets with my father on our front lawn as a young boy infinity gripped me H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe at age nine Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and Hemingway at age 11 Playing basketball in High School age 14-15 Emerson and Kant and Whitman and Hart Crane and Camus’s The Rebel and Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Doors and getting kicked off the varsity basketball team for going to a Doors concert instead of a game and James Joyce’s Ulysses at age 15 -16 Rimbaud and LSD and demonstrating against the Vietnam War at The University of California at Riverside campus and Pindar and Baudelaire and Blake and Beowulf and Pink Floyd and Heraclitus and my first girlfriend at 17-18 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at 19 Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and blues blues blues music and Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski at 20 At age 22 after dropping out of the U.C.L.A. Ph.D program in English literature and going to work in the factory world my father came to my side and became a big influence again my rudder against crashing against the rocks of the real world as I lost my way and life became a nightmare my father told me of his wanderings across the country in Great Depression 1933 America and told me I could make it through the long dark subterranean night of my soul to the light of some kind of dawn and working in a steel mill with blast-furnace-burned-face and slivers of cut steel piercing my palms my dawn was setting pen to paper and writing 7 novels to the syncopated rhythms of Thelonious Monk’s piano the golden midnight tones of Miles Davis’s horn the angry black throbbing explosions of Charles Mingus’s bass (always I was close to the soul of the American black man as I floated down the Mississippi with Huck and escaped slave Jim) then the great Marvin Malone editor of The Wormwood Review poetry magazine entered my life after I submitted the first 4 poems I wrote to him in 1986 and he told me I would survive in literature Marvin Malone the main magazine publisher of the great poet Charles Bukowski Bukowski a huge influence on me since the age of 20 (I was 34 now) with his poetry and novels made of slaughterhouses and lettuce pickers and bicycle factory and post office Neruda Henry Miller Herman Melville Mark Twain Richard Wright Tennessee Williams Robinson Jeffers among my heroes as Marvin Malone published over 100 of my poems and I met my wife Joan Jobe Smith on the pages of Wormwood Review: 105 (we had our poems published together on its pages) and later I met her in person at a Long Beach California poetry reading and Joan and I were married Joan the founder and editor of Pearl the leading Long Beach poetry magazine for 40 years now became the second great editor of my poetry each weekend morning she hears my latest poem and helps me with her brilliant instinctive poetry ear listening to my voice as I read my poems aloud to her and then John Osborne published 100 of my poems in Hull’s Bete Noire literary magazine and Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books published my first poetry book Goodstone in 1991 (published in the U.S. by Joseph Cowles of Event Horizon Press) and The Poetry Society booked a whistlestop tour for my wife Joan and I and we crossed the Atlantic and set foot on the emerald isle of England for the first time and rode the Brit rails to Hull and The Aldeburgh Poetry Festival and The Poetry Society of London and The Bristol Poetry Festival and since then I have been blessed by being published by some of the best publishers in Britain Martin Bax in his galvanic avant garde literary magazine Ambit Alan Dent in his hard hitting Penniless Press and Mistress Quickley’s Bed magazines Michael Curran in his beautiful limited edition hardbound Dwang Joan Jobe Smith and Marilyn Johnson at Pearl magazine and Dan Veach at Atlanta Review are regular publishers of my poems and I have grown to love classical music these last 20 years Ives Stravinsky Shostakovich Duke Ellington Mahler Debussy Beethoven and with me always as inspiration is the great Edward Hopper with his paintings of the lonely American pushing a rake or standing nude at a window or cutting hair or sitting in a bright lonely diner swallowed by American night at 3 am and Van Gogh’s sunflowers Gauguin’s dreamy-eyed Tahitian women Eakins’s swimmers Grosz’s fat piggy cigar-chomping capitalist Berliners and always Neruda with the foam of his Chilean beaches his ghost of Magellan on Cape Horn rocks and Buk smiling over his typewriter just finishing a poem with a bottle by his side grinning as he laughs at bourgeois America and always Joan my incredibly wise and loving wife by my side with her brilliant sense of humor inspiring my comic relief Frank and Jane poems and always the factory workers the never-boring real-as-nails funny exciting bow-down-to-no-man ready-to-haul-their-toolbox-down-te-road-to-the-next-machine-shop never-say-die infuriating inspiring shocking x-rated brutally honest indomitable working men who keep these poems alive.
