When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
I started writing poetry seriously twelve years ago, the year I came to this country to be a student at Oxford University after receiving a scholarship. As a boy growing up in a single-parent household in rural Jamaica, and the first in my family to have done A Levels, let alone go to university, I had never dreamed that one day I would find myself at Oxford. I came wide-eyed, because back home everybody knows the prestige and the tradition of Oxford, so it was a really exciting thing, but when I got here it was an awakening on so many different levels. I turned to poetry as a way of negotiating identity and holding onto a sense of self. Poetry was a way of reckoning with where I was from, which inevitably meant reckoning with colonialism, which was so legible in the spaces where I was.
Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
This is a tricky question because I think there are different stages of ‘feeling you’re a poet’, but the most significant turning point for me was at a creative writing workshop organized by Callaloo (the African American journal) in Barbados in 2015. I’d been writing for a while, so felt I was a poet, but Gregory Pardlo, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who led the workshop, liberated the voice you now hear in my work, and in so doing empowered me to understand my unique voice as a poet. He made me see that my unique voice, or my ’superpower’ as he called it, came from the singularity of my life experience in the world. He made me see that it was a distinct one that I could lean into and from which I could speak to a number of issues around identity, selfhood, voice, and speech. It’s as if he taught me to see that my unique life experience was an entryway into poetry itself.
What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
Hopefully, more people will know about and read my work because of the spotlight that the Forward Prizes bring. That can only be a good thing. When you’re not shaped by the poetry institutions of this country – for me it was Callaloo, as I’ve said, and I’ve quietly honed my craft with the support of friends like Malika Booker, Khadijah Ibrahiim, and Nick Makoha, and mentors like Kwame Dawes – it takes longer for people to know your work and lean into it the same way, so the Forward Prizes will hopefully bring some good exposure to the work.
Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
Self-Portrait as Othello definitely marks a departure from my first book, in that it’s clearly conceived with performance in mind. It’s also set in cities, as opposed to green space, so ecology and nature are not at all themes here, as in Thinking with Trees — that’s a radical shift. I’d say probably Part I of the book might be the most important part right now because of the freshness it brings in the way this sequence allowed me to explore complex, layered ideas in a way that’s playful, and also effective in the way it took on life as an embodied thing. I want to perform this part and other poems from the book as a one-man show, with music, and possibly collaborating with sound artists.
I’d say Self-Portrait as Othello began in 2014, when its first poems were written, but it has undergone several metamorphoses since then, and organising it around the figure of Othello took root as an idea in the last two years. The first time the idea came to me, however, was from an email which poet and academic Patrick McGuinness wrote to me in 2016, about a sequence that would later get published in Callaloo under the title ‘Un-Dad: Elegy’: it’s in this sequence that I first alluded to Othello and Desdemona.
Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
This is a question where you get into trouble because you’ll always leave out more than you put in:
Louise Bennett and Léon Gontran Damas — the beauty and power of musicality. Aimé Césaire and Anthony McNeill — philosophy and music. Lorna Goodison — storytelling and music in the voice of my Jamaican people. All these are part of the bedrock of my own voice. Rainer Maria Rilke has been nourishing. Forrest Gander’s eye for the world helped shape how I write about moving through place — Core Samples from the World was the beginning of something for me. Raymond Antrobus — deft and lithe in the poetics of identity and of (missing) sound. Ada Limón because she reminds me that poetry must create surprise and astonishment. Victoria Adukwei Bulley: for the layered quality of her work and its critical staying power (because ‘heft’ is an ugly word). Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa: for her appetite for innovation and for her sound. A poet I might like to be in another life — Anne Carson: the power of the line break / poetry as everything.
What is next for you as a poet?
My next projects over the next few years are prose. I have a non-fiction book coming out next year that I’m passionate about. It’s called The Possibility of Tenderness: A Jamaican Search for Freedom in Nature, and it’s basically, masculinity, Blackness, and plants. I also have a novel I want to be working on more seriously once the non-fiction book is out. But I’ll still be writing poetry. I’m always writing poetry, but I want to explore my thinking in other forms.
What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
It sounds cliched but read widely, read more than you write, and don’t limit your reading to English-language poets. As you read, think about the thing that makes you, you – the thing in your voice, the sound, that’s distinctly, authentically you. It’s called honesty: you’ll still have to work when you find it, but tap into that.