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Poetry ‘Holding voices together in common cause’

FRAN LOCK recommends a poetry anthology that spotlights our varied experiences under the multiple oppressions of global capitalism

Smokestack Lightning
edited by Andy Croft
Smokestack Books £9.99

AT A RECENT event celebrating the launch of Culture Matters’s The Cry of the Poor: An Anthology of Radical Writing About Poverty (2021) I got chatting to one of our contributors about the perils and the pleasures of the anthology form. He suggested that a large number of contemporary anthologies fail — as both literature and politics — because the claims they make for themselves are so grossly exaggerated, or because their organising conceit is artificial and painfully forced. Or both. I tend to agree.

At their worst, anthologies can be prone to the kinds of essentialising value judgement that implicitly exclude the many poetic voices who do not conform to the narrow prescriptive dictates of “house style,” or else are not comfortably cradled within the arbitrary limits of this or that definition.

What counts, for example, as radical or as innovative writing? Who gets to decide who qualifies as working class? As neurodiverse? As British? As queer? Who polices the borders of all our classed, gendered, and otherwise vexed categories of belonging?

For aspirant editors it’s a minefield: too far in one direction, and you stretch your own criteria for inclusion to the point of meaninglessness; too far in the opposite direction and you risk edging out precisely those voices and perspectives you are seeking to discover and embrace.

I find myself thankful, then, for Andy Croft and the example of Smokestack books, most especially for the new anthology Smokestack Lightning (2022) which does so 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; it is an anthology containing one poem from every book published by the press since 2004. The premise is simple, but the book’s scope is extraordinary. It encompasses an eclectic, historically rich international journey, one that traverses England, Algeria, Americas, France, the Soviet Union, Greece, Cuba, and Palestine.

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

This struggle is fought on many fronts — from the picket line to the prison cell, from the barricades to the nine-to-five and everywhere in between — and it is a struggle fought with many poetic tools: from the stark unblinking witness of Istvan Vas (Hungarian Jewish Poets of the Holocasust, 2014), or the rich and subtly disturbing lyric intensity of Anna Greki (The Streets of Algiers and Other Poems, 2020), to the knotty, linguistically challenging polemics of Alan Morrison (Anxious Corporals, 2021) and the sharp, attentive realism of Kathleen Kenny (Hole, 2009). It is fought with every available resource: with form and structure, dialect and dialectic.

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

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

Smokestack Lightning’s gift is in the affinities it uncovers between all those who struggle to be free.

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

Smokestack Lightning is a testament to Smokestack Books’s valuable and necessary work of making that space, and of holding these voices together in common cause. This is not merely a miscellany of scattered individual struggles, but a map of intersections and divergence through our varied experiences under the multiple oppressions of global capitalism.

Most importantly, this is an engaging book that rewards and surprises its readers. Some rare anthologies succeed as both literature and politic. Smokestack Lightning is one of them.

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