When we put out the call for submissions for the Work issue, nothing could have prepared us for the sheer diversity of poems on the theme. And the ideas about what might constitute work. We received over 2000 poems, and had to make some difficult choices in compiling the final selection, attempting to create a coherent whole, with poems that spoke to each other.
In this issue you’ll find poetry about coal-mining and the dole, and the travails of the professional wrestler. There is poetry about healthcare, and working in war – the Atlantic convoys and the more recent conflict in Iraq. The office was a popular theme, and we enjoyed the different takes on the subject – including J V Birch’s Swarm, and Caroline Davies’ arresting What the bully at work cannot touch.
There are poems about working with computers, and the language and symbolism that has grown around new technology – alongside writing that features rural dialects that still find expression in working life today. There are poems set in classrooms and at the doors to abattoirs – as well as a poem about the working life of a torturer, which makes for a disturbingly uncomfortable read (Graham Buchan’s The torturer and his love for Beethoven).
Duncan Forbes’ poem Dozens is an upsetting account about working in a battery farm. Annette Iles’ Her Early Work is a sonnet to a farming mother – “A cow-yard kid… who drew things, once…” There are poems about retirement and redundancy – and the daily work of just living and surviving. The relentless work of being a mother is explored by Rachel Bower in Continue on Loop, and Alix Scott-Martin’s powerful Unmothering.
Ventriloquists, lion-tamers and domestic servants all appear in these pages, alongside those who work with typewriters, pistols and pianos. And this cast of characters – our workforce – is contained and bound by Joff Winterhart’s brilliant cover.
The emotional impact of work is explored in many of the poems, including those from the selected poet Tom Sastry. The Inspired section features Tim Wells reflecting on the relationship between his working life and his poetry – and the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson “…who illuminated the reality around me whereas much of the traditional English canon seemed distant.”
We have three articles, all written from personal perspectives which consider the difficulties of writing as work – as well as writing about work. Jane Commane’s Ideas Above Your Station begins with Freud’s assertion that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness” and she asks “…as poets, where does our own ‘work’ sit between these two positions?” Louisa Adjoa Parker explores the barriers to engagement that face many minority and working-class poets, and the concept of intersectionality which looks at how different forms of oppression can overlap to multiply the discrimination a writer can encounter. Fran Lock writes from the perspective of a working-class woman in academia and takes as her starting point Audre Lorde’s essay Poetry is not a Luxury and the disparity between scholarly and working-class culture.
The blurred lines between vocation and low-paid work are a significant theme in the prose articles. And we feature poems here that apparently tell the story from the other side – “My luck is rooted deep. / My money makes more money while I sleep.” (Terence Dooley’s Nothwithstanding)
We hope you enjoy reading this issue at your leisure, as much as we enjoyed the work of reading, editing and producing it.
Benedict Newbery and Pauline Sewards
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