Six black British poets on Black Lives Matter, and publishing challenges in the UK
The Observer has published interviews with six leading black British poets – Linton Kwesi Johnson, Vanessa Kisuule, Raymond Antrobus, Grace Nichols, Kayo Chingongi, and Malika Booker, pictured. The interviews are inspirational and important, and Write Out Loud believes our readers need to know about them. Here are some extracts from those interviews:
Linton Kwesi Johnson, who was born in Jamaica in 1952, and emigrated to London in 1963, has released 12 dub poetry albums, and five compilations. Talking about the Black Lives Matter protests around the world, he said: “I’m over the moon about what’s happening with young people. I come from a rebel generation of activists who wanted to change the country, and it feels like this new generation are going in again. I’m so glad I’m alive to see it happening. It doesn’t matter if the current protests were inspired by America. There’s been a huge response here because there is racism in the legal system, and a culture of impunity in the police. I’d go so far as to say that racism is part of the cultural DNA of Britain.”
He referred to his poem ‘Liesense Fi Kill’, “which I recorded on my More Time album [released in 1999]. It speaks about black men in police custody. Most of what I’ve written over the years is about racial equality and social justice. It’s all still relevant today.”
He added: “Lorna Goodison was on to something when she said there is a medicinal quality to poetry. It can be soothing, therapeutic or even just distracting if you have a troubled mind. It serves a purpose, like the Bible did in my mother’s generation. They turned to the book for solace. Poetry has the same quality."
Vanessa Kisuule grew up in Kent and has lived for the past 11 years in Bristol, where she is the current Bristol City Poet. She has won more than 10 slam poetry titles, and has written in her poem ‘Hollow’ about the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol: “It’s probably the most pivotal moment in this city that I’m ever going to see in my lifetime, and as the City Poet it felt right to respond to that. The way in which that statue came down felt so unequivocally correct. Statues have come down since then with a crane and by official council appointment, but in Bristol we don’t roll like that, we just pulled the fucker down and chucked it in the river. I loved that. It felt divine."
Asked if she had been inspired to write about the current Black Lives Matter protests in any other way, she replied: “I think I’m of much better use speaking to our joy, our mundaneness, all the things that people don’t afford us. The establishment is obsessed with [black people’s] trauma. Those are the stories that they keep commissioning from us, the stories that get the Oscars and the Baftas. They have fetishised our pain to the point where, as an artist, you start to realise: ‘Oh, I only really stand to make money or build stature off the literal blood and pain of not just my ancestors but the people living now.’ And that’s a very uncomfortable equation. Obviously we have to speak to our reality, to the struggle, but not for the titillation of white liberals.”
The multi-award-winning poet Raymond Antrobus was born in Hackney in 1986 to an English mother and Jamaican father, and started performing poetry at 19. He told the Observer: “My father was a Jamaican Rastafarian who would record poems off radio and TV. I’ve fond memories of sitting on his lap, listening to Gil Scott-Heron doing Whitey on the Moon, or Colonization in Reverse by Miss Lou [Louise Bennett], him in hysterics. It was catharsis. After I started performing poetry, Jacob Sam-La Rose invited me to watch him teach poetry, Malika Booker mentored me, then I did workshops with Roger Robinson, Nick Makoha, Jay Bernard, so many others. I was nurtured by that community, and later, by the Cave Canem Foundation [for black poets] in the US. Poetry is a vine, not a vacuum."
Talking about the challenges he had faced in the UK publishing industry, Antrobus said: “It was clear to me early on that there are no black editors at any of the larger publishers which have poetry lists. My books were rejected from those major presses, and read in a reductive, isolated way. I kept being told my books were about identity, then I’d read books by white poets, and think, how are these not about identity? I was being told theirs were about nature and philosophy, but mine were also about those things. I wasn’t allowed that complexity, just given this unimaginative pathology. I’m proud to be part of the Black Writers’ Guild, who are addressing how this racism is systemic in many ways.”
Why do we turn to poetry in challenging times? “Because a poem’s about a moment: this moment. Everything else is cut away. It can give affirmation and clarity. It’s why we read poems at weddings and funerals. It can also help people embrace how complicated life is, with no conclusion or resolution.”
In his interview Antrobus pays tribute to “poets coming up behind me, like Gboyega Odubanjo and Belinda Zhawi, and poets ahead of me, like James Berry, who was the first black poet to anthologise black British voices. I also love William Blake, and how he wrote about class, and the literary landscape he created in London. When he mentions places like Peckham Rye, Westminster Bridge, Nunhead cemetery, it makes me think how growing up in Hackney was about postcodes, and where your square metre was.
“Two of my poems, Miami Airport and Two Guns in the Sky for Daniel Harris, have been read, filmed and uploaded recently by people in America as part of the protests. That was quite profound, knowing that these poems now exist without me, and are part of a dialogue.”
Grace Nichols was born in Guyana in 1950 and has lived in Britain since 1977. She has published nine collections of poetry for adults as well as several poetry books for younger readers. Her new collection, Passport to Here and There, was published this year. She lives in Sussex with her husband, the poet John Agard, and family, and her poems are included on the GCSE syllabus.