Q. What brought you into writing?
I needed something I had the fierceness and realness of a steel mill I was working in and I worked at a blast furnace burning the moustache off my face then moved into the machine shop where the razor-sharp teeth of shell cutters sliced through ¼-ton steel standards and threw red-hot chips of steel onto my neck where they stuck and sizzled but I needed something more something that would keep me from feeling empty and hungry inside I needed to find a spirit within me as fierce and real as that steel mill I needed to nail it down onto a page I needed to bring art into this steel mill of blank tin walls and ticking time clocks and snarling foremen where no Vincent Van Gogh sunflower had ever been seen no Beethoven DA DA DA DA crescendo ever heard no Hemingway Cuban fisherman old man ever dreamed of African lions sleeping on the beach I needed to dream I could change the world just a little bit like Nelson Mandela stepping out of his Robben Island prison cell Jim Morrison breaking on through to the other side Jean Valjean free at last
Q. Do poetry, music and the other arts have anything to do with economic and political realities?
The great ships have circled the globe and stolen the Mayan gold 200 + years of industrial revolution and 900 lions are left on this earth as the tiger and the gorilla barely hang on…. as America has become an oligarchy/plutocracy mouthing words about free speech and voting rights but enslaves its masses in economic chains of exploitation America ruled by men with clean hands who shuffle the papers and walk the 80th-floor offices as the earth enters its death throes….
My viewpoint is from the earth-level shop floor where men get their hands dirty. Whitman and Neruda and Brecht are on my shop floor. Neruda’s father worked for the railroad, my father was an outdoors man swimmer and mountain climber (his grandfather a Nebraskan homesteader) who hopped freights in the Great Depression and could walk up to any man on the street and start up a conversation with him and be at ease with him. I am walking with Brecht’s Mother Courage as she forges ahead through a war-torn landscape. I am with Whitman walking down his open road and taking off his hat to no king Neruda escaping the fascists by horseback over the Andes Charles Bukowski saying, “The worst men have the best jobs and the best men have the worst jobs.” I am with Charles Ives the great iconoclastic American composer writing symphonies and songs of marching bands passing each other in the American streets and the sounds of Central Park in the dark and Emersonian universal brotherhood and small town dance bands playing “Turkey in the Straw”, Ives who sent up Wall Street greed with the cacophonous insanity of his 4th symphony’s 2nd movement. I am with John Huston and his classic American film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre that shows how we rip gold from the earth and how money can ruin and take our marvellous gift of life by dividing men against each other. I am with Whitman and Blake and D.H. Lawrence and the great American artist Thomas Eakins who believed in the honesty and dignity and holiness of the naked human body the laboring human body and I believe in the soul of the labouring man not in top hats and gold and guns and locks and locked vaults full of money and $2,000 suits but bread for all free concerts in the parks openness and caring for all Yosemite National Park and Sequoia redwood trees for all
I believe in the common man the man of the earth of sweat of shouts in the street and meetings on street corners of Van Gogh’s coal miner potato eaters Eakins’s shad fishermen Goya’s blacksmiths Hemingway’s old Cuban fisherman Santiago battling the sharks Hugo’s Jean Valjean carrying Marius through the Paris sewers Melville’s sailors and his mighty white whale Steinbeck’s farmers Mark Twain’s escaped slave Jim Neruda’s mineworkers Diego Rivera’s mural glowing with assembly line blast furnace flame Philip Levine’s Detroit auto plant workers Thoreau’s homemade cabin on Walden Pond Kerouac’s Sierra Mountains fire lookout August Wilson’s black trash truck driver Troy Maxson Arthur Miller’s thrown-away-like-an-orange-rind-by-the-company salesman Willy Loman Lautrec’s cancan dancers Homer’s warriors Shakespeare’s gravedigger Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony of revolution Stravinsky’s peasant dance folk music as Jim Morrison sings, “What have they done to the Earth?” and The Rolling Stones sing “Salt of the Earth.”
