Thursday, 20 October 2016

TONIGHT: STAND UP & SLAAAM!! Camden Comedy Club

Tonight is going to be fierce...


Who wins this time? Will it be poetry (yes!), will it be comedy (unlikely!), will it be a tie between poetry and comedy (never!)? Whatever happens, the audience will be the winners, and the judges... so, er, the more support us wee poets have, the better :)

It'll be a fun night in any case. Looking forward to bussing a rhyme!

Further info can be found here and here. Otherwise just turn up to the Camden Comedy Club at the Camden Head (in Camden Town... not the one in Angel) for an 8pm start and watch the battle commence.

Friday, 14 October 2016

If you’re taking the time to read this, you’re probably not walking along Hampstead Road right now…

NOTE: This has been written as a guest blog post for http://showmethemon3y.tumblr.com/ The related performance, Show Me The Money, is at Camden People's Theatre on the 14th and 15th October, 2016. Check out Paula Varjack's website here.



In brief





In no particular order, here are 5 things about me that may come up over the course of this blog


1) I have an exhibitionist streak
2) I’m easily distracted, particularly close to a deadline
3) I’m often overly ambitious
4) I resist being told what to do
5) I’m a full-time PhD student (this is an ongoing theme. See some of my previous blog posts)


Step into my window



It’s Thursday morning and, for the second time in a week, I find myself cooped up in one of the window spaces at Camden People’s Theatre for a whole working day. Everyone else seems to be edging towards the weekend with more finesse, but I’ve chosen a cold, hard window.

Facebook has advised me that upwards of 4 friends are celebrating birthdays today, whoopee! An email alert has advised me that my library books are due. The wifi inside the window is non-existent so by disabling my phone data, I shut all of these concerns out and plan to get on with my work… my creative work.

Here’s the problem: the idea is to treat the theatre window as a creative space, under the watchful gaze of the busy junction where Hampstead Road and Drummond Street meet. I am late with a chapter of my thesis, which I meant to send to my supervisor last night, but didn’t. And now Hampstead Road is watching me, groggy from an unsettled night and two coffees short of any coherent thoughts. And I’m expected to be creative? Or at least do some work related to my creative practice? Hmm…

I know this road pretty well, and this side of it is mostly just a work corridor: a lot of bus and lorry traffic coming from the north, and a lot of people running up towards Euston, a few hundred metres to the east. It’s a busy working day and most people, generally, aren’t concerned with slowing down to observe the movements of a writer in the window. I should be ok being on display; isn’t that what most people’s workplaces are like nowadays? I know someone whose office has just, over the course of a weekend,  turned into one massive open space with ‘touchdown areas’ (office jargon much?) and non-designated desks which you have to occupy on a first-come-first-served basis everyday. Presumably, in this organisation-which-I-will-not-name, meetings take place in whatever beanbag corner is free and the brightly-painted cubicle at the far end can be used for multiple purposes: namely, 1) as a toilet 2) as a place to weep for a few seconds once an hour over the personal space and privacy that has been lost.

I’m rambling because I’m distracted. This blog is meant to be about #artistwindowstudio #showmethemoney #excitingnewventure. Exclamation exclamation.

looking hopefully on Monday
The problem is, doing what I’d otherwise be doing in the privacy of my home - except fully clothed and without access to a washing machine or Daily Politics, where I get my 60 minute dose of frustration every day - makes it more like going into an office or a library, where I’m conscious of 'performing' normality. (I won’t go into that too much, but basic things such as talking to yourself, adjusting your genitals, belching etc. become policed in public spaces, whilst, at home on your own - at least for me - they take up almost zero headspace because you do them unconsciously and, more importantly, un-selfconsciously. If I were to run on about this for another sentence or two - and I won't - I might add that I have a theory that the object of undertaking any creative endeavour is to free up as much brain space as you can, including diverting any energy invested in 'performing' the 'normal' into creating new worlds, whether that be literary, musical, visual etc...).

In short, I’m absolutely not against libraries and offices; once I’m in either, I tend to be more productive than at home. But I’m still not used to navigating that performative space when I’m writing/working creatively. This - me in window not because I happen to be in a window but because I was put here - is a performance. Tweeting, writing Facebook posts, broadcasting on Periscope (yes, I did that and attracted all of 15 viewers!), writing on a chalk board, looking out of the window back at the person who has tapped on it to check you’re a real person and not a mannequin, when you’re daydreaming, all of that is performance and takes up headspace.

And yet I choose to come back today, Thursday. I do it twice. Why?

