When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
I have a very vivid memory of sitting down to write my first poem. I was 11 years old, and I wanted to write a poem describing how Black Beauty, the horse from the well-known children’s tv series galloped. I loved that show. The opening music and watching the freedom of the sprint always enthralled. I wanted to capture the movement of muscle, the shine on horse’s flank and the wind in its mane.
I believe the poetry of Roald Dahl attracted me to poetic writing. I was bullied in school from about the age of 9 -15 and poetry’s ability to express and explain a very confusing world to me saved me. Gave me space to say “I’m ok. Being here is hard, but I’m ok.” As a 1st generation born child of a Windrush Migrant Settler, poetry also gave me an escape from the insular inward-looking culture of island exist, opening me up a much more a macro perspective of the world.
Coupled with a mind that is very attracted to zooming into detail, poetry enabled me to articulate generalities, the universal and the archetypal well and concisely. I can be incredibly micro with my poetry. There are times when poetry rescues me from compulsive word searches that take hours! I get to give myself a break, be less tyrannical with my creative writer-self and write from a place of compassion and empathy, and with an eye on the magical, being visionary and searingly honest. Its these attributes and qualities about writing poetry that keeps pulling me back to the craft.
Please talk about your development as a writer of poems. Tell us when you first felt you were a poet and how it went from there.
Twice I felt like I was a poet. The innocence of an 11 year-old feeling sense of freedom while I wrote was the unofficial time I felt like a poet because the authenticity of ‘just being’ was palpable in my blood and bones in that moment. No-one can take that moment away from me. When I forget and get bogged down with work, I am reminded to return to that feeling. I know when a poem is right when I feel it.
The second time I felt like a poet and a performance was when I chose to be one. My background is theatre. I studied for a BA in Theatre Stage-management, Lighting and Sound. I have a good understanding of how to create a scenario through the senses of sight and sound. But I also studied musical theatre at Theatre Royal Stratford East, and did lighting for opera, so I understand how a story is condensed, refined, and driven forward at pace by big characters.
My study of performance is what elevated poetry for me beyond a very narrow and generic interpretation of the term Oral Tradition which had been presented to through the literature sector. I studied the role of the griot of ancient Malian tradition and this gave me insight into the importance of diplomacy and advocacy through the performed poetic word. Poetry in performance, spoken word, live literature became so exciting to me, so I packed in my full-time job as a Haringey Council youth and children’s play worker, wrote as much as I could and hit as many open mic spots around London as possible, until I got my first paid gig as a self-employed person, which was at Paradiso in Amsterdam.
Poetry was a calling I honoured and I chose to feel my way through the process of becoming a poet as a vocation, and not just as something I was doing privately to survive, maintaining my sanity, although I thank the 13 year-old Zena who did that.
What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
This prize is an example of what poetry means to me. I want to tell stories that amplify and elevate the “being” of human being, beyond ideas of resilience under extraordinary duress. Just the fact we are here is amazing to me.
Because the Forward prize really looks at ways everyone, no matter what your background, can enjoy and should be able to experience poetry, this category of the prize feels so important because it finally addresses how crucial cultural traditions of poetry that are oral are to the masses. It’s not and never has been just about the page. The spoken word is such an efficient way to transmit the best and the worst parts of the human experience.
Also, The Forward Prize has what it does in the title – forward thinking, bringing things forward, using poetry as evolving emotional, psychological, and creative intelligence to understand who we are as a species. The human body is the carrier of memories, identity and the collective mind, and people have been speaking, dancing, performing poetry since time immemorial. Before it was written down
Poetry is like food to the emotional body and mind, and you can experience it like a food supplement too. Like macrobiotic bacteria: it is a culture that is nourishing for the emotional body and mind.
I see how the Forward Prizes’ aims to bring culture to the masses in the form of words and expressive language. This prize means that poetry and the speaking of it, the performance of it has finally been recognized as the vessel and beacon for embodied knowledge.
Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?
I’d work a lot with young people in the social justice, using the arts to nurture their voices for self-confidence and positive social change. But I had been neglecting my Creative Self. I was starving.