Where do most of us spend most of our lives? behind bus wheels at sheet metal bending machines behind donut counters at cash registers over jackhammers gripping wrenches flipping burgers serving coffee laying floor washing windows tarring roofs punching out motorcycle gaskets sitting in cubicles looking at inventories on computer screens where we barely feel human where we need poetry and art and music and theater and film to find us and tell our stories Let Jackson Pollock paint the wall of a factory Let a symphony grow from the booms and bangs and rattles and groans of an assembly line Let the grease on a concrete shop floor be full of soul Let Rembrandt set up his easel beside steel cutters Is it the maintenance man gripping the monkey wrench that will save the earth? Is it the heart of the man straddling the machine big as a locomotive that will save the tiger? If men who stir red-hot molten steel with 20-foot-long rakes are treated like humans could it keep the polar icecaps from melting? men who walk the earth where panthers and giraffes and Buddha and Jesus walked men who keep wheels rolling old people walking and breathing bridges hanging water flowing boats floating with their hands Can they save the earth?
Q. What's your vision? What do you aim for when you're writing poetry and prose?
Dropping out of the U.C.L.A. Ph.D program in English literature in 1974, my writer’s instinct told me to leave the dryness and cynicism of the academic ivory tower and turn toward life. “God is a cry in the street,” Stephen Daedalus said in James Joyce’s Ulysses and my writer heroes were Jack Kerouac hungry for life rolling automobile wheels across America toward a San Francisco bebop jazz club Hemingway risking his life on the 1937 Spanish earth fighting the fascists and writing For Whom the Bell Tolls Whitman putting his arm around a dying soldier on the American Civil War battlefield Melville on a military ship in his white jacket high up in the crow’s nest in the freezing wind and ice rounding Cape Horn Richard Wright showing how quickly a black man’s life can turn into a nightmare in 1930s Great Depression America Mark Twain guiding his steamboat around rocks through the fog on the mighty Mississippi And I was drawn into the world of the factories and went into a steel mill the fierceness and realness of a steel mill was what I needed I was not studying Sir Gawain and the Green Knight I was Sir Gawain in 1977 entering a new strange world of adventure and vernacular speech raw open emotions earthiness the sensuous beauty of toil the honesty of working with hands humor exuberance shouting with 2-ton drop hammers pounding sizzling of cutting torches hissing of welding rods everything outsized and exploding with life the backbones of cities ready to be carved and stamped out of red-hot molten steel ex-cons out of prison sweating and straining desperate to remake their lives laughs and curses and screams all the wild guts and heart and passion of man living life hard
And I started writing novels of truth and fortitude and survival until in my last novel, Making America Strong, written in 1985, my vision and aim for my writing truly began to take shape. It was a short novel set entirely in a machine shop where a defense contractor, Goodstone Aircraft Company, is making nuclear bombers and raking in the big money from the Reagan-era military industrial complex. Writing Making America Strong I had a vision of the corporation as America and suddenly realized corporate capitalism defined America as much or more than democracy did. In the novel workers without any say in company direction or management and forced to follow often insulting and senseless rules and procedures, turn to harassing and abusing each other like humiliated children, using drink and drugs and falling into racism and violence.
In 1986 I started writing poetry and this world of work became the subject matter of my poetry. My poetry has been greatly affected by the men I’ve worked with in the factories all these years and the fact that I was a poet in the factories. At first I thought (as we’ve been taught) the men were somehow less than human less than poetry less than me but as the layoffs hit me and I learned what it felt like to know I might end up living in the street as I saw men going on gripping wrenches with hands swollen with arthritis going on as bosses screamed at them and aching and tired still smiling at the end of the workweek walking out into the sun like man must never give up hope and someday we must all be free those men didn’t look down on me because I didn’t yet understand how they could still laugh between tin walls in the face of firings wrenched backs crazy bosses in this loud grinding factory where no flower or poem ever grew they didn’t look down on me because I didn’t know what a micrometer or a ball peen hammer or a compound angle was they handed me their tools their hearts wise with a lifetime of steel dust and driving their rollaway toolboxes down highways and rolling them through countless machine shops and going on with a twinkle in their eye I didn’t know I would soon begin writing poems about them or that years later when they found out and read them they would like them who says this world contains no miracles?
We can begin to see workers in factories are just as human as kings firemen orchestra conductors tightrope walkers ship captains ambassadors nurses and novelists
we are all Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp twirling his cane walking down the open road at dawn Toulouse Lautrec laying down paint onto canvas celebrating the high-kicking legs of cancan dancers though his crippled stunted legs ache the fighter getting up off his stool and coming back out of his corner though he was almost knocked out in the last round
we invented the gods built the cities made the wheels the axles the chimneys the wings the masts the scalpels the rudders the valves the rails the keys and no corporation should ever stand above us.