Kei Miller, and mapping out the truth behind appearances

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The gentle, hypnotic voice of Forward prize winner Kei Miller received a rousing reception from a delighted audience at the opening of the 2015 Wenlock poetry festival on Friday night.

His prizewinning collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion – “a cartographer goes on a tour with a Rastafarian, and they kind of disagree about everything” – deals with places and names that are loaded with history, and are not as they first appear. He joked: “When I’m in Jamaica, and I ask for directions, it’s always a deeply, deeply frustrating experience.”  

But although the collection is full of humour, it is no laughing matter. Miller’s wry delivery is laced with anger as he tells the Goldilocks story as an example of outrageous colonialism, his view both logical and educational: “The baff-hand child went in just so, not even a token offering of honey, and just like that proceeded to bruck up things.”

The powerful poem ‘Unsettled’ tells of a pre-Columbus Jamaica, “of bullet trees so hard / they will one day splinter cutlasses, // will one day swing low the carcasses of slaves”. Miller observes that “this is no paradise – not yet – not this unfriendly, untamed island - … unwritten, unsettled, unmapped.” And why the importance of place names in Jamaica? “This is a place where it was illegal for so many residents to read or write – so how is history inscribed?”

This theme of things not being what they seem was also reflected by Hannah Lowe, who read from her first collection, Chick, about her Chinese-black Jamaican migrant father who gambled with marked cards and loaded dice at night to help support his family in Ilford, and when at home cooked meals, and dried his Chinese sausages on the outdoors washing line, to the astonishment of the neighbours. 

Lowe told the audience at The Edge arts centre that “when I was a child, my dad was a mystery to me. His real name was Ralph.” In the school playground she would describe him as “a night worker … I didn’t really understand what he was up to.”

Other misconceptions became apparent when her middle-class friends at university regarded her as cool, and assumed her father was a Rastafarian. Her poem, ‘Reggae Story’, points out that her dad really liked “the blues and Lady Day … but I used to love a boy who loved dub reggae”.

Luke Kennard dazzled the audience with his irony and wit, sparks flying during his long lead-ins to “shortish” poems. Quoting a warning from his editor, Roddy Lumsden, that he was “starting to repeat himself, lapsing into self-parody”, the self-deprecating Kennard has taken on a new task, and is working on a series of poems about Cain in the form of long anagrams: “They don’t make a lot of sense, but they have good first and last sentences.” Among the difficulties he has encountered along the way has been a surfeit of the letter h, which he has tried to resolve in such lines as “a halo hovered over her headboard”.

The evening – and the festival – was launched by Mia Cunningham, who has been Shropshire’s young poet laureate for the past year, with a powerful poem about her African hair: “This hair was at my dawn.” Such a poem was a sign of her growing confidence, and how she has developed in a year. It was the opening poem of the night – and it brought the house down.

Greg Freeman

 

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