It seems astonishing to think that Red Poets have produced 24 issues (to date) representing 24 years of our existence, when issue no. 1 was supposed to be a one-off!
Marc Jones of Wrecsam came up with the idea of bringing out a ‘book’ of poems which had appeared previously in the newspapers ‘Welsh Republic’ and ‘Y Faner Goch’. At that time the nucleus of the Red Poets’ Society (as we were then) was within Cymru Goch, the Welsh Socialists and many had been in the Welsh Socialist Republican Movement before that. Well-known poets such as Harri Webb would be included alongside others I actively sought out and have since become regulars, like Jazz and Herbert Williams.
Marc also came up with the name, which has been whittled down to Red Poets over the years. We were all ready for our first launch at Clwb-y-Bont in Ponty, but had no magazines on the night, only a lot of covers! It was a shambolic start (let down by the printers) to a very lively night, where one female student at the back kept making orgasmic noises (albeit ironic).
After eventually getting insides to match the covers, I put it to Marc that we should make this an annual venture and he foolishly agreed, therefore burdening himself with responsibility for finance, typesetting and lay-out which I, as an impractical arty-farty type, couldn’t handle. Marc has been co-editor since and done a amazing job.
We soon acquired a printer, Jon Plumpton, who was not only a member of Cymru Goch, but managed to deliver on time (usually the last moment). Jon is an unsung hero of the Red Poets magazines.
We also became very much a performance group, featured on BBC Wales’s arts programme The Slate and many times on Radio Wales. Those who have stuck with us the whole time deserve a particular mention: Alun Rees, Herb Williams, Jazz, Tim Richards, Mike Church and the late John D. Davies. At one stage Labi Siffre was integral to our group, as was Sian Roberts, who once stood for Cymru Goch in the Euro elections against Glenys Kinnock.
Indeed, Cymru Goch itself was the starting-point for Red Poets’ Society. We were once exhibited (the magazines, not stuffed versions of ourselves) in Cyfarthfa Museum and my accompanying blurb joked that we were the Welsh Sandinistas and you had to write a sonnet decrying Blair as a Tory to gain entry to the group. Out of CG’s limited membership, many wrote poetry and others, like Marc Jones, have written it since Red Poets began.
We have proudly done many benefits down the years: for Cymru-Cuba organisation to a huge crowd waiting to salsa ; at anti-opencast and anti-poll tax events and to try and save a Council Care Home in Merthyr from closure (sadly, it was shut just before this event!).
Out of the winners of the John Tripp Prize for Spoken Poetry, the Red Poets have provided the majority: Peter Read, Clare Potter, Emily Hinshelwood, Ifor Thomas and myself. Alun Rees won the Harri Webb Prize for his poem ‘Taffy Is A Welshman’, which appeared in the magazine and also in his fine collection, which we published, ‘Yesterday’s Tomorrow’. We brought out a CD of one performance ‘Live at Blackwood’, produced by Rhondda singer-songwriter Spike. We packed it in DVD boxes just to cause confusion.
Our covers have been designed by many excellent artists, including Gus Payne, Paul Davies, Alan Perry and Paul Peter Piech, but many of the recent ones featured a black and white photo from Al Jones (who hails originally from Dowlais). Al became our ferryman and guru, a Zen tree-climber and aficionado of Belgian beer. He always wrote a poem to accompany the photo, a highlight of so many issues. The cover of no. 13 was designed by Merthyr artist and heckler-in-chief Andrew Bartz, another CG stalwart who has also contributed political cartoons and Jazz-baiting arguments in Al’s car home after more than a few bevvies.
Music has often played a vital role at our performances, from Spike (featured on our CD) who I once announced as Sting, to Neath band Lethargy, through to Tracey Curtis at this year’s launch back at Blackwood Miners’ Institute. Poetry and music can work really well together and Cardiff’s Riff Williams was one of the few who kept most of the poets from disappearing to their Ovaltine or night-caps.
What has given greatest pleasure has been the discovery of new voices, such as Dan Drummond, Emily Hinshelwood, Clare Potter and playwright Jackie Cornwall and, just as much, the publication of those who seem totally neglected elsewhere in the world of Welsh lit-mags, including Alun Rees, Irene Thomas and Peter Thabit Jones.
Our readings have contained so many highlights it’s hard to single them out. Our launch in Penrhys was one, where an ex-squaddie was up for a fight and I thought Patrick Jones was going to get it. Another, at a Cardiff eco-cafe stands out, where Jazz threatened to expose King Arthur Pendragon with his own sword! Then there was an appalling duelling harmonicas where three of us took to the stage, all playing blues harps in different keys.
People have come along and read and ended up becoming part of our ‘loose collective’.
Red Poets has never had any truck with hierarchy and I’ll always remember Tim Richards with his megaphone on the streets of Hay on the day of Clinton’s visit, berating bewildered literati. Our reading that evening had more Hungarians in the audience than festival-goers.
Finally, I’d like to pay tribute to those who have died in recent years and who supported us considerably: Vic Golightly of Swansea, Terry Hetherington of Neath and Arnold Rattenbury, one a Trotskyite, one a leftwing nationalist and one a member of the Communist Party; representing a spirit that still lives on in the Red Poets, of people from the Left with different yet similar views, who co-operate and create.
Mike Jenkins (co-editor)
If you think you have something to say about the politics of our country and would like to contribute to the magazine please visit the Red Poets website and get in touch.