The simple answer is:

1) I liked having that designated space for my creativity on Monday, especially as I have lots of other deadlines for non-creative things
2) I also liked the fact that I managed to edit thirty five poems and, after another couple of edits, thirty two of them will be part of my poetry collection coming out next year
3) And I also like the camaraderie that comes with working next to other artists, even if they can be a little distracting.

(Update: Rhys – in the window next to me – i.e. behind my head – is beat-boxing while practicing a lip-sync sequence; Rihanna is growling ‘Bitch better have my money…’ in the main theatre space behind this goldfish bowl, as Paula Varjack does another rehearsal of ‘Show Me the Money’ which begins tomorrow)

my lovely neighbour, Rhys

Ok, I don’t know why I’m back here. Maybe it’s because I feel I have something to learn from this window. Maybe because there is a window inside each and every one of us. Maybe because I am a window. Maybe it’s because I want to be seen.

(Ok, a quick little diversion... The thing is, no creative practice exists in a neutral space. Yes, I write for myself but, the moment my writing becomes a spoken poem or published article, it is a public entity©. It is an attention-seeking artefact, even if the person behind it would rather be left alone. In this way, life imitates art. I put myself out there, simultaneously craving to be noticed while hating the idea that I am.)

Where was I? ...Maybe it’s because I want my creative process to be seen as work, not just by the public but by me too. If I weren’t here, the poem edits would have taken three times as long because other work would have taken priority.

The timetable of truth

Anyway, here’s how it goes:


I start planning my day, setting out two different timetables on the chalk board in the window: one for what I plan to do and one for what I actually do. The latter, of course, is updated as I go along.

Over the course of the day, I learn from the window. I didn’t realise that eating yoghurt takes ten minutes. I didn’t realise that I could power nap so effectively while laying down on a hard, cold floor and having some wise guy knock on the glass (he must have thought it funny). I also didn’t realise all the other stuff about race, gender and sexuality that occupy my academic and creative concerns would follow me to there too.

This, for time and space concerns, I won't discuss in great detail. But knowing you have a window and a chalk board and that someone behind you, in a neighbouring window, has the same space (only bigger) - and you will be judged not as individuals but as a collective performance - is a bit of a weird one, especially when you're just trying to work.

Being in public is not a neutral space. People make quick judgments about you. And when they see two people in the window, one of whom (Thursday afternoon) might be lip-syncing behind you, with a big chalk sign saying THIS IS 1.5 HOURS OF DISCUSSING WHITE PRIVILEGE or when you have someone else earlier in the day (Thursday morning) rehearsing jokes about Brexit and writing interactive comments on his board (Let's cheer for Bob Dylan!), and when you have another woman encouraging people to send in jokes about Asian stereotypes (Monday), and when they come in different genders and races and, most importantly, from different disciplines (including stand-up comedy), it can sometimes make for uncomfortable working knowing that their output - unseen to you - is married to yours.

Each of my three neighbours were more interactive than I was; the public reacted in different way to each of us, from amusement to suspicion to indifference and beyond. And I wonder how much the raced/gendered dynamic played into that reaction. No one, least of all me - just trying to get on with an honest day's work - can ever tell for sure. So I will leave this comment hanging on my uncertainty.

Final thoughts

I wanted to find a smart way to wrap this up. What have you learned, Keith? What will you take away with you? And I realise I can't put a bow on it. Working inside that tiny crawl space at the side of the theatre, with a fan heater to stop my feet going numb, near one of the most polluted junctions Central London has to offer provides no neat little moral, unless I want to push to create one.

I would love this to be an ongoing project; I would love if, next time, I could arrange for a bright big eye-catching logo in the glass which would immediately explain what we were doing there. But that would be more work. Finally, I would love to have ticked off all the things that I had planned for the day(s): editing all of my poems for this collection; sending them out for feedback; rehearsing/ memorising three new poems; drafting a commissioned piece; replying to overdue emails/messages on social media; updating my blog; chasing up an invoice; working on a chapter of my novel; reading 2 collections of poetry; ....






Wednesday, 12 October 2016

NEW VIDEO: Hip Hop Salvation

It's been a while since my last post, for a mixture of reasons.

A fuller update will be coming soon but, in the meantime, here's a new video, of which I'm pretty proud. It was a lot of fun writing this, I'm sure you can imagine. And it's mostly true [insert embarrassed emoji here]. So here it is, a meditation on the joys of gospel rap, fragile teenage masculinity and some French thrown in for good measure:



In other news, I'll be working in the window of the Camden People's Theatre (near Warren St) tomorrow, from 10am-6pm, as part of a live installation. Come and gawp at me :) Or drop me a line if you want to join me mid-afternoon to discuss poetry and things...

