When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it? Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.

On the 18th September 2018 I met with Jacob Sam-La Rose at the Southbank Centre, it was the first time we met and he was so intimidating. The minute we sat down he said ‘okay, so you want to be a poet, what are your questions?’ and I simply asked ‘how?’… It was the night of the Forward Prize, the night Danez Smith was going to win Best First Collection and not so long ago I started poetry on a dare. I didn’t know what the Forward Prize was, (or that the event was happening), I was too scared to use my real name, my notebook was full of unremarkable poems, but I was certain I wanted to invite poetry into my life. I was a dancer, a choreographer, I had two degrees in cultural studies, but I didn’t think this was enough to explore my cultural history and challenge narratives that have existed for over 400 years. I was going to need more. I began spoken word barely months earlier, but I was eager to be a master of the craft. Jacob gave me three challenges; I was determined to get it right. While he spoke, well-known poets (who I didn’t know then) were walking towards the event, he greeted them, he knew all of them, they all looked so distinguished. I remembered feeling ashamed for not knowing anyone or really anything. It just fuelled my determination. I left after our meeting, caught the train back to Wiltshire (where I lived at the time) and got to work. A few months later we met at a poetry event, he asked me how I was doing, and I informed him I didn’t just complete his challenges, but I worked on my poetry and read every, single, day and I had a new notebook full of poems, ideas and most importantly questions. I told Jacob I wanted to understand how space and time works in a poem, he gave me one hell of a stare then said ‘okay, let’s talk.’ A few months later I met Joelle Taylor, I told her I wanted to dance on the page and stage, I told her I’ve been working hard, and I didn’t think I was crazy because I felt I had studied enough to know it was possible. She believed in me, more than I did. She saw things in me I didn’t recognise until probably a few months ago. Don’t worry about where I came from, I’m here today because legends helped me, and I looked after those seeds.


What does being shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection mean for you?

So, here I am shortlisted for the very prize I would read about in the paper after my meeting with Jacob. It’s mad how life plays out sometimes. I had a ‘Wall of Ambition’, I stuck the article on the wall with some left-over blue tac. My ambition has never been to be shortlisted for prizes: I believe writing to win prizes is an abomination and if you are willing to sacrifice your integrity to please others you shouldn’t be a poet. The reason why I stuck that article on my wall is because Danez Smith won. Danez wrote into a space that seemed like a barbarous abyss but made it beautiful. To be able to find ‘light’ is the greatest win a marginalised person will ever experience, Lord knows the world is oppressive enough but damn, Danez ventured into the forest and left with a wolf’s head in a Prada bag. I never expected to be shortlisted for prizes, I expected the best from myself and the utmost integrity. All credit to Out-Spoken press for taking a chance on me, biggest shout out to Joelle. I was a huge risk, but I guess it paid off.


Please tell us about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Which poems in the collection are most important to you?

Cane, Corn & Gully emerged from the desire to learn about enslaved women in Barbados from their dances and expressions which I was able to revive using a technique of my design. Every poem is part of a grand choreography, the choreography ultimately begins on the slave ship and is still being performed. This is not to say that Black Barbadian history began on the slave ship, but the dance and contortions performed by the dancers significantly changed due to the horrific environment. There is no such thing as a pure translation, so my job was to revive the choreography and transform the choreography into poetry which expressed the mood of the dances. Every poem marks a special moment in my research, every poem is important. In my practice I use labanotation, which is a scoring method for dance, like a musical score. I had no idea I was the first person to document dances of the enslaved in this way. Labanotation was invented for European classical dance, the inventor described Black dance as ‘vulgar’, so I figured I could manipulate it as I pleased. The lines are supposed to be vertical, straight, ‘disciplined’, ‘civilised’, and the most prominent line between the shapes represents stability; so, by curving the lines I was able to comment on the rapport my people have with gravity, time and space, and this allowed me to really play with my poetry. My writing practice always uses dance or some form of movement, the entire collection was written like this, it was challenging and wonderful at the same time. Sometimes I threw tantrums when I couldn’t find the right syntax and sometimes, I physically fell because I couldn’t figure out how to perform a dance step. I received a lot of help, not just from poets but also from custodians of Barbadian dance, and I’m talking women who can two-step while frying fish. I wrote when I felt expansive, so every poem is tethered to a sense of triumph. The Black Barbadian women win in my collection, in the history books we are trauma victims, flesh and maybe some bone (rarely a backbone), but in ‘Cane, Corn & Gully’ we are so special. Every poem is an important poem and if I thought a poem didn’t add to the work/ choreography I removed it.


What is next for you as a poet?

I did what felt like the next logical step of my journey and applied to do a PhD. I am now a PhD student at the University of Leeds and my intentions are to continue working on my passions and see how my ideas can be applied in social science. I am still a full-time choreopoet, I am exploring performance ideas and most importantly I am finding reasons to smile every day. I recently discovered Mount Everest is still growing, this made me so happy, it reminded me that there is always more to learn, to do, to see, to experience. I’m excited and nervous about my future but I intend to move with a sense of purpose, so I should be okay.


What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

1. Find the extraordinary in the mundane. It’s easy to make a rainbow feel spectacular but a great writer can make the ‘repulsive’ seem beautiful and the ‘boring’ seem interesting. Thomas Hardy wrote about a single blade of wheat and made it feel like universe was being born, and Zora Neale Hurston somehow managed to make a rusted bucket seem as expensive and impressive as a fresh Cadillac. Masters.

2. Be open to learning and growing. I don’t believe a big ego serves the art of poetry. Every single person I consider to be a legend (in any industry) still puts in the work, still asks for advice and still asks questions. After Serena Williams achieved her fastest serve, she still woke up the next morning to work on her serve… that’s what I’m talking about.

3. Love & live. The depressed poet stereotype is a load of bs. You do not have to be sad to write good poetry and again, if you are physically closed you may close off your imagination. This is a scientific fact. Eat great cheesecake, buy a nice plant, watch your favourite film and don’t ever apologise for doing so.