In each issue we ask a contemporary poet for a poem which draws inspiration from another poet’s work. Tim Wells responds to Linton Kwesi Johnson’s poem Inglan is a Bitch.
When leaving school there weren’t many jobs, unemployment was the most likely thing for my mates and I. Already this was our fault, we were lazy and a drain on the country. That the country was being run for big business and not for ordinary people like us didn’t enter. Everything could be ours if only we worked hard enough, it wasn’t the government messing up the economy; it was us. While getting my Saturday night stitches at the A&E after raucous gigs I often wondered why there weren’t any rich nurses, I don’t think anyone worked harder than they did and yet they were living in the same streets, eating in the same caffs, drinking in the same pubs as us.
Our first jobs were manual work. It didn’t take long to see that we’d built something bigger than ourselves and were paid much, much less than it was worth. Such wages as we were paid went on booze and bands on the weekend so we could blot out the fact that we’d be back in a pointless, soul destroying job come Monday.
My first serious poems were written at work. I am a silk screen stretcher by trade. What that’s given me is the skill to tell what tension a piece of silk is at by how often a two penny piece bounces when dropped on it, and an awful sense of smell having lost most of mine due to the industrial chemicals used in gluing cloth to frames for printing. Like most trades it has a rhythm all its own. Like most trades it’s not a song sung that often these days.
I was, and am, a gigging poet. A ranter, specifically, in the early 80s. The poetry we did was direct, punchy, and usually had a sell-by date. A poem from then that has stuck with me was Oi the Comrade’s National Insurance Blacklist. The poem is from 1982 and it’s an issue that still rumbles on. One of the people that the poem is about is Brian Higgins. He was an organiser for construction workers, and I stood on several picket lines with him. One of them was the then being built British Library. The poem caught the mood of many at the time, and it became a song for punk band The Business.
Music, with the attendant fashion, fighting, and females was something I escaped into. I was a teenage skinhead and loved reggae music. The poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson illuminated the reality around me whereas much of the traditional English canon seemed distant. Toffs are as foreign to us as we to them.
Linton’s poem Inglan is a Bitch speaks about his experiences but it’s as true for millions that were on the dole, in dead end jobs, working to live. Though the poem is written in a distinct Jamaican voice it’s one us urban youngsters understood. We lived next door to people like Linton, worked with them, and signed on with them. We had grief with the same landlords, police, and bosses. Victor Serge wrote: “The bosses, judges, soldiers, cops unite to bring us down. We defend ourselves with a profound contempt of their codes, their morals, their prejudices. By refusing us the right to free labour, society gives us the right to steal. In taking possession of the wealth of the world, the bourgeois give us the right to take back, however we can, what we need to satisfy our needs.”
I stole time writing poems at work, often to the rhythm of the machines I was operating, that I’d belt out at gigs in the evening. I used the photocopier to make zines that I punted. Linton Kwesi Johnson wrote proudly in his distinct voice, I wrote to speech in my own accent. Between 9 and 5 I made silk screens that were used to print. My real work was not to be printed on, but to use my words, written and spoken, to leave a mark. Dub works similarly, at the same time you hold the original song and its version in your head. The joy of it is something familiar in a new way. Dub poetry, and some experimental poetry, can break down, and so open, language in the same way.
LKJ was on my record deck as much as the Ruts and Burning Spear. It was this, along with poetry from the Ranters that made me think maybe people like me did have a voice. Literature was vital. I’ve always seen education as a way of keeping working class people down but have also valued learning. Reading is fundamental.
The work for many working class writers isn’t just the writing, it’s doing a job, scraping the money, and being a writer. I’m sure this is true for many middle class writers too but it’s something the privileged, and believe it or not there are more than a few in poetry, don’t always grasp. Some poetry readings even charge invited poets to read. One conversation that’s stuck with me was with a university edumacated poet who was shocked that neither my girlfriend nor I were in jobs we liked. He said he’d only take work he wanted to do. I knew what I wanted to do, and it would have been a pleasure.
I’m also big on RuPaul’s Drag Race. One thing I like about it is the drag concept of ‘werk’. Poetry, drag, whatever you enjoy… takes work. This is a work that builds, enhances, enthuses. The kweens call it ‘werk’. It differentiates from punching the clock and being hammered down. It’s craft and industry that comes from and makes joy. By being someone else a drag queen is themself.
Writing helps keep a sense of self and editing, especially, gives a method of understanding the forces pushing oneself. What is necessary? What are the allusions? Is there a hidden meaning? When we recognise these, we can exert some measure of control and direction.
no escapin it
isn’t the work.
honing your craft,
trimming the fat.
The button down
a weasel up,
of your fingers,
of your snoot.
Inglan is a.
to take up
as much space
as they can.
I tug my smalls
from a different
shave my barnet,
forelock to tug.
Inglan is a bitch.
Tim Wells is made of reggae, lager top, pie and mash, and Leyton Orient FC.
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