Example poetry

The bookseller – Commentary – It’s time for protest poetry


I don’t know if you heard, but the truth no longer exists. We watched his funeral on several social media sites, each from opposite angles, each completely different from the last. The other night I saw a Russian bridge go up in flames, I listened to Kanye West talk to me about abortion, and I saw a man start a race war on a train in Dagenham. The night before, I was in the theater watching an actor who was actually a digitized version of an actor on stage. All of this might or might not have happened. Nothing is certain.

For years I’ve been philosophizing around breaking the truth and suddenly we seem to be in a time where everything is enhanced, boosted by hyperbole, digitally remastered to get a few extra likes or comments. The combination of that and cancel culture has made writing protest poetry harder than ever.

My name is Arji Manuelpillai, I am a poet, animator and activist. I have tried to create social change through art for many, many years. Sometimes this is done on a small scale in workshops in prisons, schools and immigration centers. Other times it is through discussions, readings and walks. But my main interest at the moment is creating works that try to encourage change on a larger scale. I want to connect disparate parts of society.

Over the past 10 years it has become increasingly difficult to combat the general apathy and negativity around change in the UK. Take climate change for example. We have a plethora of poets who have written about our environment. Pop stars have been singing about it, we’ve even had large-scale visual art flown into stadiums, but the truth is, none of it really worked. Often we yell at activists who block a road almost as if we are bored with their certainty. I think deep down we know that time is running out, but deep down we can’t deal with losing our own balance. Could it be that we are too afraid to take sides because of the repercussions it would impose on us?

As a poet, I always find poets trying to bring about change. The past year has seen the mighty Rifka by Mohammed El-Kurd, an inspirational poet born of Palestinian activists who have done everything to speak about the atrocities in Palestine. I was shocked by his audacity and amazed by his courage to write with such certainty. But he was born in this certainty.

For me, the great poetry of our time needs to work to create a vision of a problem as with a wide lens; not providing a truth, but instead creating a whole kaleidoscope of angles

I loved Soft targets by Sarah Landau, a book of poetry that teeters on the edge of realization, reflecting a thread of fear and violence that runs through our political system. I am thinking of Americans like Terrence Hayes, Patricia Smith and Danez Smith. These poets are powerful role models who fight for social change and equality through their work. They really make their position inherently clear. But what do we have in the UK? Who is creating the call to action here?

These questions have plagued me for five years. I’ve seen some of the greatest poets of our time write about falcons and their mothers, and don’t get me wrong – I love those poems – but surely, if there ever was a time for poems of protest, THAT’S IT.

When I think of politically charged poetry from England, I remember Tony Walsh’s “This is the place” being shouted at a crowd in Manchester after the Manchester bombings. I think of Vanessa Kissule and her powerful piece that captured the mood of Bristolians following the downing of the Colston statue. It seems to me that the most powerful political poetry is reactive. But, at the same time, the poems captured only one side of the argument. Tony didn’t research how the terrorist felt. Vanessa didn’t research how the board thought. For me, the great poetry of our time needs to work to create a vision of a problem as with a wide lens; not providing a truth, but instead creating a whole kaleidoscope of angles. For me, it has become my vocation.

This month I am publishing a book with Penned in the Margins. My book reflects my love for discussion. It is a political piece bringing together poetry inspired by interviews and research on radicalization and hate crime in the UK. During the research phase, I had the privilege of interviewing members of the National Front, the EDL and former members of ISIS and the Tamil Tigers. I was excited to find the bridge between journalism and poetry. I wanted to understand how I could construct a point of view that did not adopt a clear political position, but rather drew similarities between each position. I wanted the reader to find out their own opinion and that turned out to be very difficult. How to give a voice to a racist without making a platform for a racist?

After much discussion and debate, I found myself transcending group labels, avoiding judgmental statements, straying from my personal opinion or political point of view, which created a discussion richer and more nuanced on hate in the UK. These sound like inherently English poems. Poems that don’t take sides, that sit, interested on the fence, that don’t complain about a queue but just exist, waiting. Poems as cups of tea for discussion. Poems that scream but leave you thinking for yourself. Seems to me, maybe this is the British way of the 21st century?

It’s been quite a trip and I’m happy to say that this approach seems to have increased the timelessness of the poem. They focus on sensations in the body, in reactions and nuances rather than leaning on shocking sound bites. In a world where the truth is increasingly difficult to decipher, perhaps the only truth we have lies in the emotions we feel inside. Maybe those emotions are the only things that unite us. I guess that’s what I learned. This is the age of protest poetry. We don’t need to defend something to write about it. We just need to listen more.

Arji Manuelpillai presents his first pamphlet Mutton rolls with writers James Cahill, Gurnai Johal and Sheena Patel in We Move: early London literature October 20. Tickets cost from £10.

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