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Postcard from Home: The people for Corbyn

Kentish Town, NW5 (last week)

It's a strange one. Earlier today, in a newspaper interview, the London Mayor gave his support for Owen Smith (the other contender for Labour leader) joining about 80% of the Labour parliamentary party who don't back the current leader. Meanwhile, last week, Camden Labour members voted to support Corbyn, despite the local MP vehemently backing Smith. And it's kind of a given that Corbyn will be voted in (again).

Whatever happens, it's not ideal and it's going to get messier. There aren't many ways to resolve this and get to dealing with external issues without big compromises, but there's too much anger involved.

Meanwhile, I know at least half a dozen friends who've joined the Labour party in the last 6 months who would like to vote and can't... Interesting times!


Thursday, 11 August 2016

UPDATE: Keith, we care about you and your memories...

Just over a couple of weeks ago, I followed some of my attention-seeking friends* and wrote a statement on Facebook along the lines that I'd be logging out for a while, but I'd still exist in real life somewhere (although probably not at a poetry gig). Largely, after deleting the app from my phone, I've stuck to it, and I've gained about half an hour per morning where I'm not scrolling through other people's lives.

Talking about social media use is not particularly interesting, nor is being sanctimonious about switching off (look up, anyone?**) but, after relaying this a couple of times to mates, I thought I'd share some of the build up to me leaving.



The One Where I Sound More Than a Little Neurotic 

First up, I hate being told what to do, what to like or share or think. Or who to be friends with (especially when people from my phonebook mysteriously appear on my 'People You May Know' list). This particular social platform has been rubbing me up the wrong way for a while now and it was only a matter of time before I needed a break. 

But it was this whole EU Referendum that did it for me. The world has not ended (yet) but, since the end of June, there's a whole lot of pessimism coming from some of my friends and I, already a dedicated pessimist, don't need more encouragement! 

Being a stereotypical liberal North London urbanite... (or whatever you want to call it), I was in a bit of a funk the day after the vote. No one yet knows what leaving the EU means, despite the enthusiastic but still unhelpful 'Brexit means Brexit' comment from the new Prime Minister. Even so, it had an immediate effect on a couple of friends of mine who lost contracts the day after because of the uncertainty, and the mood around my local university campuses was particularly heavy. All for a decision that is by no means clear. But, hey...

So, in a show of europhile solidarity, I emptied the contents of a tote bag I'd been using for my unpaired socks, which I'd been given at some kind of EU-sponsored fair. Needless to say, it's bright blue with 12 golden stars and says something vague about the EU Commission for something yawny. I topped it off with some jeans and my Italia hoodie (with four stars - one for every World Cup win) and left home to see what deals were on at a supermarket which I shall not name.

I pretty much go to this supermarket every week, maybe once or twice, to see what's going on in the reduced section. If I'm lucky, there'll be an item with two yellow labels - i.e. reduced for a second time - and I'll try to nab it before someone else does: 9p bread, 50p vegetables, a £2 whole free range chicken.... On a few occasions, there's a crowd hovering behind some poor member of staff who's been entrusted with the labelling. Sometimes, no sooner have they stuck the new price on, a pesky shopper will snap it right out of their hand. I'm not quite at that level yet - I usually wait a couple of seconds after an item has landed on the shelf - but I've been seen to hover and pounce.

All that said, I'm known to the security guard. I know how to lurk in a shop until the food I want comes down to the price I want (and I don't know where I got that trait - I was brought up to be proud) and that doesn't go unnoticed. The guard will often chat to me, we'll punch fists, we'll exchange pleasantries while I have the corner of my eye focused on the reduced shelf... 

On this particular day, I entered the supermarket in my Europhile fuzz, feeling hungover from referendum blues. I wasn't in the mood to talk to anyone, I just needed a bargain fix. Needless to say, the security guard was waiting for me as I entered. His usual grin froze as he saw my bag; it contorted into a grimace. 

'Ha! What are you wearing that rubbish for? You lost! Get over it'

I was shocked into silence. And he continued. 

'I voted to Leave and we won...'

I was shocked into rambling something about recklessness. 

And then he continued. (He rehashed the 'Britain is the 5th largest economy' line...)

And then I countered with something about geography.

And then he said something about the Commonwealth being full of potential.

And then I got louder, saying something along the lines that Britain's current elevated economic position has more to do with colonial exploitation than anything else.  

And then our voices must have raised a little more. Because everything else around us seemed to stand still and it was just us and our angry voices taking up space in the middle of the bakery aisle. 

