World War I and poetry

This video from Britain about World War I says about itself:

The Somme – Lions Led By Donkeys

Documentary about the Battle of the Somme in July 1916. A number of excellent interviews from old soldiers.

By John Green in Britain:

Well versed in the realities of first world war

Monday 25th January 2016

Everything to Nothing: A History of the Great War, Revolution and the Birth of Europe by Geert Buelens (Verso, £20)

EUROPEANS plunged like lemmings into the engulfing abyss of WWI under the influence of “the massage of propaganda, the gospel of terror,” as Polish poet Anatol Stern observed in 1914.

That perception is typical of this very different and fascinating take on the conflict, reflected in the outpouring of writing amid the tumult and chaos.

The war opened up new imaginative possibilities for exploring personal tragedy and the extremes of human experience.

Poetry, particularly, took centre stage, both as a means of propaganda and for manipulating sentiments but also as a means of portraying a scarcely communicable horror.

Buelens undertakes a cultural history of the war through the writings of those caught up in the maelstrom, from the point of view of poets from all the European countries involved, including Anna Akhmatova, Rupert Brooke, Guillaume Apollinaire and many less well-known writers.

He provides a panorama of those short but intensive four years from 1914-18 through the eyes of those poets who charted its course but also imagined its aftermath and encapsulated the human Calvary in a way that no traditional history, however good, could do.

The author draws on an amazing range of poets to weave a comprehensive picture of the psychology of the immediate pre-war period and the premonition of the chaos, nihilism and nationalism as well as a yearning for change.

These poets, in the main, were actual participants and describe the war’s raw reality, unlike the onlookers and outsiders who could afford to squander their patriotic rhetoric and appeals to romantic sacrifice while others were obliged to squander their blood.

The French poet Paul Valery wrote: “The illusion of a European culture has been lost.” How right he was.

Despite the ideals of pre-war socialists throughout Europe that working men and women of all nations would stand together and refuse to slaughter each other, a short time later they followed their governments like lambs to the abattoir, cocooned in the heady patriotic fervour of national anthems and swirling banners.

This book undoubtedly represents a unique approach to the history of the war but without a political and economic context it can of course provide only a literary reflection on it, without offering any analysis.

Poetry and spoken word in Britain

This 2014 poetry video from Britain is called Kate Tempest – ‘Circles’.

By Matt Abbott in Britain:

Spoken word is poetry – but not as we’ve known it

Thursday 21st January 2016

by Matt Abbott

“What exactly is spoken word?”

I’ve had a fair few people ask me that recently. “Are you basically just saying ‘spoken word’ because it sounds cooler than poetry?” To be fair, I don’t shy away from the term “poet,” and I definitely write poems as opposed to spoken-word pieces — but either way, I still see a very important distinction between poetry and spoken word.

To me, spoken word is Linton Kwesi Johnson staring straight down the camera as he recites Inglan Is A Bitch. It’s John Cooper Clarke being gobbed on by punks in 1979. It’s Kate Tempest reducing people to tears in the Poetry&Words tent at Glastonbury in 2013. Attila The Stockbroker talking about the transformation of his relationship with his stepdad. The very first time I heard The Streets, when I chanced upon Weak Become Heroes on one of the MTV channels at the age of 13, had my mind completely blown. And so on and so forth.

There’s no denying that spoken word is enjoying a huge resurgence at the moment. Spoken-word nights are popping up around the country like wildfire, and artists like Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish, George the Poet and — rather bizarrely — Cooper Clarke, are living in the outskirts of the mainstream.

I’m obsessed with the latest Roots Manuva album at the moment. I know most folk would classify him as a rapper, but to me it sounds like a spoken-word album.

Anyway, I suppose the point I’m making is that poetry is not restricted to the tedious anthologies that we’re made to dissect during GCSE English lessons. There are only so many ways in which Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney can be interpreted (for the record, I do like Seamus).

And while many of the academic crowd look down their noses at spoken word, claiming that its impact lies in style over substance, and that choosing something as vulgar as an ABAB rhyme scheme is an atrocity, they can’t deny that spoken word is turning a whole wave of new people onto poetry, and particularly young people.

The whole ethos of my poetic output has been to write and deliver material that’s instantly accessible, regardless of whether anybody has any prior interest in poetry. And that’s mainly because, other than the aforementioned anthologies, I’ve never really taken interest in poetry in its purest form myself. When I started, my favourite “poets” were Alex Turner, Paul Weller, Mike Skinner, Eminem, etc.

