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Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Brief Poetry UPDATE.... 5 things

1 - Reading List

This week, I've been doing most of my reading on the daily commute to work and other places, but it's slow progress (mainly because I keep falling asleep on the bus).

Right now I'm getting through a collection of Dub poetry and the Poetry Repair Manual. I've also just been lent The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak, so that's next on the list.

2 - Don't Stop this Game!

The last two gigs I've been to were pretty lively competitive events. Friday's Rap vs Poetry saw us pit words against alongside each other from the comfort of a boxing ring in the East End and I felt proper hardcore!

Last night, I checked in on 'I'm Sorry I Haven't Haiku', a competitive haiku game show evening, right on my doorstep in Camden. I never knew before that you could fit turtles, euthanasia and knitwear into 17 syllables, but the people on the two rival panels sure did try! And, feature guest James McKay delivered a few sharp haiku triptychs to round off the night. Crazy times.

3 - Next up

Speaking of crazy, and playfulness and game shows, I'm really excited about Tongue Fu vs Anti-Slam. As I'm writing, I'm preparing to resurrect my alter ego The Consciousness (that's Conscious Yes! to you, my Consciousation). It takes a lot of effort to deliver your worst... I'm also looking forward to see what the Tongue Fu band will bring to this night, which takes on the slam and parodies it in cruel ways, with clich├ęs, stereotypes and hideously bad poetry stepping up onto the stage.

I also have Chill Pill's Xmas special on December 19 at the Albany, which is going to be awesome. Other projects in the pipeline too... More on these later! 

 4 - Hainault via Newbury Park...

Oh yeah, and I just noticed Amazon is now selling my debut mini-collection of poems. They make good Christmas presents, apparently (and there's even a Christmas poem included). I'm planning on publishing a full collection next year and will keep you posted.

5 - A tweet that made me smile

I've posted about my poem "Tell Me (what you believe)" a few times, including here back in 2011, because when I wrote it, I couldn't give a definitive answer to the question. But there are 12 year olds out there that can and it makes me smile to know that.

Short poem from a year 8 student in response to 'Tell Me' by

Friday, 22 November 2013

UPCOMING... er, as in right now!

Another day, another battle... Making my way to Lost Lectures: The Big Fight - Live. in East London.

The talks should be streamed online so stay posted. I'll be part of a Rap vs. Poetry segment, with killer poets Rikki Livermore, Michelle Madsen battling against MCs Benny Diction and Solo Cypher. Bring it on!

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Lily Allen kicks up a storm!

Lily Allen's Video Hard Out Here - if you haven't seen it here's a YouTube clip

Or, better, listen to this emotional response from skilled poet Deanna Rodger

Lily's caused an outcry. And a flurry of very well-written, well-argued critiques. Like this one here. And this one here. And this one here. And she has defended herself. And then there are people who support her for making a feminist stand. Google them, if you must.

But, I was asked to share my opinion on the matter. Then I ignored the question for a few days, then I thought, what the heck - if I'm going to be made to think about her and her video, I better take my time on it. And so, instead of the simple answer I was going to give, I've ended up with these thoughts....

Some context #1 - Personal

I don't have a TV at home, so I have to make a decisive effort to watch the world as it happens on the Internet. My old-school habit of turning on the telly for random noise is now gone.

Since last year in particular, I've felt a little out of touch, but I like the feeling. I have no clue about X Factor and who's winning, losing or whining their way into the affections of the British public; I remain especially indifferent to Great British Bake Offs and anything else that involves pastry.

However, I have taken perverse pleasure watching Gogglebox, where friends and families sit in their living rooms, watch TV and comment about it while they're watching. (I'm hoping someone will film me watching the show and then make a TV programme out of it; in return, I'll film whoever films me and we can keep going ad infinitum.)

#2 - Global/ Getting some real perspective

I've stopped picking up free newspapers. If I want to be informed, I log on and watch the news online or I read it from my phone. I generally know what's going on, and I select what I want to know more about.

The aftermath of the storm in the Philippines is difficult to get my head around. When a disaster creates deaths in single or double figures, it hits me more, as I can easily picture ten or a hundred people; when deaths gets to the thousands, however, it's difficult to conceptualise, even if you have a close connection with the place (I don't). I'm not unique feeling this way; the phenomenon has been referred to as donor or disaster fatigue.