And then out of the corner of my eye - the corner that was usually reserved for the reduced shelf - I saw a member of staff running towards us.

And the colleague shouted the security guard's name.

We both froze, took a sharp intake of breath and I stared him down one last time before they both walked to the back of the shop, him head bowed, and the doors to the Staff Only area flapped behind them.     

And then I felt pathetic, looking at the empty reduced shelf and all my fellow customers who refused to meet my eye. I felt pathetic. I didn't know his name until that point, and there I was, in his workplace, arguing with the man and potentially jeopardising his job (though, to be fair, he was the one who jumped down my throat, fingers wagging and all).

I felt ridiculous with my blue EU bag which, until then, had only been good enough to store stray socks; my empty blue bag which would return home empty. 

On the bus home, I thought to relay this story on Facebook, where I'd be guaranteed a few laughs and likes, especially if I exaggerated a little. But my feed was full of more depressing rants and invites to events I'd be too busy to attend, and threats of terrorism. And I suddenly couldn't be bothered to engage. 

*

Two weeks later, I returned to the shop sheepishly, and he was still there, and he gave me his usual beaming smile, and we shook hands. 

**

Weeks later, there were so many other things going on around the world. A friend of mine was stranded in Istanbul after a bomb; police continued to kill civilians in the US and in Brazil; I continued to obsess over below-the-line comments: how can people think like this? How can people write this? What kind of a world makes people so ignorant/petty/arrogant/rude? 

I had a deadline to send work to my supervisor. I missed it. 

a safe place?


Meanwhile, I wrote a little poetry. I completed the first draft of what will either be a pamphlet or my first full collection (I believe I mentioned that in my last post). I continued to transcribe interviews. 

Interviews/ Testimonies/ Stories

I've been conducting interviews which last around 90 minutes. I have a series of questions I'm interested in but, primarily, I ask the interviewees to recount their 'testimonies'. I'm deliberate about the word 'testimony'. It has religious and/or legal connotations. It is vague, open to interpretation but works for setting the scene. 

My research is largely non-directive. It's about retelling stories and removing some of my own impositions, my own framing devices. There are so many books on conducting oral histories - which I'll have to reference in my research later - but I'm mostly concerned with the narrative. How can/does my research relate to literary form? How do I continue to conduct interviews and analyse them with one foot in the 'science' of it and another in 'creative writing'?

I've been writing down the voices in my head, at half the speed they originally spoke. The vowels stretch out further. Verbal tics are heightened - a propensity to say 'like' or 'sort of' or 'you know', or to leave the ends of sentences hanging (I wince when I hear my own voice, trying to formulate a question, sometimes stumbling, often very imprecise and emphasised by hand gestures which are almost invisible to the naked ear). 

The job of transcription, largely, is to write these verbal tics out and to concentrate on the intended meanings. But I can't help being taken back to the offices, the homes, the takeaways(!), the churches, the leisure centres(!) where I sat in close quarters with the interviewees - most of whom I didn't previously know - who told me their stories. 

The art of listening without prejudice is a tough one as opinions seem to be so entrenched nowadays  (and I'm not just talking about anti-EU security guards or internet trolls). Your interviewee may think you are simply going to hell because you do not believe what they believe. They may be appraising your presentation, your deliberately smart/casual attire (minus the Euro tote bag). They may be suspicious of your motive. They may be friendly and over-familiar, assuming the best or worst of you. They may be suddenly uncomfortable as a memory almost drives them to tears. 

You, on the other hand, are aware of the pressure on your bladder after an hour sitting still, the diminishing battery on your phone, the background noise you hope doesn't drown out their quiet voice, the sudden urge you feel to write a poem, the way your mind hangs on a particular word they say, their pronunciation of said word, your desire to not control the conversation, even as the 'testimony' takes unintended turns, which may or may not be of use to your project.

And at the end of that conversation, you realise how privileged you are to take someone's time and listen to their experience. You listen and you ask questions and then you listen some more. Sure, some of it will go into your research. Sure, you will clip their words and see how it fits with someone else's words, and the 90 minutes will be reduced to a 500 word fragment at best. In the meantime,  you'll realise how important these moments are, you'll realise how these relayed experiences are changing you too, sometimes challenging your preconceptions, sometimes strengthening your ideas, and just occasionally hitting an emotional nerve. 



