Thursday, 2 April 2015

I Only Have One Story

I quoted the revolutionary Jamaican poet Oku Onuara* in my dissertation, which I wrote last year. His poem 'I write about' has stuck in my mind ever since. In that poem, when asked why he doesn't write about trees and love etc. he answers:

I write about trees –
trees with withered branches
& severed roots
I write about flowers –
flowers on graves
I write about birds –
caged birds struggling
I write about love –
love for destruction
of oppression**
It's a subversive statement, and I had to dig out this poem very quickly last week when a student nearly walked out of a workshop I was running at a school. The student in question is a keen poet and didn't take well to an exercise which involved everyone running around the hall, dancing and trying to make each other laugh, before writing down what exactly they found silly about the person in front of them. As far as he was concerned, it took away from the pressing issues he wanted to express; he wanted to write about his family, the dangerous parts of his neighbourhood, his alienation from the school and from society in general. In short, he didn't see the point of it all, and this wasn't a P.E./ dance/ drama lesson (none of which he enjoyed).

I've written little about the Spoken Word Educator project lately, but I'm immensely proud of all my colleagues who have created a spoken word poetry culture within their schools. While I'm no longer full time at any one school, I see the importance of being embedded in an institution, working from within, and I miss the challenge. With such a tight curriculum, there often isn't space for young people to express themselves and, when the space is given, it isn't consistently kept open. Too many places I know of see creative writing as a one-week/one-term box to tick, before returning to the important stuff. That said, when some pupils take up that space and run with it, any attempts to direct it or hone it can seem like a return to the controlling space of the regular classroom. And they rebel.

I would rather young people (or anyone, young or not, really) feel they are fully communicating what they need to say first before I - or anyone else - impose a rigid structure on it. After that initial barrier of self-expression/ creative therapy has been cleared, though, it is important to develop the craft of writing, to think about different approaches to poetry, and different ways of summoning emotions; otherwise it becomes stale.

I showed the pupil Onuora's poem. I told him that if he wants to write about his dysfunctional family, it will still come out in the silliness exercise, through the dysfunctional limbs of the shy pupils in one corner; if he wants to write about his dangerous neighbourhood, then the bizarre, frenetic movements of his friend in the middle as he clutches the wonky chair for support is a good place to begin; if he wants to write about his alienation at school, he will see it in the grimaces and whispers of all the classmates he doesn't quite relate to. I was asking him to focus on something outside of his comfort zone but I wasn't asking him to become a different person entirely. Even though that wasn't really the point of the poem, I was buying time, hoping his rebellion would take the form of defying my instructions and writing what he wanted and not walking out entirely.


I know I only really have one story inside me. All my writing is bunching up into themes at the moment: identity is the one larger quilt it all comes under, with patches of language, religion, relationships, sexuality and race/London culture lining everything I handle. I tried to finish a poem about cooking and it ended up being about identity; I wrote one about a Sega Mega Drive a week or so ago - somehow it ended up being about the end of a relationship (and not just my relationship with the late 90s); I wrote a story about politics - it ended up returning to a very personal space. I no longer worry too much that this happens; as long as I continue to challenge myself to write something new, to approach it from another angle, to interrogate these things through a different lens, then that pull towards what I really care about isn't such a bad thing. And I hope I have good enough friends to tell me when it does all go stale. And then I'll do something else like... I dunno... become a dance instructor.  

*he has often been dubbed 'the founder of dub poetry'.

** This was my original reference... Onuora, Oku ‘I write about’ (p.46) in Fiet, Lowell (ed.) Sargasso Special Issue (1999): Performance and Text in Caribbean Literature and Art (Río Piedras, P.R.: University of Puerto Rico, 1999). Accessed online at [26 August 2014]

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