REUBEN WOOLEY: Politically and socially committed writing
Reuben Woolley edits the online magazine I am not a silent poet, a magazine for poetry and artwork protesting against abuse in any of its forms.
He has been published in Tears in the Fence, The Lighthouse Literary Journal, The Interpreter's House - The Yellow Chair Review, The Goose, International Times, Stride, and Ink Sweat and Tears among others. Published Books: the king is dead, 2014, Oneiros Books; dying notes, 2015, Erbacce Press; a short collection on the refugee crisis, skins, 2016, Hesterglock Press; broken stories, 2017, 20/20 Vision Media Publishing. His new book, some time we are heroes, was published in September 2018 by The Corrupt Press.
He was runner-up in the Overton Poetry Pamphlet competition and the Erbacce Prize, both in 2015. He is editor of the online poetry magazines, I am not a silent poet and The Curly Mind.
We wanted to find out some more about writing political or socially aware/committed poetry, so asked him some questions.
What is your background as a writer? Tell us a bit about yourself?
RW: I started writing poetry in 1968. At school we had been reading an anthology of modern poetry and I was particularly taken by work by Wilfred Owen, Seigfried Sassoon, Louis MacNiece, Stephen Spender, W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot. At the same time I was reading the Liverpool Poets. All of these were, to a greater or lesser extent using what I might call 'ordinary' language to write poetry, and I felt that I could try and do something similar. Of course it wasn't so easy but I received great encouragement from the French teacher at school who was doing Baudelaire's 'Les Fleur du Mal' with us for French 'A' level and from the Art teacher who introduced me to the Director of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, John Hewitt, an Ulster poet who became more or less my mentor.
I continued writing when I came to Spain in 1976 but contact with the poetry world in those pre-internet days was very difficult indeed and I eventually stopped writing in 1985. Fortunately, in 2012, a Facebook friend of mine, and one of my students saw some of my later work and encouraged me to start again.
What led you to starting up I am not a silent poet?
RW: I had been seeing such increasing evidence of abuse on the social media and on TV that I felt it was time to do something. I am not a silent poet looks for poems about abuse in any of its forms: colour, gender, disability, the dismantlement of the care services, the privatisation of health services, the rape culture, FGM, etc. I wanted to provide a space which could react immediately to work that would be submitted, to set up a kind of newspaper for poetry of protest against abuse, instead of online journals which published work weeks or even months after it had been submitted. I wanted the work to still be relevant when it was published.
What do you look for in a good socially/politically committed piece of writing?
RW: Firstly it should be a good poem and not simply a rant. At the same time, it should be relevant to all the abuse. Ideally, I want a poem that (subtely) twists my guts
How can a "murder is bad" poem be avoided?
RW: I can't avoid them because I am the editor and have to read all submissions. The only thing I can do is to reject them. This is not just bad poetry but also bad thinking. Unfortunately, there are a few people who will always think that their work (and their thought processes) are examples of pure genius.
Can poetry still be relevant politically in the 21st century?
RW: Why not? Adrian Mitchell's 'To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam)' did it in the 1960s and again when adapted for the war in Iraq at the beginning of this century. We still read the First World War Poets and they continue to be studied at schools. We have all the open mics at readings all over the country and Kate Tempest brings in thousands at concerts. There are also quite a few small indie presses who are more than willing to publish political poetry such as Erbacce Press, Hesterglock Press, Mslexia and others.
Do you think that people in power are still listening to us or can we only hope to raise issues and galvanize people who are already socially aware?
RW: Did people in power ever listen to us before we are good and dead? I think raising issues and galvanising socially aware people is quite good but I think we also reach out to people without power who are not socially aware. These are people who vote and if we can attract them I think we will have achieved a great deal.
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