*I was immediately asked, 'who are you trying to impress?' when I did this - apparently it's all a ruse

**if you don't get that reference, don't worry. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Quick Update: early-mid July

I've been in an odd mood lately, but it's fairly predictable stuff. With fickle weather (summer, where are you? send reinforcements please), political chaos (who needs fictional drama on television?), an imminent move (I seem to move home on average once every 18 months! I'm hoping this will be the last for a while), long days spent transcribing complex interviews, and a first draft of my potential poetry collection just complete, it would be a miracle if I were 100% together right now. That said, I'm all alone in a university office, listening to Philip Glass ('Gradually We became aware/ Of a hum in the room/ An electrical hum in the room/ It went mmmmmm') for my amusement while I read over some notes and write this. I'll call it a day soon.




I've also been reading this! It's shiny and new and I'm proud to have an extract of my novel-in-progress in this anthology of writing from the 2015 Lambda Fellowship. I wrote that, and more, whilst on the Writers' Retreat. I can't believe it's been a year since I was in L.A. with this amazing group of writers, some of whom are already getting big recognition for their writing.



I'll try to update little and often over the next few weeks... 

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

UPCOMING: Out-Spoken Live - TONIGHT!

June Header.jpg

This one almost needs no other words... Joelle Taylor and Karen McCarthy Woolf. Hello?!!

If you don't know either, then this evening is a good time for that to change. It's also the launch of a new Out-Spoken anthology. Come along!

More details here

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Let's all take a reading break...

This week has been full of turbulence and distractions. Aside from the Referendum result and all sorts of instability being unfurled, I also presented at my first PhD symposium, where I tried not to stutter through an overview of my PhD.

All that said, I'm slightly behind schedule with my research project and need to fill some of the gaps in my transcriptions folder. Anyone who has any ideas on how to make transcribing interviews any easier/fun (without paying someone else to do it) gets my lifelong gratitude. Please contact me urgently about that! In the meanwhile, I'm plugging on.

all courtesy of the Poetry Library :)

I took a break after a meeting earlier this week to go to the Poetry Library and am excited about this eclectic choice. Nikola Madzirov read at Calabash Festival in Jamaica this year - I found some of his poems mindblowing - and Colin Channer edited the first anthology of the Calabash Festival. I've also been waiting to read Dominique Christina's collection for quite some time. The same goes for Michelle Madsen, friend, boater and long time slam scene organiser.

Along the way, this week, I've also picked up poetry by Nick Makoha and Jay Bernard, and another book I'm excited about... but more on that later! 

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Postcard from Home: Trafalgar Square - #Remain

Watching the drunken argument...

Banner unfurling



Monday, 20 June 2016

Upcoming Gig: Queer'Say THIS THURSDAY!






On Thursday, I'll be at Hackney Attic for a Queer'Say EU Referendum Special - which is a part of Pride in London - alongside Nick Field and Ali Brumfitt.

We're working on a Euro theme for the night, and I'll be performing some new stuff!

To keep you going until then, here's an interview I did for the occasion (and check out some of the others on the blog).

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

UPDATE (the shortish version): 5 things

I'm back from Jamaica with a bang! The last couple of days have been challenging, but here are 5 things to fill you in with. There'll be more on Jamaica and on upcoming gigs over the next few days so stay tuned!

1. New Video: Poem Poem III


First and foremost - and hot off the press - here's my Poem Poem III, as recorded by the Muddy Feet crew. They release a new spoken word video every Tuesday at noon, including some pretty awesome lyrical heavyweights.The last few uploads include Tshaka Campbell, Raymond Antrobus, Paul Cree and more.

This poem, despite being rooted in time/context-specific references (UKIP politicians blaming floods on gay marriage, wrecking balls and blurred lines, police being cleared of wrongdoing for Mark Duggan's shooting, etc. etc.) holds a lot of significance for me in light of the current mood here.

2. Orlando






I'm unsure of what more to say. I recently posted on social media that it's better to keep silence and wait for facts than to draw in with well-worn opinions (on guns, Islam, immigration and goodness knows what else). What irks me above all is the wild hypocrisy of some people who are jumping in on this tragedy. Only in the last month, US states have been debating whether or not to legislate against some people using public bathrooms, based on their gender (petty much?) while other people are still given airtime for dodgy views such as marriage equality being responsible for the September 11th terrorist attacks... (Face palm).

Yes the shootings were an attack on "our freedoms", whatever that means; more specifically, it was an attack on LGBT people and, no doubt, many people who fall under that umbrella term will feel less safe as a result. If you don't get why the interviewer and Julia Hartley-Brewer were horrendously patronising in this Sky News video (the latter particularly so, after claiming today that Owen Jones had a lot in common with ISIS!!), I despair.

I attended a vigil yesterday evening in London's Soho and was moved by the display of solidarity.

After the crowds began to clear, I bussed it up to the Roundhouse for a rap vs poetry battle event, which was full of camaraderie and lightness, as much as it was about adversarial wordplay and - often gendered - put downs. I walked home into the night and thought about the climate of fear and conflict I'd landed back into, which walks alongside the tightening bonds of community around me. Nothing is straightforward.

*p.s. Vanessa Kisuule smashed it (under her alias Shonda Rimez!)

3. Voting IN

Every day a new leaflet comes through the post...
Nothing is straightforward. Living in the United Kingdom - arguably one of the most 'fantastically corrupt'* nations in the world ;) - in an uncomfortable union of states (Scotland nearly voted out of the union last year, Northern Ireland and Wales both have strong separatist elements - with good reason - and London's demographics and power separate it from much of the rest of England), under the umbrella of the EU, which itself is a messy, cumbersome collaboration between nations that barely see eye to eye, it's easy to argue the case for leaving the European Union. Add to the mix the stirring up of distrust: of immigrants, of Islam, of trade deals, of everything... it's tempting to believe that separating ourselves from one layer of bureaucracy could be a magic solution for 'making Britain great again' and not creating several more complications and struggles.

The xenophobic undercurrent coming from the far right which has perpetrated mainstream discourse is going to be a difficult one to eliminate. The ideals behind making 'Britain great (again)' completely fail to acknowledge that what made this small island 'great' in the first place involved the mass exploitation of people around the globe. It involved genocide, rape, war, economic suppression, subterfuge and bloodymindedness as much as it involved genuine innovation and self-determination. Most importantly, it relied on that most effective of weapons: divide and rule. And that's exactly the tactic I feel is being played out on the British public. I've said enough.  

*in case you don't get the 'fantastically corrupt' reference, here it is...

4. Calabash Festival

Raymond Antrobus, (me), Linton Kwesi Johnson

with Khadija Ibrahim, Malika Booker, Ugochi Nwaogwugwu

One of the main reasons for my Jamaica trip was the Calabash Festival, held at Treasure Beach. I will have to write more about Calabash and Jamaica in general. There's so much to say and so much awesomeness to savour!

I met Stefanie Seddon, Canada & Europe regional winner of the 2016 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and fellow Birkbeck student, who wrote this article about the Calabash experience (I get a li'l mention at the end).

I also met up with friends Raymond Antrobus (who got a massive big up in the Jamaica Gleaner yesterday) and Malika Booker (who's going to be part of the new Penguin Modern Poets series, announced yesterday in the Guardian - wha!!!!) and more. There were some pinch-yourself moments, particularly when stepping on stage for the open mic, with the sea behind me.

Here's a video I filmed the day after:



5. Upcoming - gigs and conferences

The next couple of weeks will be jam-packed, with both poetry events and academic conferences coming up among my usual writing and research endeavours. I'll be updating my 'Upcoming' section later but, for the moment, here's a list of what's coming up next:

i) Bloomsbury PhD symposium, next Tuesday 21st June
ii) Queer'Say (EU referendum special) next Thursday, 23rd June
iii) Caribbean & Diasporic Dialogues in the University, Monday 27th-Wednesday 29th June (presenting paper on 27th)
iv) Out-Spoken Live, Wednesday 29th June

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Update: I'll be back soon

Off to Jamaica where I'll be researching and going to Calabash literary festival and generally having good times while also working. I haven't had time to post but I did have time to do a brief video last night. Do not take it seriously!!


Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Friday, 6 May 2016

Update: Polling Day... (or the day after, by the time I post this)

I've been silent for a while again, in the build up to delivering an hour presentation for university. Thankfully, it went well! I've also been conducting a series of 1-2 hour interviews for my research, and finding my focus change as I'm learning more about my subject(s).

Yesterday, I also voted and upgraded my phone and worked on my transcription skills... Phew!



Meanwhile, I've been biting my tongue on all the latest stuff that's been going on in the last couple of weeks. Politics are getting nasty and it's all focusing on race and religion, two subjects I write about a lot.

So maybe I'll talk about Eurovision instead, the least political entertainment institution in the world, where Welsh*, Scottish, Palestinian, Basque, IS and several other flags are banned (but EU and rainbow flags are allowed, with conditions). The problem is, deciding what is political, and deciding to remain "neutral" at all costs is a strong political position in itself, so I can't really avoid politics.

A lot of people have written far more eloquently than I have about latest accusations of antisemitism, racism and Islamophobia coming from the two major political parties (I might link to some later). But the reason why these issues are rising to the fore has nothing to do with any new information or new events occurring. Jews, Muslims, black people, LGBT people, women, people with disabilities, older people, young people, working class people, or anyone who has fitted into one or any of these categories at any one point will know - to very different extents - what it is like to not be part of the dominant culture, even if you're not a "minority". All of those groups have complained about disadvantages in power for a long time. Entitled, ignorant journalists have played with subliminal messages since the advent of the print press. (I'm referring now - in particular - to the Conservative London Mayoral candidate writing an article about the "dangerous" associations of the favourite to win, Sadiq Khan, in an article which had an image of a blown-up bus at the top. This I will not link to).

It's interesting how the aforementioned Tory candidate then distanced himself from the presentation of the article, saying he did not choose the image. Anyway, this post isn't about politics... It's more about the avoidance of politics. Avoidance not evasion. Politics evasion is illegal. Politics avoidance is perfectly legal. In my head, I have escaped to the Cayman Islands. Cuckoo cuckoo. I CAN'T HEAR YOUR POLITICS FROM HERE!

Back briefly to race, if I may, and that's the issue I can see... so many people burying their heads in the Bahamian sand, pretending they don't see colour, the unaddressed consequences of colonialism, the need to constantly address and readdress and debate and compromise on what multiculti/inclusive/diversity/whatever means. It's not about rainbows and unicorns and everyone holding hands and singing kum-by-yah. Race/(ism) will continue to be a massive issue in this country until it is faced head on again. It's easy to denounce the nastiness of what Trump has said in the past (mostly about all the "bad Mexicans" coming over) but, being on a little island, we haven't had to really deal with being good neighbours with the rest of the world, even when it doesn't seem to be in our own interest. Instead, parliament is hung up over taking a mere 3,000 children out of 90,000 that have arrived to mainland Europe, where they do have to deal with it head on.

Anyway, rant over. I need to enjoy the sunshine before it goes.


(*One of the contestants representing Britain is Welsh)





UPCOMING  Tonight!!! WORST. DATE.EVER




I'll be talking about bad dates... [eek!], sharing some embarrassing tales and basically drawing out your pity and laughter in a panel show that looks promising. Expect a lot of fun and moments where you might spit your drink out in shock! Follow this link for more.



Monday, 25 April 2016

Update: April soon gone!

...and there it is, a 1/3 of the year done.

Uni shmooni

I'm close to undergoing my PhD upgrade presentation so I've been a little busy, rewriting some of my thesis introduction (although, you know what they say*) and messing about with Prezi. I'm also carefully devouring books about early Oneness Pentecostalism which has cast a new light on my topic. Essentially, the history of Pentecostalism, in general, is a story about race and transatlantic influence worldwide; however, it's also a lot more than that. I would say more now but, hey, I have a whole thesis in which to do so ;) **

I've been conducting interviews with a cross-section of Londoners who have something to say about Oneness or 'Apostolic' churches and it's been extremely interesting so far. The interviews, however, are the easy part. Transcribing them is a wearying but necessary task, and something I will be doing for the rest of today (along with my introduction).

*(although, that point is quite convincingly contradicted here)
** not quite true. I have roughly 30,000 words. The rest is Creative and critical writing.

Poetry McBoetry
after Boaty McBoatface

I've been smiling with pride every time I pass this advert for Kate Tempest's book. It's a massive billboard for a book!* It's pretty rare - outside of the usual suspects - for novelists to get this kind of coverage.

spot the Tempest... under the bridge

I got a similar feeling when I heard that Warsan Shire features on Beyoncé's new album, just released yesterday.

They both belong to 'us', the London spoken word generation who started turning up at slams a decade or so ago and then developed their craft into other avenues, breaking into the mainstream through music, dance, and theatre (and being quoted by Benedict Cumberbatch**). Most of all, they both write passionately about stuff they care about, and they do it with care.

*Ok, it may not look so massive in this photo, the way I took it, but bear in mind this is one of many billboards with her book on it.
**(who I, bizarrely, always imagine as being related to Engelbert Humperdinck. It's the syllabic structure of their names. Anyway, digression alert. Can you imagine what my introduction has been like so far?)

Writing

Whilst I'm happy for Kate Tempest and Warsan Shire, I'm also conscious of the need to up my own game. I've been submitting to competitions, in my (rare pieces of) spare time, and starting to edit a few poems with the help of trusted critics. I was meant to be compiling a collection of poetry for the end of this year but, if I don't make that target, watch out for 2017!    

My novel writing antics have slowed - I need to finish my research project before writing the novel - but I have now carefully crafted the plot outline.

