In the second of Wales Arts Review’s series looking specifically at the experiences of working class voices in Wales, Mike Jenkins, who for 25 years has been co-editor of the Red Poets’ output, looks back over the story of the collective.
‘Red Poets’ was born some 25 years ago as Red Poets’ Society (as in the film ‘Dead Poets’ Society’), co-founded by myself and co-editor Marc Jones from Wrecsam, who still edit both the magazine and books today. We dropped the ‘Society’ as it caused confusion ; many believing it was an organisation they could join. It arose directly out of Cymru Goch, the Welsh Socialists, an activist group akin to a political party, who campaigned in local areas on a socialist, republican agenda. The quip about CG was that you had to be a poet to join these Welsh Sandinistas, and it was true in so far as many of us did write verse.
Like most left-wing groups we were a mixture of middle and working-class and a magazine which began as specifically socialist and republican soon widened to incorporate all shades of red, green and those between. At first, however, it was seen as a one-off booklet of poems gathered from newspapers Welsh Republic and Y Faner Goch and including the likes of Harri Webb and Nigel Jenkins alongside new voices on the scene such as Leighton Smart, who went on to become a Merthyr Councillor for many years.
Our packed and lively debut launch at Clwb-y-Bont, Pontypridd set the tone for many a performance, (though the actual booklet only consisted of the covers not the contents). After we eventually produced issue one, myself and Marc decided to make it an annual event and. Since then, the magazine has only missed out on one year.
For a while ties were closely maintained with Cymru Goch and then the Welsh Socialist Alliance (who stood in the first Assembly elections as United Socialists), reflecting campaigns against, amongst other things, the Poll Tax. Gradually, the loose collective began to perform at all kinds of pubs, clubs and benefits throughout south Wales and, occasionally, beyond, supporting striking dockers and lecturers, against opencast mining and for the Cymru-Cuba Society.
The point was always to take poetry to places which had never encountered it before and to support all manner of campaigns. At the Buff’s Club, Penrhys, Rhondda we met with the dangers of live verse when an ex-squaddie was determined to find which of our loose-tongued ‘criw’ had joked too bawdily with the landlady. He was all ready to pan out a poet, no matter who was guilty.
One feature of our performances was the inevitable blasted-out ‘Giro City’ from the poet from Penywaun, Jazz. I’ll never forget in the Glanfa of the Millennium Centre , where we were launching Alun Rees’ collection Yesterday’s Tomorrow, and Jazz split the ear-drums of sedate concert-goers. Another departure was issue 5, which focussed on just four poets and featured black and white photos of them by Al Jones, who went on to do many of our covers as well as compose poems of his own.
As we developed, so music became a crucial part of the live events. Most notable amongst our musicians were Riff Williams, a singer-songwriter and guitarist with Little Miracle – a great band from Cardiff – and later, Spike from the Rhondda group Twp. I once introduced Spike onto the stage as ‘Sting’ and it stuck. And so it was Sting who ended up producing Red Poets’ only live CD ‘Live at Blackwood ‘Stute’ , (which can be found on our website www.RedPoets.org) There are wonderful performances from John ‘Maesycymmer’ Davies, clare e. potter and David Brown; but you may want to avoid the duelling blues-harps at the end.
Working-class poets like Davies were instantly attracted to our humorous agit-prop, as were well-known people like Labi Siffre, whose explicit verse about being black and gay was always challenging. We’ve always expressed the struggles of working-class people trying to survive under Thatcher, Blair, Brown, whoever and if you look at the current issue (we’re up to #23) there’s a black person’s fury in Pete AK’s ‘Tears of rage’, a refugee’s plea in Tim Evans’ ‘Refugee Song’, and cutting republicanism in Tony Webb’s ‘Her 90th Birthday’.
While other magazines tend to shy away from such issues, we ‘re very much in the tradition of Webb, Idris Davies and John Tripp. A sense of identification with community is just as vital to us as it was to them, and makes us close to Welsh language verse in this respect. For example, there’s Blackwood’s Patrick Jones whose vision of the Valleys is one of poverty stripping people of their dignity and Neath’s Phil Knight with his satirical and often surreal viewpoint.
The Welsh language continues to play a bigger role, with singer-songwriters Barry Taylor and Jamie Bevan featuring frequently. Music helps break up the evening, give it variety and also an opportunity to join in which poetry rarely affords. Tim Richards (in every issue except the first) soon came to realise the power of poetry and I recall him saying, ‘You can compress into a couple of verses everything it takes me a pamphlet to say.’ We’re lucky to have marvellous performers in our midst like Julie Pritchard, whose recitations make poetry come alive in a way that readings can’t quite manage.
Poetry is not the new rock ‘n’ roll. It can never be that popular because what it says is often too uncomfortable. Yet as rock, and even folk, struggle to find new voices to capture our times, collectives like Red Poets are full of them. Booker Prize-winning novelist James Kelman once said that Red Poets were the best thing happening in poetry.
Can such poetry – unashamedly left-wing yet not preachy – really change anything at all? Well, nobody questions the power of song and the importance of ones like ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ and ‘Blowin in the Wind’, or, indeed, the subtle persuasion of the likes of Maya Angelou. Surely, through empathy or mockery, righteous anger or tenderness, political poetry has a central role to play in Welsh literature, even as the mainstream magazines tend to ignore it?
This is working-class art, voices from the streets, not an elite, in a language which reaches out rather than indulging in cleverness; in tune with the suffering of the oppressed.
You can check out the history of Red Poets, as well as access to all their publication on their website.