Despite this, I know millions of people need immediate help - people with far bigger problems than my own - or Lily Allen's (the link above has some information on how to donate). It's hard out here, indeed!

Given all of the above, forgive me if I fail to care too much about what Lily Allen does in her videos...

(I would leave it there, but...)


Everything we do is a conversation with the past.

(We talk about the film we watched last night with friends/colleagues/ourselves. We elaborate. We forget details. We respond to it based on how much better or worse it was than the last thing, or the original version. Or the prequel. And, as we get older, we compare it to films we idealised as kids.)

#4 - Trends

'Tis the season of music video controversy. In case you didn't realise there was a season, we've had a few twerks, then a few blurred lines, and a wrecking ball. All of these have hit news headlines lately and created gossip, debate, censorship and fury.

But there have been debates about music videos going back decades. And there have been arguments about the objectification of women whose buttocks feature in these videos. And, of course, arguments about the consequences of women seeking to follow the new ideal of hip-hop video-friendly buttocks, including this exceptionally sad story about a woman from Hackney, reported to have been "an aspiring hip-hop star", which just sprung to mind.

Given the above, I won't be saying anything new... And I doubt many other people can, either. So why bother weighing in on something that is already yesterday's news (until some other singer sticks a gyrating butt into the continuing dialogue between sexism and race)?

(And, having said that...)

#5 - Youth

"Sir! Sir! Have you seen this?"

A girl points me to the friend sitting next to her, in my class (where she should be writing).

"Look - I can twerk my finger!" the girl says.

"She's been doing it all day, sir!"

A miracle... Balanced on one thumb, her index performs an impressive - if not disturbing - wobble.

I rewind to when I was an eleven year old. I probably would have parodied some of the arse-shaking antics of the music videos I saw in a similar, relatively innocent way. But I wouldn't have shared this with an adult, which says a lot about protocol and boundaries, but it also says something about our common language.

It was assumed I knew what the term "twerking" meant - and, given its addition to the Oxford Dictionary, and given that I haven't had my head completely buried in some drawer for the past few months, it was a fair assumption - and an acceptable term to use. When I was eleven, I don't recall there being a similar term in popular use across generations, even if people have been shaking their booty for aeons. Household names like Miley Cyrus have given universal access to this aspect of "black" culture (the inverted commas are a place mark for debate on the grey area of what "black culture" is. And artists from Elvis to Eminem have been stirring that debate for ages... That's almost another argument altogether.)

#6 - Appropriation

But I'll touch on that argument briefly. Well, just enough to say that we still have an issue with how marginalised groups use language - and whether those whose balance of power is greater should be able to employ the same language. The subject is discussed extensively in this recent radio programme with regard to the word "nigger" - a word which features heavily in the show, despite being censored in the title: "Nobody's N-Word." More humorously, this article discusses the same issue with derogatory terms for gay people.

How the above points relate to the video depends on how we answer the questions below:

i) How far can you criticise attitudes/behaviour you disagree with through mimickry/satire/parody, without becoming a part of that behaviour yourself?

ii) How much is a white, privileged (in multiple senses of the word) woman entitled to appropriate and parody the (visual) language of what is mostly seen as a "black" form of art?

iii) How more/less acceptable would this be if races were inverted in the video (i.e. if Lily Allen were black, and the dancers were white)?  

In a conclusion, of sorts

The last question has been used to dismiss claims of racism in the video. ("People will always find something to be offended by. Even if they were all white 'they' would be offended") This is the attitude I find more distasteful than any one-off music video. I mean, I get it - Lily's just trying to make a record, some money and a name for herself. And she may well be in a vacuum where the implications of her choice of choreography - given the subject matter - aren't fully thought-out (although I'm disinclined to give her the benefit of the doubt after she tweeted the penis in blackface.) But for others to invalidate a sizeable group's misgivings by saying they aren't genuine is another matter.

When people are offended, I tend to find out why; I may not agree, but I would never go down the road of belittling the validity of their feelings. Go back to #3 - there might be some historical context which can shed light on why some people take umbrage. Think about Deanna's video, for example - she provides an account of feeling judged and degraded from a young age; for her, 'Hard Out Here' is a personal insult, a belittling of her experience.    

