FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
MALIKA BOOKER: I started writing poetry as a teenager in order to articulate the complex emotional storms that seemed trapped in my body. Teenage years are difficult at the best of times and here I was uprooted from Guyana to Britain trying to make sense of it. Poetry therefore became expression, witness, testimony and healing. It was the vehicle that I could employ in my daily diary. The act of writing enabled a releasing, a freedom of sorts and I suppose a sanity.
I spent my formative years in Guyana and was part of the recitation club in school. Each week we learnt a new poem, to perform in competition with other members of the club. I was a member of Green House and committed to winning points for our house. It was dramatic and exciting to see and hear many different interpretations of the same poem. I loved learning the text in order to render an original reading that sought to capture and communicate the essence of the poem as well as the drama of competition, interpretation, embodiment, and utterance. I fell in love with this compact formation of words where every revisit of the text reveals something new. I remember being passionate about both Louise Bennett and William Blake. I think I was drawn to poems like ‘Colonization in Reverse’ or ‘Holy Thursday’, because they captured the complexities and realities of everyday existence in certain societies.
FAF: 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.
MB: For years I was a poet apprentice – due to a large insecurity around claiming the name poet and my consuming need to develop my craft. I spent numerous years investing considerable time and money (now – in hindsight – well invested) into attending writing classes and undergoing mentorships on various schemes. I attended classes at: Spread the Word, the Poetry School, the Arvon Foundation, Pascale Petit’s poetry courses at the Tate Modern, masterclasses run by the Poetry Library and the South Bank Festival as part of its literature festivals. I was a fellow of both The Complete Works (a literature development programme for Black and Asian Writers) and Cave Canem (an organisation committed to cultivating the artistic and professional growth of African American poets) and finally completed an MA at Goldsmiths University. I think that being a poet from a marginalised background dealing with the closed gates employed by the literary establishment instilled the need to grapple with my craft by learning from some of the best poets in the world.
I also read widely and internationally always wanting to stretch my knowledge of poetry and writing. Although I have been writing and using the term poet in my biog for over fifteen years, in a way a considerable amount of that time was spent working hard to enable the consistent work worthy of such a title.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
MB: It is a great honour to have been shortlisted for the second time in this category. To have been selected by this esteemed panel of judges is one of the highest validations for my work as a poet.
I am deeply humbled when reminded that this poem alongside the other four in this category stood out from hundreds of poems published in journals and magazines this year. Being shortlisted for this prize hopefully makes an inspirational statement to marginalised voices that we can write our experiences, and these are valid, as well as providing an example of poetry as a viable career choice.
Being shortlisted is also an acknowledgement of the hard work of the communities of writers that support me and that I support like Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, it is a statement that we have been doing something right and that we are making the change that we strived to make through just working at our craft and striving to give voice to our experiences in authentic ways. But most importantly being shortlisted for this poem honours the powerhouse behind the construction of this poem my mother Clara Elizabeth Charles Booker Boyce and the long line of Charles women from Grenada – part of that first wave of adventurous Windrush pioneers who taught me and continues to teach me that anything is possible.
FAF: 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?
MB: This poem was developed from a commission by the guest editors Yvonne Reddick and Adam Lowe to take part in a project supporting interdisciplinary collaborations between poets, counsellors and psychologists about Loss for Magma 75.
My collaboration with Lowri Dowthwaite, a lecturer in Psychological Interventions at the University of Central Lancashire had a profound effect on me as both a daughter and a poet.
In hindsight I can see that Dowthwaite’s research resonated because my mother has been living with the after effects of a major stroke and exhibiting signs of dementia since 2016. Interestingly I had spent the last few years, in denial, banning the illness from my notebook and reluctant to write any poems about mum’s illness. This collaboration forced me to interact with the situation in a different way. It provided me with an alternative lens through which to view, behave and interrogate.
During each visit I pondered Dowthwaite’s revelations concerning how memories are stored in our DNA and can be communicated through fleeting and inevitably uplifting moments. Her work also prompted me to make a resolution to be more present during these visits with my mother, scrutinising our time together by tuning in as a daughter, which has led to more meaningful and precious interactions, culminating in this poem of witness capturing the reality of my family’s emotional upheaval.
I suppose ‘The Little Miracles’ attempts to address what Dowthwaite captures in the following quote: ‘Unlike feeling happy, which is a transient state, leading a happier life is about individual growth through finding meaning. It is about accepting our humanity with all its ups and downs, enjoying the positive emotions, and harnessing painful feelings in order to reach our full potential’ (excerpt from the Magma article).
Audiences can find my work in the following: Pepper Seed (Peepal Tree Press) and Your Family Your Body (Penguin Modern Poets Three). They can also visit my website: malikabooker.com
FAF: At this moment, the world has been turned upside down by Covid-19. How do you think these extraordinary times will affect your readers’ response to your work.
MB: Poetry is the introspective art form, that we turn to in unsettling times due to its power to capture moments and transform but most importantly due to its ceremonial power to reflect and articulate that which we cannot comprehend or put words to.
It is this superhero aspect of poetry that finds us turning to it for solace, relief, and respite during most turning points in our lives.
I think readers now more than ever are reaching towards poetry in order to comprehend and understand the seismic effect of Covid-19 and the work that I am creating can serve to enable some sort of intellectual, emotional and spiritual agency, as it is passionate, moving, powerful and, as always, candid in its pursual of the truth.
FAF: Which poets, that you’ve read in the past year, would you most recommend to others and why?
MB: Danez Smith’s Homie: I adore this tender homage to community and kinship. This delicate unapologetic gospel and sermon to the haunting of Black collective grief.
Ciaran Carson – Still Life: Heartbreaking poems that capture the poet’s last days in elegant long lines that are humorous, wry with an honest clarity that could only be achieved by a poet at the top of his game. Heartbreakingly addictive and compelling.
Kim Hyesoon – Autobiography of Death: This is poetry that bypasses the senses and disorientates the soul. It is a surreal rendering of a collective grief as ghost and apparition. I continually reread this book then clutch the collection to my heart, hugging it in order to anchor and bleed after each reading.
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I am a Haunting: A distinctive voice, these bodacious poems hurl themselves at the reader with a Trinidadian linguistic sting that wounds.
Romeo Oriogun – Sacrament of Bones: This is my favourite poetry collection from my reading this year. It is a beautiful healing bruise. ‘I have learnt to love every broken thing’ – this line from one of his poems sums up Oriogun’s work. It is an elegant musical rendering of trauma and exile in language that is at once gospel and testimony.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
MB: Continuing to show up at the desk. I am currently researching and writing the new collection. I will continue curating and hosting Peepal Tree Press’s literary podcast New Caribbean Voices – featuring literature from Caribbean and diasporic writers. I will continue to teach in Malika’s Poetry Kitchen as well as in my work as both a Creative Writing lecturer at MMU and a mentor passing on my knowledge to a new generation of poets. Look out for a new book from me the next year.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
MB: You cannot write poetry if you are not reading poetry, make reading a part of your writing habit. Show up to the page every day, treat the writing desk as a laboratory, a place to experiment and discover, a place to imitate and be inspired by other poets. Remember that poetry is a lifelong commitment. It is sitting at a desk, trying to find the ways and means to articulate your stories and occasionally succeeding. No poem is a failed poem.
Always seek to cultivate and create a supportive writing community that nurtures and supports you and reciprocate their gifts.