There had been two huge waves of global protests against police brutality against unarmed people of African descent. I was exhausted by seeing the black body brutalized, demonized, our intellect and positive contributions to the world diminished, minimized and taken for granted. I was starved and exhausted from the narrative that we are an annoying left-over legacy post the chattel enslavement phase of colonialism.
Then watched the movie The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Maxwell Simba who played William Kwambumba., a 12 year-old boy who saved his village from starvation by building a windmill to irrigate water to their crops from a distant well.
I watched the William Kwambumba’s TED talks. I was overwhelmed and in awe of this young man’s story and by the tenacity of a young mind in extreme climate change affected circumstances. This was more than a story of ‘necessity being the mother of innovation.” This was a story about Love, about faith in self, about reconnecting with the best parts of ourselves as human beings rather than condemning and blaming us for our lascivious appetites to consume until our eventual extinction. It is a disempowering and all too common narrative we hear about our contribution to the climate and ecological climate crisis.
There is also a lot of hope, but first we need to recognize the wonder of being here at all. That was the genesis of this poem and is part of a journey to me really looking into embodiment, somatic writing, flash fiction and positive affirmations about existence.
Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?
My list is quite long! Here’s an edit. I cut my poetry writing and poetry in performance teeth reading Patricia Smith and Sapphire, because they were so unapologetically writing the experience of living in a very harsh world and were undaunted about facing it, calling it out and naming the things that hurt humans, and how we stand strong in a found resilience. No sugar coating and no coddling. That was 20 years ago.
I am now grateful for Joelle Taylor for allowing me to be reminded of those energies, only Joelle’s empathy levels give me space to breath (and grieve) for what we can do to each other as humans and how we can still continue to love each other.
Chris Abani, Naomi Shihab Nye and introduced me to an intimate voice. They allowed me to appreciate the grace of writing detail, snap shots, moments that can hold eons of memory, or back story that can be viscerally felt in the moment. I love that feeling.
Mallika Booker and John Aguard have always fed me Caribbean poetry that is like food. There is a lushness , a groundedness that I really appreciate being enveloped in with their writing.
Isaiah Hull, a young writer with an old writer’s head. He has the poet’s melancholia and is terrifyingly prolific at writing the most profound wordplay that I’ve seen in the longest time. He really challenges you to get your chops up as a writer.
Tshaka Cambell is a African American poet who writes with his heart on his sleeve. His work is fearlessly emotionally mature and I find his work a place to exhale and be held while my breath is taken away.
Matt Harvey for his humor and amplified humanity. He was the nicest poet to me when I was starting out and found the poetry world somewhat ambivalent towards me as a new performance poet who was a woman of colour. I was never taken seriously until Slam Poetry made it to the UK shores, but Matt’s work is a true reflection of him as a person – empathic, uplifting and witty.
I give a big shout-out as an honorary mention to Charles Bukowski who I will hail the king of dialogue poetry.
What is next for you as a poet?
It’s been 27 years coming but I’m going to be writing my first collection. It’s a story of embodiment of the ancestral line. I want to look into the manifesting of identity as 1st generation born child Migrant Settler of the Windrush generation and the daughter of the African American Airforce man from the South. It will touch on themes of the body and personal sovereignty, belonging and home, spirituality and faith, nature and environmental awareness.
I’m also developing an online poetry community called Poets Built It supported by Apples and Snakes Poetry Organisation.
Poets Built It holds space for new and established poets and spoken word, and Live Lit artists internationally, where as a global collective, we can share the common experience of becoming and being a poets. It’s a very supportive space, with much potential for collaborations with other mediums such as film, visual art, music. You can find it at poetsbuiltit.world.
What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
Be honest and write to understand your own writing patterns and behaviours as soon as you can. That way you won’t get stuck in imitating your idols. Let them inspire and influence you but we all have a unique voicing about universal and archetypal themes. And there’s only one you that can describe it your way.
Study craft because it will make your life so much easier when you need to write quickly, say for a commission. This is just real talk because a poet’s got to eat and keep the lights on. It doesn’t mean don’t be authentic and have integrity in your writing. It just means that you are able to immediate access to that place of authenticity within you to talk about the themes within the commissioning brief.
Oh, and your writing. Please enjoy it. All of it!