Where do poems come from? Sometimes I wish I could avoid them. Not because I don't love to write.......I do.......but because I have this awful feeling that I write far too many, repeat myself and, most worryingly, don't change the way I write at all.
Sometimes poems hit you full flat in the face on a very ordinary day when you're least expecting it. Sounds like an accident, but it isn't. It's what James Joyce called 'an epiphany' , using a typically religious term for his 'priest of the imagination'. It's the kind of revelation akin to Zen enlightenment , when a clock (in Joyce's case) or a mountain (in the Zen analogy) is suddenly viewed afresh, as if for the first time.
Of course, you've seen it there before. You've probably gazed upon it and passed it casually noting its existence. It's a lightning flash of recognition, like love at first sight.
It might not be love which is the inspiration though; it could be a complexity of emotions. I knew, for instance, when I went with my friend and collaborator, Merthyr artist Gus Payne, to take photos close to Ffos-y-fran, that it would make an impact on me.
I had never seen that giant opencast coal 'mine' from the moorland above the Bogey Road, towards Bedlinog, only from the town or slip-road. The change in perspective was utterly startling! The impression on me was far greater than I expected.
From there, you can view the 'mine' totally exposed to the naked eye (or
lens) : the sheer size of the cavernous crater being dug out was shocking. All the more so when you think it could last for another decade at least. And then what? Another landfill?
The equally huge waste-heaps were a disturbing throw-back to Merthyr of old. When I came here over 30 years ago, the town was literally surrounded by the detritus of heavy industry, the waste of coal and lime. It was like being inside a volcanic caldera, albeit an extinct industrial one.
Here before our eyes were both the past and future: hollow and heap of a present scene. Despite the greening of the Valleys, it represents the way we're still exploited today. Would it be tolerated for one second in leafy suburbs of Cardiff , 30 metres away from housing and a brandnew school?
Coal itself should be generally left underground, but this particular coal (high in pollution) supplies Aberthaw power station and so provides our energy. We must look to alternatives sooner not later. Build all houses energy-efficient and provide generous grants for everyone, including the provision of solar panels. Tidal and river power should be utilised far more and all energy companies should be owned by either co-operatives or the Welsh government.
The vision I had was a frightening one. The road itself runs on the very rim of the opencast; something you don't notice at all when close by. The housing seems perched above the opencast and road, but ready at any moment, to tumble into the black depths, to disappear forever.
My observation of Mormons in Heolgerrig as I walked up the hill the other day seems slight in comparison. Nevertheless, it was an epiphany as they zoomed past me on bikes, pedalling missionaries -
MORMONS ON A MISSION
Ey, ave yew seen em
Mormons on a mission,
ridin down the ill
with rucksacks fulla scripture?
They're freewheelin fast,
but they got theyer elmets on
jest in case the Lord
ave got it in f'r them.
Ey ave yew seen em
name-badges like executives,
the on'y cyclists with suits on,
Yanks ev'ryone one.
Theyer eyes straight a'ead
an ready f'r convertin,
shirts white as virgins
(the on'y ones in town!).
Ey ave yew seen em,
come in pairs like window salesmen :
get yewr soul sealed with double glazin,
a tidee conservatree in eaven.
If Heads are invariably teachers who want to get out of the classroom (sometimes because they can't stand kids!), then Inspectors are often Senior Managers who want to get out of schools (or are retired). In fact, I know one Inspector who was forced from his post as a Head as a result of very dubious financial irregularities, had no respect locally, yet now works for an inspection team!
In a week when Ofsted have declared that children with special needs are being failed by teachers, I think this is pertinent. Since the ConDems have been in power, the Chris Woodhead philosophy of 'blame the teacher' has been prevalent. It's all part of this Government's total disdain for Comprehensive education, hardly bettered by New Labour with their specialist schools and Academies in England.
As the NUT rightly argue, a lack of resources - especially in Special Needs - is the main factor. In RCT the specialist SEN teacher, who was peripatetic, was relieved of her duties, to be replaced in individual schools by those who didn't have that training. Funding instead went to the WAG's flagship Foundation Phase , an ill thought-out experiment, which could have dire consequences. In one Primary in that area , the first class coming out of Foundation (with its focus entirely on play) have a frightening rate of two thirds unable to read! While 'learning through play' is vital, it must be balanced by learning to read, particularly in an age when many pupils on't encounter books at home.
This week there was an excellent article in the 'Guardian' suggesting an ideal free school, 'The Richard Dawkins Humanist Conservatoire'. The writer, Francis Beckett, described an ideal school, with the concept of 'reading recovery' fundamental.
This was advocated for Year 7's, but obviously would work much better with Infants. It is the idea that no pupil can access education without being able to read ( the same should apply to numeracy) and that so much bad behaviour is caused by illiteracy. In 'reading recovery' pupils are given one-to-one tuition until they can read. A very expensive scheme which would save so much later, in terms of dealing with many disaffected teenagers. I suggest the Assembly Gov. invest in this, rather than employing vast numbers of Assistants to cope with Foundation.
The article 'Welcome to my dream school' portrays a Comprehensive open to all faiths and none, where testing is kept to a minimum. In Wales, WAG has boldly asserted its difference from New Labour by abolishing SAT's ( a dreadful import from the States). As a Comp. teacher I know that everything was geared - especially in Year 9 - to teaching the trickery required to do well ( a bit like the old 11 plus). The amount of reading involved in papers was highly intimidating for the less literate. The only compulsory text was Shakespeare and his language was another difficult code to be cracked by most pupils.
Once SAT's were abolished, teachers in Primary and Comprehensive sectors were released to make lessons far more absorbing and there isn't the turn-off factor when exams had finished in May. The exams never tested oracy ,sustained creativity or critical analysis, vital aspects of any English lesson.
I've had three experiences of the Inspection process. Initially, an HMI came to observe my lessons in my early years. He was quite helpful , but rather distant. Then we had a full-scale Inspection which went well, apart from the day when one pupil gobbed on a team of HMI's inspecting the Inspectors!
However, my last experience was traumatic. The Inspector almost destroyed my career and I was on the verge of walking out. He was totally negative from the start, even though the lessons he attended went quite well. During one lesson - on a Walt Whitman poem - he spoke to pupils and misled them about it. He turned to me afterwards, frowning at the original poetry covering the classroom walls - ' There's too much poetry up here!'
In my ideal system , there would be no Inspections. It would be a fully Comprehensive one and schools would co-operate rather than compete, sharing best practices much more. Teachers would be seconded for spells of about four years, during which time they'd act as advisors, producing resources, and observing any teachers or departments which needed help, giving them constructive advice.
Inspections are the most time-wasting , expensive and demoralising excercises in education. As evinced by their comments on special needs, Ofsted are completely divorced from reality, yet are reported and influence government policies. There are alternatives and ,for the sake of teachers and children, let's implement them.
The following poem is from my forthcoming book 'Moor Music', published by Seren -
(thanks to the Thomasz Stanko Quartet)
The Midnight Inspector stalks me
his words of condemnation
a wire of worries
I used to hear the stream
over the fence
at the cliff-edge
where he has followed me -
the saxophone's siren
beckons plaintively -
snare and cymbals
my heart-beats urging
to fall, fall away
clipboard and razor-pen
my every move
my every expression
the trumpet's high notes
tell stories of dolphins -
the melancholy bass-line
is the tide moon-moving
I cannot question him -
the Midnight Inspector
with his monotonous synthesizer drone.
Yesterday I was talking with my friend who works in a local factory. He was extremely despondent about his work. They'd had to take a two and a half % pay cut, even though the firm appeared to be slowly expanding again. As the workforce have been reduced, increasingly bullying tactics are deployed by management to get them to do more and more overtime. If they refuse to do it, then they're forced into doing the worst shifts, invariably the night ones. He has tried to get people to resist, but there are no unions in the factory to organise them properly.
This is the reality of private industry in this country today and I doubt it's atypical. More and more, this is becoming the reality of the public sector as well, with job cuts and wage restraints.
As never before, the time is ripe for a complete and total change. Capitalism is bankrupt, yet the ConDems are returning us to its bad old ways of banker control and vicious austerity. Although the Stalinist 'Communism' of the 20th century can be seen as an equal failure, that is not to say that socialism and anarcho-syndicalism are by any means dead. What could emerge out of the ruins - if the forces of the Left and unions take their protests to a conclusion - may be a form of it which nobody expects or could predict.
Of course, I hope this emerges from below, unique to each country (as opposed to nation-state), yet united in its overall purpose. That purpose should be a sharing society based, not on profit and greed, but on complete democracy ( at every level, from schools to factories), a radical redistribution of wealth and methods of ownership which cease to be hierarchical.
The old form of nationalisation clearly failed and when you advocate it you are dubbed a 'political dinosaur'. Calls for the nationalisation of industries such as water, rail and energy supplies must come from the trade unions and also political parties who claim to be socialist need to specify cogently why this should happen, how they'll be run and what differences will be made.
