Poetry ‘Keeping voices together in a common cause’

chimney lightning
edited by Andy Croft
Fireplace Books €9.99

AT A RECENT event celebrating the release of Culture Matters’ The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty (2021), I chatted with one of our contributors about the perils and delights of the anthology form. He suggested that a great many contemporary anthologies fail, both as literature and politics, because the claims they make about themselves are greatly exaggerated, or because their organizing idea is artificial and painfully forced. Or both. I tend to agree.

At worst, anthologies can be prone to the kinds of essentializing value judgments that implicitly exclude the many poetic voices that do not conform to the narrow prescriptive dictates of “house style,” or that do not accommodate comfortably within the arbitrary limits of this or others. that definition.

What counts, for example, as radical or innovative writing? Who decides who qualifies as working class? How neurodiverse? Like British? How queer? Who polices the borders of all our classified, gendered, and otherwise vexed categories of membership?

For would-be editors it’s a minefield: too far in one direction, and they stretch their own inclusion criteria to the point of meaninglessness; too far in the opposite direction and you risk eliminating the very voices and perspectives you are trying to discover and embrace.

I am grateful, then, for Andy Croft and the example of the Smokestack books, most especially the new anthology Smokestack Lightning (2022) which does much to highlight not only the radical potential of poetry, but also of the anthology form. .

Smokestack Lightning is the 200th book from Smokestack Books; is an anthology that contains a poem from every book published by the press since 2004. The premise is simple, but the scope of the book is extraordinary. It encompasses an eclectic and historically rich international journey, traversing England, Algeria, America, France, the Soviet Union, Greece, Cuba, and Palestine.

It is a book that is as impressive in its interconnectedness as it is in its diversity, and the picture that emerges is of a vast, interconnected, and infinitely complex struggle for social justice and political change.

This fight is being waged on many fronts—from the picket lines to the prison cell, from the barricades to the nine-to-five hours and everywhere in between—and it is a fight that is being waged with many poetic tools: from testimony absolute and unflinching Istvan Vas (Hungarian Jewish Poets of the Holocasust, 2014), or the rich and subtly disturbing lyrical intensity of Anna Greki (The Streets of Algiers and Other Poems, 2020), to the thorny and linguistically challenging polemics of Alan Morrison ( Anxious Corporals, 2021). ) and the sharp and attentive realism of Kathleen Kenny (Hole, 2009). It is fought with all available resources: with form and structure, dialect and dialectics.

To read Smokestack Lightning is to be moved and galvanized: some poems inscribe a specific scene of persecution and resistance, while others attend more calmly and patiently to the things of everyday life and to the psychic spaces in which our first protests are formulated.

It is women poets who shine especially in this regard, from Alison Fell’s December (Light Year, 2005) to What is History? by Anna Robinson. Discuss (Whatsname Street, 2021). Throughout the anthology we are reminded with constant and discreet persistence that the cause of the workers is the cause of women, that the cause of women is the cause of prisoners, that the cause of prisoners is the cause of of oppressed and occupied Palestine and so on. about.

Smokestack Lightning’s gift is in the affinities he discovers between all those who fight to be free.

As Maxine Peake’s brilliant endorsement of the anthology reminds us, poetry is a tool and a wake-up call. Poetry anthologies can, at best, create a diverse and intersectional poetic heritage. Solidarity is not about the noise we make in our insistent attempts to define ourselves, but about the space we provide for the stories and voices of others to be heard.

Smokestack Lightning is a testament to the valuable and necessary work of Smokestack Books to make that space and to unite these voices in a common cause. This is not simply a miscellany of scattered individual struggles, but a map of intersections and divergences across our varied experiences under the multiple oppressions of global capitalism.

Most importantly, this is an interesting book that rewards and surprises its readers. Some rare anthologies are successful in both literature and politics. Smokestack Lightning is one of them.

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