In the autumn of 2004 Iraq Occupation Focus, in conjunction with Red Pepper, announced an open competition for poems on the theme of war and occupation.
Shadow poet laureate Adrian Mitchell selected the best of the submissions. The authors of the prize winning entries were then invited to read their poems during the opening session of our teach-in on 5th December 2004, where Adrian Mitchell introduced them with the following words:
Usually, I hate poetry competitions. Most of them are pretentious lotteries, the main aim of which is to make an easy profit out of aspiring poets. They tend to produce a kind of Cliff Richard poetry that tries desperately to please everybody. And, worst of all, they give the idea that poetry itself is a competition. It isnt.
But the Iraq Occupation Focus poetry competition wont make anybody rich. The object is not money or prestige, but enlightenment. It was obvious that among the millions who marched against the invasion of Iraq, the longing for peace and an end to all war was running like a tidal wave.
The emotions and dreams and visions of those people us were bound to overflow into conversations, speeches, banners, paintings, songs, dances, plays and poems.
These poems are poems that had to be written. Many of them, I guess, were written through tears. But they werent written to make the poet feel better. They were written to share feelings and thoughts with other people, to shed some light on what is really happening in the world today, and what might happen, for better or worse, tomorrow.
I read 276 poems and chose the ones that seemed most true. Of course, there were entries that were hardly poems at all: angry remixes of news items cut up into rough lines of prose or forced into dogged rhyme. But there were also many real poets: people who actually read the work of the best poets of the past and present; poets from all over the world.
(For a picture of political poetry, mainly in Britain in the 20th century, may I recommend the anthology Red Sky at Night: socialist poetry, which Andy Croft and I edited for Five Leaves recently.)
These poems are not simply cries of pain, frustration and anger. The winning entry describes the agony of survivors and yet is beautiful because it is written with great care and love for the people in the poem and for the English language.
A poem written without love is bound to wither soon. So is a poem written simply out of fear or despair. Fear leads to bad actions. Despair leads to no action. Love is creative action and leads to good action. (I am 72 so I can do a short sermon once in a while.)
To generalise wildly, I would have liked more humour and wit. One way to fight the masters of war is with explosive jokes. But Im not complaining. There were so many poems I enjoyed many of them with passing references to dogs, Im glad to say that I have demanded four third prizes instead of two and have named 10 more poems as highly commended.
To all the poets, thank you. Please continue to work for peace in the streets and in your poems. Maybe you include the next Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Neruda. But remember, poetry is not a competition. We are all in this together.