I saw a Facebook post a while ago, and then haven't been able to find it again. However, it read something like this:
Being black means you get to be offended by things white people don't. And to then be told that you need to lighten up (pardon the pun).
Of course, in a post-feminist, post-racist world, if you can't see your own privilege, it simply doesn't exist! I remember being shocked when I remarked how safe (central) London streets are at night and a woman I was speaking to reeled off a list of recent incidents where she'd been intimidated and even followed home by men. She doesn't feel as safe as I do; and I imagine many others wouldn't, either. How I see things isn't how another person will. That doesn't negate their experience.

All that said, I want to take the argument away from the singer who inspired the backlash. She's just another cog in the wheel, as Deanna would say. The real issue is that some black women - and men -  feel under-represented, marginalised, objectified. The real issue is that, when this is brought to public attention, eyes roll, people sigh and assume the "race card" position.

The real issue is that we can no longer call out "racism" and "sexism" in a straightforward way. I've decided that I don't know any racists. Or misogynists. Or homophobes. Or even bullies. These words have become flames. People who unwittingly display oppressive behaviour fail to recognise themselves in these terms because we associate them with cross-burning Neanderthals, fascists, angry skinheads with H-A-T-E H-A-T-E tattoos on each knuckle. We know that people who are racist are BAD. Just like if you ask any school child if bullying is wrong (it's National Anti-bullying week by the way!) they will also tell you how awful it is. And still bitch about someone in their class. Or write less-than-friendly messages on Facebook, or Twitter (watch this if you're able to understand Spanish - the ultimate teacher revenge!) Or simply forward an inflammatory email, or hack someone's account. When we call out racism for what it is, it gets people's backs up. So we need to be a little cleverer.

Since I've been an adult, I've never been intentionally racist, or sexist. But oppression doesn't work like that. Oppression comes in many forms, and the most insidious one is indirect complicity, a blindness which enables us to accept the status quo.

That all said, when all the fizz dies down, another singer will come along next month and pour more champagne over a girl's buttocks and the debate will continue, I'm sure. Meanwhile, as much as I don't like the video, it's just one video of many others, a small pixel in the screen that shows the picture of our world. I'm glad people are questioning how we represent race and gender issues, and I'd like to see us challenge more behaviour that makes society unjust. Because there are plenty of other, glaringly obvious examples.

Monday, 18 November 2013

New Theatre/Poetry Project... a work in progress

I can't say much about this project now (mostly because the main details are still to be worked out) but I'm excited to be working with film/theatre director Jason Moore on a poetry event, taking place at the beginning of the new year.

The objective is to create an interactive space where poets are in conversation with each other, responding to one theme or idea. We'll be meeting with a few poets on Wednesday eve at the Southbank Centre. If you think you might be interested, get in touch and come along!

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Postcard from home... Ventriloquism

a bit bleak but I want to work on this one... here's  a 1st draft/ free-write from my phone

On the way to the hospital       a shortcut 
through the long shadows of death
fearing no evil but the sharp        November wind 
which snips through the weak lining
of my puffa coat

and in the distance   a man is entertaining a loud     phone conversation
from the back of a gravestone      with faded lettering
it's weak against the light of the greying sky 
and the sun so low you could seize it with both hands
    like a moment

and there's a metaphor for God in there      somewhere 
precisely because I can't see him
and it seems     in that moment     that he's speaking
for those who've passed on
perhaps       the gravest kind of ventriloquism
because before I approached it was dead    quiet
nothing but squelching leaves to punctuate
   my thoughts.


I hear the dusk used to gather men up here 
for brisk encounters
crouching under bushes      by the crypts
and I won't pass comment
on the partnership between sex & death

not exactly civil 
when the two of them bicker     incessantly
at all the best black tie dinners
you never were invited to 
going at each other's throats with the posh silverware 
(you have to work from the outside in, he says   
amuse-bouche   main    pudding    cheese)
snide ahems passed like mustard      sparing but enough to clear a cold

call it a trick of dark    but the shadows are pressing up against each other     hardening    

and only two weeks ago
I was thinking my life from the far prong    of a distant fork

when you told me it's time to  consider a future 
    with me painted in the frame 

which, if you approach it     with the right light
the gilt edges   the sticker from Habitat     the gurning child in the background 
making speech marks behind someone's head  

you could have hung it just about anywhere

but now my perspectives have turned sideways
and the portrait I had of myself
is rubbing out slowly       like words on a gravestone 

and maybe I'm speaking for you now
but I can't snap back at this particular cold       and the warm
of a smile only lasts me this long     shorter each time
like the daylight

and because a lecturer once told me that dictionaries are graveyards
for words
because writing is forgetting to live        because a tongue births
new meanings with each breath     with each twist
and sounds shift mouth to mouth

because of this I am writing my words     down
to bury my silence.


