On Sunday 2nd September the Observer New Review published an interview with 7 Poets. We each posed a question 600 word limit. The questions were not light. They asked to dig deep and speak about the role and purpose of the poet in 21st century. As a poet conciseness is part of the craft of writing, however when speaking about process and purpose, you’d need a volume of essays to really comprehend what the artform asks of you to still only touch the surface.
So I decided to post the entirety of my responses here.
- Has a poem ever humbled or frightened you? What was it? When did it happen and what did you do after?
“A Cedary Fragrance” by Jane Hirschfield was poem I read one morning when I was going through a phase of reading books of poetry the moment I open my eyes. It’s such a short poem and I think it was its length that gave it its immediacy of slapping me out of weeks of deep depression. It reminded me of all the times I had refused to look at myself in the mirror out of fear of what I might see. So that morning I did. I got up, looked at the bags under my eyes from crying, my grey skin for bad eating and the utter shock from realising I had allowed depression make a home in me without boundaries. So I had a long alternating hot and icy cold shower, walked to the corner shop, came home, cooked and ate a huge slap-up breakfast and set some rules for the black dog to sit when I said so. I laugh now because sometimes I still battle with depression like it’s a hound of the Baskerville but I get it under control by eating well, going salsa dancing and watching really great action and adventure movies and reading books about the world of tarot.
- Some poets claim that a poem is like a living creature: once it’s out there is not much you can do to “correct” or “improve” it, the others edit meticulously, not leaving much from the original, draft form, most radically–Russian poet Boris Pasternak was known for rewriting his juvenilia, poetry written 20-30 years ago, claiming that age brings better feeling of form and mastery. What is your take on it?
Personally, I don’t see the point in going back to a poem to adjust it because, yes, it never stops being a ‘living thing’ once abandoned it or set it free into the wild elements that is an audience or reader’s ear.
A poem being birthed is in dialogue with the writer and any dialogue worth having has resonances that ripple out over time and will change or find newness in the hearts and minds of the reader or listener. The poem is then in dialogue with them and is almost none of the author’s business. Unless they are hanging over it waiting for critics, literature journals and peers to comeback with an ‘opinion’ on it. To me that sort of implies other folks opinion affects the way the poet sees or feels about the poem. Especially if it has been published. That might seem harsh to say but I’m inclined to just let it go and live its own life.
I’m not saying I haven’t ever revisited a poem because somewhere deep down I knew the poem’s musicality was “wrong” and therefore did not convey the meaning I wanted to hear for myself, feel in my Self. As a singer, my body is a sound board and the sonics of poetry inform me whether a poem is “right” or I should say ready. My soul has to ‘feel’ it. Its like hitting an off pitch note and hearing it amplified on a 200 watt sound system. You know when it’s wrong. So if rhythmically and sonically a line in a poem doesn’t work for me, I will tune it so it strikes the right chord. Poems are like spells and spells rely on sound as much as content, so I don’t go too strongly for technicalities around form, even though I understand form can score sonics. I just find it too restrictive and have a knee jerk reaction to rebel and break free from form. I master sound and work improvisationally on how it feels in my body while being read aloud.
- When it comes to canon and legacy, how are poets across the generations informing each others craft? (This isn’t about Dead White Men but culturally and intersectionally diverse poets who are still creating and evolving as artists.)
I am highly attached to the works of Jean Binta Breeze. As a poet rooted in dub culture, which is a peaceful yet radical culture, I pay a lot of attention to the depth within me her work speaks to and helps me discover. Her poem “Ordinary Mawnin” is the kind of poem that captures the most intimate conversation a person have with themselves when it comes to human purpose and its historical, socially and political context. A woman stands in her kitchen watching her simple dress hanging on the washing line blowing in a breeze becomes a testimony to the resilience, to heart song, to the part of us all that values ourselves but doesn’t know how actualize that value except through other people until we forget ourselves. The woman in the poem remembers in the moment and begins to cry at the burden of sacrifice and the love with which she gives her entire self to others with no thanks in return.
It conveys how the existence a poor, working class black woman in the Caribbean can be crushing and beautiful at the same time. It speaks about Black Women’s emotional complexity repressed to survive because the script is that we are only allowed a one note dimensionality – angry, hyper-sexualised or ‘the Help’ .
When I live in society that either invisibilises or hyper-visualises our presence there is no area or space of reprieve to just “Be”. Jean expresses it so well in this poem.
Also Jean was diagnosed with Schizoprenia in her 20’s and is an advocate for mental well being and addressing the stigma. Mental health is something rarely spoken about when it comes to black women, yet we have the highest rate of sectioning and prescriptive mental health drugs intake in the UK.