For example, the Welsh people need to take control of our rail network to ensure that prices are affordable ; at present, they are out of control. We need to do so to create a unified service throughout the country, to open up more lines and to electrify them. Dare I say it, to invest in ancient and totally unsuitable rolling stock. Pensioner bus passes could then be switched to this rail service, the emphasis moved from road to rail.
A Tren Cymru national company needs to be democratically organised, with elected management always subject to recall. It should be operated as a co-operative , with workers and travellers benefiting from its success because of their equal shares in its ownership. In other words, it will be planned and overseen by central government, but owned by workers and users.
On the same journey when my friend told me about his factory, we paid £6 day returns from Merthyr to Cardiff. It was the second rise in a few months and we were gobsmacked. The ultimate irony is that Arriva Trains Wales is actually owned by Germany's state-owned rail company Deutsche Bahn!
I used to commute every day between Cardiff and Merthyr, but I'm glad I don't now. For the many who have to make that journey it must be hard times indeed. In my mind, there's no doubt what we need.
This factree's grindin me dead,
it's pummellin me down,
it's got metal treads,
my skin's jest dust.
They're wieldin ewge blades,
they're cuttin ev'ry wage,
they're swingin demolition balls
forcin us t work all owers.
My ead's a buildin crushed,
when I afto work night shifts
I ave nightmares when I'm awake
carn sleep with noises of the day.
Nobuddy's joined a Union
an nobuddy stan's up to em :
slike a 20th century never appened
in-a town of Dic Penderyn.
I ardly go out no more, mun,
all my money on food an rent ;
makin thin's but ower lives fallin,
carried off in trucks an dumped.
Anarchists and Trots, Commies with capital C's, red-greenies, peaceniks and aging beatniks; republican socialist Welshies and left Nat's, born again animal rights atheists and even old Labourites. Expect to come across all of these and more besides at the launch of the latest issue of 'Red Poets' magazine ( no. 16) at the Old Orleans, Church St., Cardiff on Sunday, Sept. 12th, kicking off at 7.30 pm.
As venues go, it seems really good. I did a reading there as part of the now defunct 'Poetry On Tap' series organised by Mab Jones and Ivy Alvarez (both of whom have poems in this issue). It's an intimate upstairs room with a real mic.! Acoustics seemed totally unimpaired by the busy bar below.
Venues can be so vital. A few years back we were unfortunate to hold our launch at Clwb-y-bont in Ponty when it was undergoing refurbishment. An imposing pool table dominated the room and acted as a barrier between audience and performers. The whole place was dark and dusty and a sad comparison to the same room where we'd launched the very first magazine, so lively and welcoming. We just caught it at the wrong time.
The Toucan Club in Cardiff wasn't the best place either : an elongated room, where the audience would've required theatre glasses to see the poets. It didn't help that someone grabbed the mic. near the end and slagged us all off! Chapter, on the other hand, was one of the most successful : we had to keep bringing in more chairs during the readings to meet demand.
Our two most regular and definitely superior venues have been Blackwood Miners' Institute and the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea. The 'Stute bar has been perfect for Red Poets with its open, relaxed atmosphere, with bar always available for beer-supping bards. Hopefully, we'll be reading in the DT Centre in the New Year as part of a 'little magazines' evening, but this year they couldn't accomodate our actual launch.
The cover of our latest issue is an arresting colour photo of Pontypridd High St. by Dave Lewis, who also has a poem in it. Alun Hughes contributes an article on Chartist songs, as well as two fascinating translations from Russian poet Maximilian Voloshin and Peruvian Blanca Verala ( new names to me).
As editor in charge of selection, the most pleasure is gained from publishing material by poets for the first time, such as David Steer, Clare Saponia and Carlos Nigueiras. Many contributors will be reading at the launch, including former winners of the John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry, Ifor Thomas and Emily Hinshelwood.
There will be an acoustic set from fellow Bluebird Paul Rosser, who used to front the Rhondda band The Watermelons and a chance for anyone to join in on the Open Mic. session. Can't be 'bard' for £4, which includes a copy of the mag.
As my co-editor Marc Jones says on the back cover - 'Poetry before profit.' Any pennies we make go back into producing the next issue.
SHOULDN'T HAVE BEEN ME
I should've moved to London
to make it Big,
I should've died young
and pissed in my prime;
should've got myself an agent
Should've done more 'creeping and leaping'
as Swift puts it in 'Gulliver',
attended to nod at committee meetings,
recanted my Redness like Nicky Wire.
Should've sent off scripts that time
for that soap on ITV.
Basically,I shouldn't have been me.