a youth I do not recognise      pauses   then lifts
his knuckles    a gesture to enter the ward  

his visit is brief
a revolving door;

the trickster
always hides behind the entranceways

drops another version of myself off here  
even though this was never written in the script.


Walking back
taking leaves up with my foot - fallen feathers

from angels, watching over the headstones
that gather dust        beneath their roots

they stretch their thin wings out
to a darkening sky     in silent supplication

while a man-sized shape shifts on a bench
in the distance.


Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Upcoming Gig... Jazz Verse Jukebox in Covent Garden

Thursday, 7.30pm, and I'm back at Jazz Verse Jukebox, one of my favourite poetry nights in London, where a versatile live band, virtuoso singers and poets merge with good vibes. This time, it's not at the usual Ronnie Scott's venue but the prestigious Hospital Club in Covent Garden.

I'll hopefully do one or two new poems I'm getting ready for the Autumn/Winter season :) And some favourites of mine, too.

Looking forward to hearing more from Anthony Anaxogouru and Francesca Beard, both poets with powerful words that I admire - usually from afar - and it'll also be the first time I hear Lanre... so fun times!

Come on down!

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Back again/ November/ Reading List

Once again, I've had an unplanned break from posting on here that started with the flu and a dodgy internet connection at home - both have been fixed - and continued with a tricky few weeks that went by quickly... or went quickly by (apparently, some people still 'object strongly' to split infinitives... really?) In any case, I'm still here, as ever, and back online.

Good Reading 

I've been consuming books at a speedy rate, lately. 

Poetry-wise, I've been particularly enjoying Emily Berry's Dear Boy and John Agard's new collection Travel Light, Travel Dark. They could hardly be more different from each other. The former is extremely playful and irreverent in places; the latter cross-references and adds layers over layers, the poems hanging together in a dialogue with history. I saw both poets perform at the Poetry Library's 60th Anniversary party last week, where I was also blown away by Warsan Shire and Kei Miller. I'm falling in love with poetry again and seeing different possibilities in the way language and meaning can be manipulated. This is all good. Despite constant self-doubt, I think I'm in the right job :)

I've been devouring this book too:

I wrote a poem, 'Asylum Cocktails', for the above anthology of human rights poems, put together by the Human Rights Consortium, the Institute of English Studies and Keats House Poets. It's filled with work from poets from around the world, both renowned and previously unpublished, some imprisoned, or refugees, or translated from other languages, either responding to specific events around the world or their own experience.

And, a few weeks ago, I was given this:

   (The words "Isn't it Byronic, don't you think...?" keep repeating in my head, but there are some real gems here.)

Fiction-wise, I've been reading a lot of Young Adult books, from Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls, which had me staring at the wall for a long time afterwards, to Nick Laird's In Darkness, which brings together post-earthquake Haiti with its heroic past, and Sally Gardner's Maggot Moon, a couple of weeks ago, which surprised me. Been a little slower with the adult fiction, but was tickled to read Bernadine Evaristo's Mr Loverman - mostly on the bus route to work which goes past the main character's street - and I'm still leafing through The Book of Disquiet and The Great Gatsby, although, in the case of the latter, it's difficult for me to invest in a book where I don't particularly care for any of the characters.

I feel I'm missing some out... But it's good to write down where I'm at with my reading... more than I thought! I'll probably do this again in a couple of weeks.

NTS Radio

I was on RE:Versed show again on Monday, live from Dalston, Hackney. Apologies for sound levels (we had some technical mishaps going on). It starts off bitter, but gets better. Can also follow on Twitter etc.

Met a very interesting, cool-sounding Bunty and shared some banter with her and Sam Berkson. Also my new (rough) poem on freedom of information and a plug for the Spoken Word Educator programme.

Click the link to listen to the show again: