Bill Drummond & Truth Street


Posted by in December's Magazine

Column #2 for The Leither by Kevin Williamson

What is Poetry? It’s such a straightforward question you’d think anyone who spends the best part of a lifetime reading, writing or thinking about poetry would be able to answer it in their sleep or at the very least off the top of their head. Not so.

I was interviewed recently by the artist Bill Drummond for one of his 40 Minute films, which he publishes on his Penkiln Burn website. We got ourselves comfy in the Scottish Poetry Library, in a pair of adjacent armchairs, mic-ed up by our director Glenda. There was no pre-arranged structure to the interview, bar a few general questions that Bill said he’d intersperse through our chat. 

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Bill Drummond may be best known for his KLF activities, or his free-ranging artistic projects, but he’s also a clever interviewer. He understands that an open-ended observation, or a short general question, invites more thoughtful chat than a specific one. This is something TV and radio programmes tend to steer clear of, feart as they are, where a freewheeling discussion might end up!

Bill opened up with that sly minefield of a question: ‘What is Poetry?’

Greater minds than mine have pontificated at length about this. Academic libraries are full of such books. Rather than look as glaikit on camera as a Tory politician in a housing scheme I waffled on about poetry and the nature of language. 

I’d thought about the question before. You can’t not. But no matter what you think about poetry, at any given moment, every answer, and every variation on every answer, can be chipped away at by experts. Until all you’re left with is the scattered dust of exceptions and qualifiers.

My favourite poetry book published this year, Truth Street, was written by a first time author. This guy didn’t write the words in his poems. He found them, cut them together, created something new. This is a different territory to most poetry where the words emerge into an artistic space in pursuit of truth, as historical witness, organised as language.

This is a different territory to most poetry where the words emerge into an artistic space in pursuit of truth, as historical witness

When Truth Street was shortlisted for the 2019 Forward Prize First Poetry Book it raised a few eyebrows. The book was an outlier. The author, David Cain, wasn’t perceived as a poet (whatever that is). His poetry drew from a sphere of life not normally associated with poetry.

Truth Street is a sequence of poems, or one long poem, depending on your perspective, written in chronological order, which begins on the afternoon of 15th April 1989 as Liverpool fans arrive at Hillsborough Stadium in Nottingham. The fans are in good spirit. 

The rest of the story is well known. 96 adults and children died in a crush as they entered the stadium. 

How can this be the stuff of poetry? 

David Cain took the testimonies of the fans, the survivors, friends and families of the bereaved, and from these created an oral history of the events: a timeline of first person accounts put together as poetry. 

The language used is often matter-of-fact reportage. Nothing flowery or poetic, the poem on page 23 is simply titled… 

It was unbearable

I have never felt anything like it in my life.

It was hard to breathe.

I wanted my big brother to help me.

David Cain double spaces the lines, perhaps to allow the reader time to slow down, to breathe. The irony is not lost. 

By the time you finish the book you’ve walked in the footsteps of the damned. You’ve listened to their words; felt their shock, their panic, and their pain; wanted to put your arm around the shoulders of mums. If you’re a stronger person than me your eyes haven’t welled up in tears.

I was familiar with the Hillsborough tragedy before Truth Street. I’ve added my voice to the JFT96 campaign. I watched the inquest live on TV. I cried when the court finally over-turned the lies of the police cover up. 30 years later I still refuse to buy a copy of The Sun newspaper for their disgusting manipulation of truth.

Yet reading these poems – which bear witness in the words of those who were actually there – took me to a different plane of understanding. The cumulative effect was devastating, heart wrenching, yet also liberating for those who wanted justice for the dead. The truth must be heard.

I’d recommend tracking down a copy of Truth Street for anyone who loves poetry, or football, or simply wants to try to understand what it was like at the epicentre of Britain’s worst ever sporting disaster. 

Which brings me, callously, back to the original question: Is it poetry? Readers will have to make their own mind up on that. I think I’ve indicated where I stand.

Info: Truth Street by David Cain, Smokestack-Books.co.uk, £7.99 

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