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Sunday, 19 June 2011

Nothing Left to Fight For...

Around a year ago, I began writing a poem, opening with the refrain:
"There's nothing left to fight for/ We've fought all the wars/ Settled all the scores/ Championed every cause... And there isn't such a thing as injustice anymore".
This was, of course, meant to be taken with some irony, as I don't actually believe this (let's get that clear first!) But I was unable to finish the poem, in the same way I couldn't give any definitive answer at the end of "Tell Me What You Believe", a poem I started writing around the same time. In that poem, it builds up by listing the huge sacrifices others have made for their rights. So when I ask, at the end, "Is there anything you give a fuck for?" the only appropriate conclusion I could think of was, "I thought so." As I wrote it, I was kind of overwhelmed by history and figures, and were I to answer that in any other way, I would have felt disingenuous (I must add, I also ended the poem like that for another reason which I won't go into here).

Whilst I can allow any resolution to remain ambiguous in "Tell Me What You Believe" - as it's a personal question - I don't feel I can do the same for the unfinished poem above. But it's all a question of relativity; for instance, as much as the recent government cuts to services will affect me - can I really put the closure of a library on a par with a Libyans left stranded at sea, after fleeing their homes which are being bombed to "liberate" them? What I might see as an unjust system when it comes to, say, police stop-and-search tactics in London, pales into insignificance when I pit my sense of "injustice" in my experience against those who really know the meaning of the word. And so, I simply stopped writing the poem because I couldn't develop it any further from the sarcastic "Forget your glass ceilings/There ain't no space/It's been replaced by an accessability ramp/Outside every front door". I mean, where can you go from there?

I recently picked up an anthology of New Caribbean Poetry. In the introduction, the editor claims dub poetry has 'sputtered into a dull silence', and has failed to 'produce anything remarkable' in recent years. The problem, he goes on to say, is the fact that the old oppressors, the colonialists, or "whitey", are no longer in charge, and so the strength of this genre - and the wider genre of protest poetry - is weakened; in other words, "nothing left to fight for", or rather, no easily identifiable antagonists to rally against. By contrast, he says, one slam poet, now living in North America, has the "advantage" of homosexuality, which she uses as a tool for her protest poetry. The 'unwelcoming door has lent her poetry urgency', he adds.

The potency of exclusion and/or suffering for creating "art" is not a new concept. There have been studies on the issue (Google them!) And when it comes to the storytelling tradition - and I count spoken poetry as part of this - there's a double whammy. The performance poetry scene - and most notably the slam scene - often prides itself on being relevant to the "people", lacking the pretentions of other art forms (here's a brief history of the development of slams). And since its recent beginnings, protest poems, anti-war poems and "angry" poems in all their forms have proved popular, more so than, say, nature poems, "happy" love poems or poetry about "all the nice things that happened today" (I'll exclude comedy from this for now). In the same way - and hence the comparison to other forms of storytelling - there are few successful novels I can think of in which the protagonist/hero does not have to face one major challenge or another. Adversity makes for a good story and, almost certainly, a good poem.

Coming back to the anthology and the comments on dub poetry, I agree, reluctantly, that a mighty wrath against injustice or hostility can offer up some of the most creative, cathartic experiences; however, I also believe it has the potential to perpetuate the "them and us" binary. Those who listen to, and read, protest poetry are the 'right on' and 'righteous', the others are the unenlightened, the overseer, or whatever negative epithet related to slavery or religion you can think of. A common enemy, or a common obstacle to happiness is fertile ground for some of the best writing; on the other hand, a series of petty grievances and/or faraway threats risk alienating the crowd, or patronising them. But at least, in both cases, there is some external barrier from achieving a goal. Some power from above, or below, has caused insult, or anguish, or hurt, or fear and the poem becomes a performance space in which to vent these concerns.

If I were ever to finish the poem I've started (actually, is a poem ever "finished"?) I'd like to somehow come round to the fact that there are endless causes to be angry about. For instance, why is money being wasted on pointless exercises like trying to ban a haircut from school? Or sending kids to jail in the US, over a blow-up doll prank (whatever the full story is, it just doesn't make for good publicity about the US legal system, does it)? And yeah, why were those Libyans left to die in the boat in the Mediterrean Sea, and why can we not stop the death toll rising, considering it's not that great a stretch of water? And, actually, why are so many people crossing over from the African continent into a potentially hostile Europe? Surely, if ever there was a source of injustice, we can find it in our waters.

The potential problem with poeticising these injustices is that it runs the risk of placing responsibility elsewhere. And whilst there is plenty of wrongdoing perpetrated by others, it risks being impersonal, accusatory, boring. During an argument many years ago, I remember hearing the expression - and being incensed by it - that "if you point your finger at someone, three more fingers are pointing right back at you". What makes for a more uncomfortable experience is working through the internal conflicts, and looking at places where I/you are part of it, creating a sort of internal "jihad", or struggle with oneself, to borrow from Islamic terminology. 

In the society I'm used to, where "democracy" is prided, "diversity" encouraged and freedom of expression tolerated, it's difficult to rail up against the system in its entirety. "Fight the Power" sounds a bit stale, because if you haven't fought it by now you probably voted for it, in one way or another, even if you subscribe to the Deanna Rodger school of politics (I love that poem).

One poet I've heard speak on occasion is Fran Landesman. In one poem, which begins "You can't tell the good guys from the bad guys...", she talks of being "buggered by ambivalence", because morally everything has become a shade of grey. There are no "goodies" and "baddies" like in the old days - things might have been much more unfair, but at least they were easier to put in their place.

I probably will never finish the poem. For one, I'm not sure the irony suits. Secondly, it's something I started too long ago. And fighting for a particular cause or a particular set of values... well, that's something that's become less clear over time for me. To borrow words from Deanna, justice, and the pursuit thereof, "is often mistaken for seeing light at the end of the tunnel". And, also, somehow I think it's not a case of fighting "for" or "against" causes, but fighting "with" and "alongside".

Anyway, I'm rambling on... 

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