The same goes for A Firm of Poets; formed as a spoken-word collective in 2013, we’re now a nationally recognised spoken-word organisation. And it’s all about spoken word for the masses; engaging, entertaining, visceral and accessible. Not dumbing it down, but not doing the opposite either — which is what a lot of poetry readings are guilty of. It was the snobby, superior, self-indulgent air of many of the poets at Glastonbury in 2013 that drove Ralph Dartford and I to form A Firm.

So now, as I sit and type this, I’ve made the progression to be a full-time spoken word artist. I run my own spoken-word record label, Nymphs & Thugs.

Pretty much any established poet, academic or not, will sell their books at shows (or readings). The thing that gets me is that even the “performance poets” do so. I love the idea of seeing an incredible spoken-word show, and then being able to walk away with a CD at the end of it.

If that’s how the poet intended for their work to be enjoyed, and that’s how it grabbed you on the night, and that’s how it generally delivers the most impact, then that’s how you should continue to enjoy it, surely?

Another quick point. When you see a band live, you can like their new stuff on first listen, but you’re pining for the songs that you know. It takes a dozen or so listens to get that connection, and often they’re fused with nostalgia; your favourite songs generally remind you of a specific time in your life, and more often than not, your favourite time of your life. We invariably soundtrack our memories.

With spoken word, you can get that connection on first listen. Not always, obviously, but far more often than with songs. It’s a different connection in the long run, but when worlds collide between speaker and listener, it can hit you like a 10-ton truck.

Which is why I founded Nymphs & Thugs last spring. I remember the effect that the Cooper Clarke bootlegs had on me when I was 17. That would never have happened if I’d only had his book, in which case I might never have had anything to do with poetry or spoken word at all.

So that’s what spoken word is, next time anybody asks.

British pro-refugee poetry

This 27 December 2015 video series from England is called Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge.

By Ross Bradshaw in Britain:

Solidarity which sings

Thursday 14th January 2016

ROSS BRADSHAW of Five Leaves Publications reports on a poetic response to the refugee crisis

TOWARDS the end of summer, a group of East Midlands writers started discussing the refugee crisis. The outcome is the book Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge, with 80 writers contributing material for the collection.

All donated their work free, as did the editors, typesetter and designer, with production costs raised by crowd-funding.

Five Leaves’s involvement started when staff member Pippa Hennessy offered to design the book in her own time, suggesting that maybe we could offer to take on the whole publishing side.

The book, with an introduction by scientist Martyn Poliakoff, has just come out. It includes over 100 poems and the proceeds will be split between Nottingham Refugee Forum, Leicester City of Sanctuary and Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Demand has been high. Over Land, Over Sea was reprinted within two weeks of publication, with organised readings — including “pop up” initiatives — taking place around the East Midlands. The project will raise several thousand pounds for refugee charities and, equally importantly, give political and moral support to those seeking refuge.

Some of the contributors are well-known or are at the start of their career. Some are refugees or from other migrant families, others have campaigned or raised funds for refugees in the past.

But what is remarkable is that the idea — first mooted by Zimbabwean activist Ambrose Musiyiwa — gathered support immediately. From the initial idea to the final copy took only weeks. Work poured in from around the world, some new material, some from poets’ backlists. Press pictures of drowned migrants in the Mediterranean gave an urgency to the project.

Siobhan Logan, one of the editors, says: “Like other people, I felt distraught about the scale of the unfolding refugee crisis and especially the media representation of migrants crossing Europe as a ‘swarm’ or ‘flood.’

“The impetus for the anthology came out of an established community of writers sharing their thoughts on social media. As writers we’re very alert to the power of naming and labels and wanted to shift that discourse to a more humane one.

“We didn’t control TV channels or national newspapers. But we had our own words and shared them. When Ambrose posted up the suggestion of an anthology, there followed a flurry of suggestions and volunteers.

“I was blown away by the poetry submissions that came in — well over 200 thoughtful, complex, diverse poems — deeply felt but also beautifully crafted. It was a considerable challenge to whittle this down to about 100 poems that spoke to each other thematically. We wanted an array of voices, including those of refugees themselves.

“The book has been raising funds but it has also taken that conversation that started on Facebook out into the wider community. It turns out we could do something after all. And coming together made that solidarity not only practical but also made it sing.”

Musiyiwa had worked with what became the editorial and publishing team on a number of projects in Leicester but was still astonished at the immediate and powerful reaction to his idea.

Like Logan, what concerned him was the way labels had been attached to people crossing the Mediterranean as well as those in camps in the north of France.

“The anthology challenges the ‘othering’ and dehumanisation that has been prevalent,” he says. “It presents this challenge without preaching. It strips the labels to their bones and reminds everyone that the people who are seeking refuge are people and not numbers, insects or environmental phenomena.

“And it enriches because it does what people do, it reaches out and reaffirms the humanity of people who are in a difficult situation.”

Other exiled writers involved in the project include Malka al-Haddad, an Iraqi living in Leicester, and the refugee writing group at the Arimathea Trust in Nottingham. Established refugee writers, including Ziba Karbassi and Jasmine Heydari, have material in the book and there are a number of Jewish, Black and Asian writers from an earlier generation of migrants.

But the material has been chosen solely on quality, relevance and the way the poems in the collection relate to each other. The editors wanted the book to mirror the crises that caused refugees to flee, report on their journey, reflect on the welcome and often the small kindnesses they have received which strengthen peoples’ ability to overcome their traumatic recent past.

In introducing the Leicester launch of the book Emma Lee, who took on much of the role of chairing a complex Facebook and email debate on how to take the whole idea forward, remarked on how more home-grown writers were conscious of their relatively privileged position.

This is echoed in Poliakoff’s introduction. “We are willing to welcome new families into our country so that they too can contribute to our communities as soon as they have overcome their dreadful experiences. Until then, we need to help them,” he writes.

Lee is one of several contributors who have not only staged “proper” launches but ensured that many relevant poetry, literature and film events have some guerilla readings while others have taken copies to Quaker meetings, Green Party branches, conferences on refugees, and in the case of one poet, to his choir practice.

Another editor, Kathleen Bell, is convinced that poetry has a role to play because of Musiyiwa’s poem The Man Who Ran Through the Tunnel, very necessary given the language used in the media.

“While poets may not be able to solve big problems they do have a role to play in terms of language and narrative, enabling readers to see situations differently,” she says.

“I was aware of WH Auden’s Refugee Blues as a precedent. It seemed that a poetry anthology could do two things simultaneously — tell more varied, nuanced and complex stories and raise money for charities helping refugees.”

There was agreement that the focus would not be just on poems about the current situation but would create parallels with past experiences of refugees and exiles. The crowd-funder launch coincided with the pictures of the death of the child Aylan Kurdi washed ashore on a Mediterranean beach and a big change in the public mood.

A large number of poems relating to the photos in the press were received, she says. “But we decided that we didn’t want too big a focus on one instance but to tell a wide range of stories and offer a variety of approaches.

Influential as Aylan’s story was, we knew there were many other stories which had not received so much attention. This meant turning down some strong poems, some of which have since appeared elsewhere and rightly so.”

And so this will continue. Further events are planned, including in London and possibly in Scotland. The group’s Facebook site, Poets in Solidarity with Refugees, lists other poetry initiatives in support of refugees, while in London the long-established Exiled Writers plugs away at this issue month after month. Poetry can make things happen.

Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge is available at £9.99 from Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham,, telephone (0115) 837-3097 and at Housmans bookshop in London.

Bertolt Brecht play on nazi Germany

This video from Britain says about itself:

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich

1 July 2014

Drama Unit 2 2012, King Edward VI College, Stourbridge.

By Len Phelan in Britain:

More light on the darkness

Wednesday 13th January 2016

A revival of Bertolt Brecht’s chilling portrait of life under the nazis needs a clearer focus, says LEN PHELAN

Fear and Misery of the Third Reich
Union Theatre, London SE1

BERTOLT BRECHT’S reputation in this country rests largely upon productions of plays such as The Life of Galileo, Mother Courage or The Caucasian Chalk Circle, works in which he employs epic theatre techniques to “make the familiar strange” and thus lay bare the underlying contradictions of societies based upon ruling class exploitation and the ideological mechanisms underpinning it.

Written in the same period as these great works, Fear and Misery of the Third Reich is something of an exception in its abandonment of parable and historical revisionism to speak directly to audiences about contemporary events.

Premiered in 1938 in Paris, when Brecht was in exile from the Hitler regime in Germany, it’s a series of scenes which deliver short, sharp jabs at the nazi solar plexus and lay bare the brutality of national socialist reality.

It depicts a Germany which from the top — the judiciary, scientists, the teaching profession — to the bottom — the poor and the unemployed — is riddled with poverty, violence and the ever-present fear of betrayal.

Phil Willmott’s production at the Union Theatre effectively conveys the horrifying bleakness of that era, not least the consequences for those who openly resisted, and it points up the virulent strain of anti-semitic scapegoatism nurtured by the regime.

Thus we see a judge driven to distraction in his attempts to square the circle in the case against an innocent Jewish shop owner but who has to come up with a verdict which will satisfy the conflicting demands of the nazi hierarchy.

In another emotionally charged scene at the conclusion, a Jewish woman decides to tell her husband she is leaving to save his career as a clinician, while he assures her that her self-imposed exile will only last a few weeks as he hands her the fur coat she won’t be needing until winter.

That malign motif of the most intimate personal betrayal runs throughout. A school teacher and his wife whip themselves into a frenzy of paranoia over whether their son will betray them to the Hitler Youth, while a maid wonders whether her brownshirt boyfriend will use the same deceitful trick he employs to identify the “grumblers” in the dole queues on her.

Yet however laudable the efforts of cast and director are in realising Brecht’s dark and sardonic vignettes, this production doesn’t really answer the question Willmott poses in his programme note as to whether Fear and Misery is now nothing more than a “period piece.”

Rather than drawing on unattributed quotes from the Guardian facilely bemoaning the impotence of silent majorities in the face of motivated violent minorities in “Hitler’s Germany, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China and Cambodia under Pol Pot,” he might find Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov’s definition of fascism worth considering.

As early as 1928, he viewed it as “the dictatorship of the most reactionary elements of financial capitalism,” which not only carries out “an organised massacre of the working class” but in its foreign policy “cultivates zoological hatred against other peoples.”

As a Marxist, Brecht understood this definition of fascism and it implicitly underpins this hugely important play, with its depiction of war abroad and repression at home in pursuit of the nazis’ “guns before butter” policy.

And without it, his work does indeed come across as a period piece and the uncomfortable resonances it has with the rise of the ultra-right in France, Germany and Ukraine, or indeed this country, can only appear to be the consequence of inexplicable and irresistible phenomena rather than as the extremes resorted to by the ruling class to maintain their dominance.

Any interpretation which ignores that analysis ultimately confuses rather than clarifies understanding — but that shouldn’t stop you from going to see a well-produced piece of work and drawing your own conclusions.

Runs until January 30, box office:

Israeli government censors book about love

This video from Israel says about itself:


3 November 2015


From daily Haaretz in Israel:

Principals, Teachers Decry Banning of Arab-Jewish Love Story From Schools

Fear is overtaking reason, teachers association says, after Education Ministry rejects novel about relationship between Israeli woman and Palestinian man.

Or Kashti and Jonathan Lis Dec 31, 2015 5:31 PM

From daily The Guardian in Britain, 1 January 2016:

Novel about Jewish-Palestinian love affair is barred from Israeli curriculum

Government accused of censorship after reportedly saying the award-winning Borderlife by Dorit Rabinyan risked damaging the ‘identity of the nation’

From the New York Times in the USA:

Isaac Herzog of the center-left Zionist Union, which leads the parliamentary opposition, said on Facebook on Thursday: “Tell me, are the People of the Book afraid of books? Are the People of the Book afraid of stories? Or would it be more accurate to say that their education minister is afraid of books and stories? This is a dark worldview that does not believe in the judgment of the public, or a younger generation that is much more involved than previous generations.”

Mr. Herzog said he bought several copies of Ms. Rabinyan’s “wonderful” book on Thursday. Several bookstores said they had sold out of the novel, which tells the story of an Israeli woman from Tel Aviv who falls in love with a Palestinian born in the West Bank city of Hebron after a chance encounter in New York.

Ms. Rabinyan, the author, said that the book was not meant to be provocative. “Let’s say that it’s strength lies in its subtlety,” she told Ynet in a video interview. “Perhaps there is even a conservative Zionist stance in it,” she said, but she added that whoever read it in the education ministry clearly did not read it from that perspective. The book, she said, was “only a mirror” of the complexity of life in Israel.