Poetry and the pandemic

A UNISON competition to explore 2020 in verse proved to be a big success

This March, UNISON’s strategic organising unit and learning and organising services team got together to hold a poetry competition, taking World Poetry Day as an opportunity to explore a year of the pandemic in verse.

Entries were called for on a theme of ‘reflections of 2020 ‘and the organisers say they received “many well-written and compelling entries” from members and activists across the regions.

The overall winner was Tom Barringer, an activist at Queen Mary University of London branch. The runners-up were Wendy Blacksin-Sinfield, an equality officer at Havant branch, and Corinna Edwards-Colledge, the newly elected joint branch secretary of Brighton and Hove branch.

You can read the three poems below.

All three winners took part in a live online event (watch below) hosted by assistant general secretary Roger McKenzie, celebrating poetry not only as a form of activism and resistance, but a source of solace and strength.

The event also saw the premiere of Before the Flame, a short film by Hydrocracker in partnership with UNISON, the Arts Council and the Royal & Derngate Theatre, Northampton, and featuring UNISON members.

The competition judges were Mr McKenzie, Jem Wall, the actor and artistic director of the Hydrocracker Theatre Company, and Kathleen Jowitt from learning and organising services.

Mr McKenzie said: “World Poetry Day gave us an opportunity to find a new way of voicing what our members have been experiencing during the pandemic, as both public service workers and citizens.

“It also allowed us to showcase the many talents of our members, included many very talented poets.

“Our membership learning programme has allowed many of our members to develop their essential life skills as well as learning new ones.

“It’s a scandal that this government has decided to stop the Union Learning Fund, which has helped to give our members these opportunities.”

And Mr McKenzie concluded: “UNISON is committed to making sure that our members continue to enjoy these learning opportunities.”

UNISON firmly believes that art and activism can go together

Mr Wall – whose on-screen acting credits include roles in Game of Thrones and Doctor Who – said that it was an honour and pleasure to be part of the event. “The depth and variety of all the poems were striking and they will stay with me and sustain me during the rest of this year.

“This event showed to me that UNISON firmly believes that art and activism can go together, and that leaves me with real hope that a better tomorrow can be imagined and built by working people.”

Ms Jowitt agreed that being a judge was “a pleasure and a privilege”, adding: “I was very impressed by the range and imagination shown in our members’ poems – some are funny, some angry, some reflective, some appreciative.

“Tom Barringer’s winning entry pays homage to the First World War poets, puncturing government hypocrisy with the same unsparing ruthlessness as Wilfred Owen did, but brings a freshness and grim relevance to an all too familiar theme.”

Heroes, by Tom Barringer
What passing bells for those who die as pigs beneath the knife?
One hundred thousand souls, a slaughterhouse of wasted life.
Your mind can’t take the cruel stupidity, so you retreat
To 1917, and call it decorous and sweet.
You thank them for their sacrifice, you stand outside your door.
You don’t explain exactly what their sacrifice was for.
You call it unavoidable, you keep them in your prayers
Forgetting kinder nations saved so many more of theirs.
Turn people into heroes, and it’s fine to let them die.
A martyr’s death is not a thing you need to justify.
And now the ratchet crunches, even as the bodies burn
For even now, dark forces whisper, “it’s the teachers’ turn”.
There was no plan, no meaning, no excuse for all this pain
No final consolation, no great knowledge we can gain
And in these times, to dodge this truth is harmful for your health.
Admit they died for nothing. And, in doing, save yourself.
Reflections 2020, by Wendy Blacksin-Sinfield
Happy New Year
We said not knowing
How the world was turning, turning
From parties and hugs and kisses and love
To masks and distance and gloves
Through windows we waved
At night we prayed
Let them live, let them love, let them breathe
Clapping and cheering
A nation believing
Not long now
Not long now
Not long
In blue and green people seen but unseen
Tirelessly they work and work
They run
Too many, too much, the world out of touch
Many blind, deaf and dumb to the Truth
Digital dissonance substitutes distance
Trying but not finding connection
Dissection of why, oh why
Do you not stop all the lies
And just listen
Listen to their words
We’re free! We’re free!
The science we’re free
But so many will never see
The kisses, the love, the laughter, the hugs
Happy New Year
Let us hope it will be
Survival Mantra, by Corinna Edwards-Colledge
I’m going to cry when I feel like crying
 Laugh when I feel like laughing
Rage when I feel like raging
Despair when I feel like despairing
I’m going to hope when I feel hopeful
Be strong when I feel powerful
Fight when I feel vengeful
Create when I feel meaningful
I will sleep when I feel tired
Talk too much when I feel wired
 Sit around when I feel bored
Accept myself for being flawed
I’m going to sulk when I feel bitter
Then might smile when I feel better
Drink too much when nothing matters
Grieve my normal, now in tatters
I’ll hold on tight to my old crutches
Fill the gaps with fraying patches
Breath in deep when I’m in pieces
Not try to iron out the creases
It’s wrong, it’s right, each day turns tight
Around its dance of fight and flight
I’ll feel it all, keep in its sight,
 And bring it all into the light

A compilation of the entries

More about Hydrocracker

Watch Before the Flame:

4 thoughts on “Poetry and the pandemic

  1. Mrs. Linda Smith says:

    Please repeat this again in 2021 as I had no idea it was a competition so I missed it and I love poetry.


    Marvellous entries.. Well done to the winners! I also agree with Mrs Linda Smith, I missed this & would love to have tried even though poetry isn’t my forte!

  3. Wendy Dowse says:

    As I am a great lover of WWI poets, I thoroughly approve of the judges’ choice of Number 1. A very clever paraphrasing of Wilfred Owen’s poem brought right up to date with current themes. Congratulations, Tom Barringer, you really caught the relevance of today’s pandemic and linked it in to Wilfred Owen’s situation in 1917.

  4. Not really a big fan of poetry but the 3 poems I read from your selection, moved me greatly. I was massively impressed and, and might actually take more notice of poetry in the future. Well done all!

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