She said: “When I approached Oxford University Press back in the early 80s with my first collection of poems, I Is a Long-Memoried Woman, they felt that Edward Kamau Brathwaite had already covered that territory, even though my book was from a female perspective, the journey of an African woman captured in slavery and taken to the Caribbean. It was brought out by Karnak House, a small Caribbean publisher, but after it won the 1983 Commonwealth Poetry prize I was approached by Virago, who went on to publish four other collections. Now I’m published by Bloodaxe Books. The road to getting published is a hard one for most young poets, more so for black poets.”
She went on: “The power to publish, review, award prizes has always been overwhelmingly in the hands of white British selectors. When books by black poets do get reviewed, it’s not unusual for reviewers to group them together as performance poets as opposed to literary poets. Such a polarity is divisive and puts the black poet in a box, as if their work might be entertaining on stage but not of lasting literary value. All labels finally reduce the complex layers of the imagination.
Talking of the Black Lives Matter protests, she said: “I found it heartening to see how black young people have been supported by their white friends in the movement. I agree with David Olusoga that black history must be taught in schools. Many don’t realise why black and brown people are in England and how Britain has benefited economically from slavery and colonialism. People need to be educated about that for healing to take place.”
Her favourite protest or political poem is by the Guyanese poet Martin Carter, “our national poet, called ‘Looking at Your Hands’, which ends with the resonant line: ‘I do not sleep to dream, but dream to change the world.’ “
Kayo Chingongi was born in Zambia in 1987 and moved to the UK at the age of six, growing up in south-west London. His debut collection, Kumukanda, won the 2018 international Dylan Thomas prize and a Somerset Maugham award. Chingonyi is poetry editor for The White Review and an assistant professor at Durham University. His next poetry collection, A Blood Condition (published by Chatto & Windus) is forthcoming, as is his memoir, Prodigal (Picador). He lives in West Yorkshire.
Asked about the biggest challenges faced by black poets in the UK publishing industry, he said: “One is to do with a process of tokenisation, whereby one poet is taken to be reflective of a kind of monolithic black experience, when there are as many black experiences as there are kinds of people. Not many black British poets have been celebrated by the bigger publishers – black American poets are often met with a warmer reception. There hasn’t been a proper reflection in publishing of the rich tradition that I draw on as a black poet in the UK. I’m very happy that, for example, [ winner Roger Robinson is getting his flowers now, but I think it’s long overdue, and as a consequence the coverage of black poets feels ahistorical sometimes.”
Has editing poetry at the White Review given him an insight into how progress might be made? “We sometimes fall into this notion that there isn’t a range of poetry to choose from in the UK, but there really is. More needs to be done in terms of diversifying the pool of editors, but also in extending the range and remit of the process of editorship. Every editor’s perspective on what is good is subjective, but a great editor looks beyond that: they take their time with work that’s unfamiliar and learn to appreciate it on its own terms. If existing editors do that, and if new editors are allowed to enter the fold, then I think British poetry publishing will be much better for it.”
Malika Booker is featured in Penguin Modern Poets 3. She is the founder of writers’ collective Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, and was shortlisted for the 2020 Forward prize for best single poem. She was born in London to Guyanese and Grenadian parents, grew up in Guyana and currently lives in Leeds.
“I came from the Caribbean age 11 and went to school in south London. I was bullied. School was an awful time. I escaped through reading. I’d convinced the librarian that she needed someone to stack the shelves. School developed my love of William Blake and the language of the Bible. I got involved in drama and a teacher gave me a diary and I’d write plays. Being an outsider enables you to see more. Books have always been my friend, saviour, way to travel, to see myself. I wanted to give voice to experiences I wasn’t seeing reflected, to redress narratives.
“I write for that bullied little girl in the playground who didn’t see herself reflected. Literature’s a tapestry which has been a white cotton cloth bleached of other narratives. I’m writing to be a part of that tapestry.”
Talking about the UK publishing industry, she said: “When I first started, it was a closed shop. That’s why Roger Robinson and I started Malika’s Poetry Kitchen 20 years ago for black and working-class writers who weren’t getting the space. As a marginalised community, it’s about supporting each other to develop craft and be raw and vulnerable. Bernardine Evaristo set up Complete Works [a mentoring scheme for poets of colour] and changed the poetry landscape – an influx of poets came through it. British poetry is about subtlety and here I am writing emotionally charged poems. Publishers need to open up their ideas about the poetic.
Her favourite protest or political poem is by the Latin American poet Martin Espada, about 43 people [working at the Windows on the World restaurant] who lost their lives in the World Trade Centre attack. It’s for the ordinary, the unspoken for, the undocumented. This poet writes about civil unrest, systemic injustice, the struggles of immigrant tenants. He showed me how to write poetry of protest and witness.”
She hadn’t joined in the Black Lives Matter protests “as I’ve been isolating. I’m so moved and impressed by them and I feel like I’m in the middle of a seismic shift and worldwide revolution.”
Can poetry change the world? “Yes. Poetry sales have been rising as the world has become more complicated with Brexit and the Trump administration. Poets interrogate the world to arrive at truth and honesty and that can inspire people.”
PHOTOGRAPHS: GREG FREEMAN / WRITE OUT LOUD