I wrote a poem for BBC Arts called “Four and Then Some Women”in tribute to Nina Simone, but mainly for Sarah Reed who was found dead in a Holloway Women’s prison cell in 2016 after being sectioned and sexually assaulted while in a mental heath institution after the death of her baby girl. Both women’s mental unwellness needs to represented and spoken up for.
When I heard Jean’s poem “Riddym Ravings” in the 90’s, read in rich Jamaican patois, with dub culture running all the way through, I knew that there was space for me to speak my poetic voice. I have a radical point of view about things that are important to me and women who looked like me, from my working class background and Jean gave me permission to not have to write politically charged rants about race or feminism, which seemed to be the acceptable thing for me to do. Or to write some very bland but sort of interesting poetry that didn’t truly represent my voice. Jean’s work freed me from writing work that could be gentrified into “the angry black woman poet’ trope that a lot of poets of colour who come from the Caribbean can find themselves in. If they’re not being labelled ‘mango poets’ who appeal to ex-colonial reminiscing that makes European publishers feel comfortable. And I do want to make a distinction between African writers and Caribbean authors. As there is no generic, monolithic “black” poetry. We have different voices. As do African poets. It’s a continent of countries each with their on voice.
I cannot help but use my first reaction to Jean Binta Breezes work as my benchmark of emotion when I write some of my work, especially if its about the black working class woman’s experience.
- How do you define success?
Not that I want to go on about it but depression saps you of energy that makes a day successful. So I have an ethos that is thick with daily affirmations that help and serve the people who come into contact with me and the work that I do.
Adulting in a way that I’m proud of is success. What I mean is that some of the participatory work I do, I hear a lot of young people saying they don’t think about the future and I believe I belong to one of the last generations who can say that as a young person I was ok with calling people in their 40’s ancient because I always knew 40 would come but I wasn’t going to stress my brain about it. I was having fun and not really committing myself to anything.
But with some of the young people I work with, they’re saying , they don’t see themselves having a future at all. They don’t bother thinking about it because its so stressful to, or they see some of their friends and family members or someone they know going to funerals monthly because they’ve lost friend to street violence, suicide…. some pretty dark stuff that young minds should not be having to deal with at this rate. So they just don’t bother to seeing or planning into the future. This is dehumanisation of a very specific kind that is reserved to folk who live in war zones so for me, if I can encourage a young person to find a spark of hope for a future of some kind, I can go to bed and sleep easy. Its the same with my performances. I believe in creating community moments, so I to get my audience to sing loud and strong with me is a success.
On a personal note, success for me, Zena Edwards is owning 2 ex-racing grey hounds, two cats and a horse. That would mean I had a life style and an income that supported the headspace I imagine I would have to own these pets… Time on my hands to walk dogs, sit and stroke cats while staring into space and learning to ride a horse all on an income provided by poetry and art project development and consultation.
- There’s an image of poets being overcome with inspiration and having to write everything out of nowhere and at once. Does this ever happen to you?
I hardly ever write at once. I have to have repeated encounters or experiences of something before I realise I’m in need of writing about it. There are certain things I am thick skinned to, especially in this political climate. I don’t specifically write women’s issues, but will write women keeping their chin up, accepting the body as a journey vessel, or about an elderly woman expressing some abstract thoughts she might have about life because I am passionate about intergenerational dialogues. Speaking to our elders is so importants before we lose them, particularly for people of colour groups. They have a lot to teach about living in a changing world.
I have themes that I am and have been passionate about for years and other issues feed into them. This way I developed an ear and an eye for the intersections in life. Some of them I cannot express but am grateful to other artists who identify racially and gender-wise differently as they name feelings that exist within those intersections for me.
- Do you ever regret sharing your work publicly? Do you trust the reader in a world of instant gratification and instant communication?
Firstly, without wanting to sound arrogant – I don’t do regret. I don’t have any. I have mistakes made and forgiven. Or not forgiven but I know I’m working on forgiving them. Regrets become burdens and poetry is not supposed to be burdensome. It is something I love so wouldn’t want to taint it with my isms and schisms of regret. So no, no poem ever performed have I regretted. I put poems that didn’t go down so well as learning opportunities to get better at representing me and my gift. A gift I try to honour each time I share.
I think trusting the reader doesn’t factor for me. I do the work and they make of it what they will. To be honest I’m not sure I understand the question because if someone chooses to place value on something they will. If someone chooses to make reading a poem a repeated destination for comfort, or understanding or representation, they will because that poet has something for them. We waste a lot in a throw away culture and a poet cannot afford to be too attached, especially if they put themselves into the electric stream of online media. But I feel trust is a huge word to use in this context because I don’t think its our job to police how people engage or consume our work. That’s their responsibility.