a modern poetic force to be reckoned with – Palatinate

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By Christian Vince

The Durham Book Festival spotlights incredible literary personalities by giving them a platform to share their works with local crowds. One event that caught my eye was the session with three poets who feature in a new collection of black British poetry: More Fiya. The title and concept recall the 1998 anthology titled: The Fire People. Both poetry collections celebrate the work of black individuals who write about a wide range of ideas, from cultural identity to bereavement.

At this event, three poets read a selection of their poetry and two then spoke in profile about their relationship to this form of self-expression and its continued importance in modern society. Warda Yassin and Rommi Smith responded eloquently and, of course, poetically to my questions.

After the readings and Q&A, I was interested to hear how poets think poetry has changed over the past hundred years and if they think the purpose has changed. Quite wittily, Smith responds with “well, I wasn’t alive a hundred years ago,” but she can visibly continue to see similarities in “the importance of orality” in poetry. Smith goes on to talk about how access to this art form has become easier due to advances in “digital systems” with people using “old ways but using new forms. For example, “insta poets, podcasts etc”.

Yassin takes a slightly different perspective on the matter, responding that many poets in Wordsworth’s and Blake’s day saw “poetry as a way of life”. Life went from “romanticism to a lifestyle” and now, “people want different things from their poems.” More personally though, the essence of the poetry is the same, with it “meaning something different to each person”. Compared to Yassin’s poetry, in which she talks about the art form as a means of communicating her culture, “in my country, it has a purpose…it’s an act of worship”. Yassin draws on the relationship between religion and poetry and, as a Muslim woman, the importance of connecting with her Islamic roots. Smith elaborates on this point by relying on “the King James Version of the Bible [being] full of poetry”. She clarifies that poetry “is not necessarily linked to a book” and that it exists in everyday life.

Following this comment, I begin to wonder if Yassin or Smith find themselves reverting to a particular type of imagery or motif in their poetry that inspires them. Yassin “did that a lot when I started but now I do the opposite”. “The reason I started was because I was writing about people I know, things I know.” This type of binary writing and structure, in my opinion, could often limit people’s desire to write poetry. However, Yassin is now breaking out of that traditional mold and “rediscovering what poetry means” to her.

Smith expands on this by describing music and art as being huge influences on his works. Drawing inspiration from “many painters I love, Walco being one of them” and “Joni Mitchell” who also bridge many gaps between art, music and poetry. always an image with my poetry”.

I wanted to capture the energy of paint and colors

Rommi Smith

One of the poems in the anthology demonstrates Smith’s translation of art into lyrical stanzas. The painting, David Oxtoby’s depiction of little Richard, appealed to Smith because it gave the impression of being “on fire”. “I wanted to capture the energy of painting and colors”. Smith compares his poetry to a Farrow & Ball paint chart, as if you are mixing the meticulously named colors in the chart. In this particular poem, color goes beyond the mere appearance of the poem and the painting, but is about “race, sexuality; a kind of euphemism for queerness”.

After this brief overview of her process with a poem from the anthology, Smith shares how nature influences her work. This can be seen in the work she produced while holding the inaugural post of Poet-in-Residence for Keats House in Hampstead.

She tells a story about how the phrase: “there is a quality of light that I cannot name” came about after a walk in the Lake District. “I didn’t take a pen or paper because I feel like it can do things to you” and without that “I had no way of documenting what I saw”. Upon reaching the hills, Smith “kept thinking about how mysterious the light was. There was both light and shadow…it was like a spell.” This line then came to him and, once at the foot of the mountain, “I walked into a cafe and asked them for a receipt so I could scribble the line. Smith soon realized that this line, which later shaped his poem, was linked to a hidden inspiration from Audrey Lorde, an American writer. The line reads: “there is a quality of light through which we peer into our lives”. This is a perfect example of “carrying text” through your poetry and keep interesting concepts and feelings alive.

It was the first time I saw my tongue imprinted and it was so, so powerful

Warda Yassine

The final question I pose to poets is how young people can find their poetic voice and use it to their advantage. Yassin replies, “it always starts with reading… and by being a reader, I fell in love with writing”. Yassin reveals his dyslexia and how “Wordsworth never really did it for me”. It wasn’t until “I saw women, Somali women in poetry…it was the first time I saw my language in print and it was so, so powerful”.

The key to poetry, according to Yassin, is “to be authentic” and both hope to promote the art form to a new generation of individuals as a means of self-expression.

At the end of the interview and the event, I was able to collect some brief thoughts. I got my hands on a copy of the anthology and it lived up to all expectations. The collection is rich with images and cultural references that are often not represented in traditional printed literature and poetry.

During the event itself, the three women were discussing major issues facing black people in poetry. One root of the problem, pointed out by Smith, is that the majority of editors are white. This, as she explained, then impacts how certain black experiences are expressed. The editor being a black man, Kayo Chingonyi, is what makes this collection even more authentic and raw and makes it an inspiring read.

Illustration: Anna Kuptsova


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