"It's Marmite poetry....but I like Marmite!" - Mike Jenkins
A review of Welsh poet and novelist Mike Jenkins new anthology Sofa Surfin.
"A former winner of the Wales Book of the Year competition for 'Wanting to Belong' (Seren), Jenkins is a former editor of Poetry Wales and a long-term coeditor of 'Red Poets'."...
The poems in 'Sofa Surfin' are all written in local dailect and they address themes of homelessness, unemployment and general decline in post-industrial Merthyr Tydfil. This is not Mike's first experiment with dialect poetry. He has published three previous anthologies: 'Graffiti Narratives' 1994, 'Coulda Bin Summin' 2001, 'Barkin' 2013. (Read our review of 'Barkin' here).
In a blog post ( Famous F Doin Nothin ) Mike explains the root of his fascination with this form of poetic expression:-
" I was especially inspired by West Indian writers like Derek Walcott, black English poet James Berry , the songs of Bob Marley and one particular poem by David Hughes 'Swonzee Boy, See', which appeared in 'Planet' magazine, edited by Barnie."
He goes on to outline the reception that his work in this genre has received:-
"My previous book 'Barkin!' had decidedly mixed reviews yet got short-listed for Wales Book of the Year, while the following one 'Shedding Paper Skin' ( in standard English) received great reviews and not a sniff of prizes.
An English person responded to 'Sofa Surfin' by commenting that it would have limited appeal, yet West Indian and Scots are widely accepted and , ironically, the poems have so far been greeted far more enthusiastically in England than Wales ( with 'Planet' again the exception)."
I guess we'll just have to disagree with the 'English person'referenced above. It is certainly true that West Indian and Scots dialect poetry has succeeded in reaching a broader audience. We believe that Mike Jenkins' Merthyr dialect poems similarly deserve to be widely read and treasured for their originality, humour and insightfulness.
In 'They Stopped My Benefits' we are firmly in 'I, Daniel Blake' territory as the protagonist decries the beaurocratic rigmarole which leaves him suspended and penniless:-
They stopped my benefit
an what ave I got
Two boggin tea-bags
an a tin o sardines
Say I never
signed on, but
I know theyer
system's t blame;
it's appened before
'F*** off!' a-compewter sayz.
Many of the poems in this collection explore life on the dole and the frustrations of dealing with a callous and unresponsive benefits system. In 'Sofa Surfin' however, Mike focuses on the plight of a young woman who has recently become homeless after an argument with her partner. She is reduced to sofa surfing i.e. "staying temporarily with various friends and relatives while attempting to find permanent accommodation":-
Ee've kicked me out
It woz a stewpid argument
'bout a juke-box
'Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep' -
I f***in sayd 'No way!'
(shame no Beef'eart).
Coz I'm talkin 'bout the breakers
ewger than any sea's -
divorce an booze, gettin sacked an speed.
Ow I stood on-a board
f'moments before being dragged down
t the subway, like an underwater tunnel
where I could ardly breathe
But, fans of Mike's dialect poetry will be aware that there are always oases of humour interspersed amongst the grimmer offerings exemplified above. In 'No Offence' the narrator unleashes a tirade of personal insults at his unidentified victim while insisting all the while that he means no offence:-
No offence like,
but yew're a baldy bastard
with an ead like an egg,
if I woz't crack it open
yewer brain ud be
like a Cadbury Cream Egg
When yew talk it's like a bloody screech,
so igh-pitched the dogs go mad
and people in-a shops think
the fire-alarm's gone off,
anybuddy ud think
you'd ad yewer goolies chopped off!
No offence like!
In this context we cannot fail to mention the wonderful and whimsical 'A Pijin In Greggs', a personal favourite:-
This pijin was struttin is stuff down town,
ee wuz in Greegs lunchtime -
think ee wuz arfta the offer
of 5 ring donuts f'r a pound
I come yer f'r a pastie
coz I wanna do a college course
t learn ow t be a seagull
an yeard this is where you enrol
And so, however you feel about the real thing, we think you will warm to literary 'Marmite'. If you are responsive to the idea of a poetry anthology infused with pathos and humour and delivered in contemporary working class vernacular, then this book is for you. Unreservedly recommended!
In fact why not buy all four of Mike's dialect collections? We include titles and links below for your convenience.
Coulda Bin Summin
From the Wikipedia. A note on Marmite for our American readers :- "Marmite is a sticky, dark brown food paste with a distinctive, powerful flavour, which is extremely salty. This distinctive taste is reflected in the marketing slogan: "Love it or hate it." Such is its prominence in British popular culture that the product's name has entered British English as a metaphor for something that is an acquired taste or tends to polarise opinions."