Reading

Aside from such academic nuggets as In Jesus Name, Early Interracial Oneness Pentecostalism and Look What the Lord Has Done! I've also just managed to finish reading They Are Trying to Break Your Heart, which was, unsurprisingly, heartbreaking. For the next couple of weeks, I'm sticking to academic texts and blogs.

Breaking off from the EU debate and Obama's visit, I also found this interesting (a look at Boris Johnson's latest attack at the President and the taboo of questioning postcolonial hangovers). I personally find Boris Johnson's previous attitudes on issues pretty abhorrent; I'm surprised that more people don't. 

Next Up: Worst Date Ever, May 6th.



Long story, but I got roped into this. It'll be hilarious/embarrassing/fun. Come!



Sunday, 17 April 2016

Postcard from Home: Decolonise or Die

New Cross, SE14


Exercise in semantics*: 
Note the two spellings: Decolonise/decolonize. What does this decoloni(s/z)ation look like? What language does it (re)appropriate? Does it adopt US/international spelling and grammar? Or does it seek to subvert its British/imperial inheritance whilst employing its orthographic framework? Discuss.  

*which, in fact, sheds light on some of the debates taking place within postcolonialist discourse.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Tried to post this yesterday... #BringBackOurGirls

Ok, I'm aware this needs massive editing.

I wrote it yesterday, just before heading down to Brighton, after hearing that it's now been 2 years since 276 schoolgirls were kidnapped from a school. There are still 219 missing. This article puts some faces and stories to the hard numbers.

I thought I'd share because of the immediacy of the date and also because I've finally worked out how to post audio clips after struggling with it yesterday:
 

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Upcoming: Breaking the Silence (Uni of Sussex) TONIGHT!



I'll be heading down to Brighton this evening for this poetry event, also featuring Dean Atta.

Hugely looking forward!

Monday, 11 April 2016

Postcard from Home: Down the Toilet



Kentish Town, Ladies and Gentlemen Bar (former public toilet)

Saturday, 9 April 2016

UPDATE: 3 things to check out

*a couple of edits

1. They Are Trying to Break Your Heart



David Savill, fellow Unwriteables workshop buddy, has his first novel out! I've been lucky enough to see some of his earlier workings-out of the plot and it's turned out to be a smasher of a novel. I've started reading it and it's already gripped me. There's more info on the book here and the good reviews are gathering pace...

(On a side note, he's also highly observant - pointing out the dust on my keyboard when I excitedly posted the picture of me unwrapping the parcel. What are friends for, eh?)

2. Coming up: Polari @ London Book Fair, Monday

Billed as a Polari Soho Special, this event at the Light Lounge bar is part of the London Book and Screen Week listings. Great line up, with added cocktails... and it's almost sold out, so get tickets now! I also have it on good authority there'll be a live stream somewhere.

3. And another list... from Buzzfeed

As part of publicity for London Book and Screen Week, a bunch of writers were invited to share some of our favourite spots to read and write in London, which were put together in a massive list. I have 3 - very varied - entries in there as do a couple of fellow readers at Monday's Polari! Check it out here.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Spring's here: take a walk!

Yesterday along Regents Canal

I mentioned my Voicemap tour a couple of months ago...* Yesterday I finally retested the route with my voice wafting through my headphones. It was a fun experience - and I'm looking forward to seeing some of the other tours on offer! It would be great to have more friends try out the tour and give me some feedback (and maybe leave a nice rating!) If you're up for the task, drop me a line and I'll send you a free download link!

The website explains more how this GPS-operated guide works.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Postcard from Home: A Bad Spell


Highbury & Islington station

Spelling and grammar perfectionism has its detractors. It has some (limited) function when it comes to pointing out ludicrousies on far right extremists' social media posts, although there is a fine line between that and barefaced classism or snobbism. Grammar, punctuation and spelling ('GaPS') is also a very controversial topic right now in the school system (some of the issues are pointed out here), and it's fun to spell out errors made by those in charge.

I can't help wondering who corrected the spelling on this sign... a member of staff who recognised the error of their ways? (they're a friendly bunch at Highbury & Is., especially after they aided and abetted some guerilla poetry a group of us did for a TfL project a couple years ago) ...An irritated commuter, perhaps? Or a cold GaPS artist, who goes around town with a marker pen, correcting everything they see.

I've just Googled the meaning of 'alternate' and it seems that it's perfectly acceptable, in North American English, to use it as an alternative word for 'alternative'. There you have it. The sign was there for American tourists and it's now been made more inclusive and I can move on. I have missed two trains.

P.s. There are soo many cheesy puns I could have used throughout this post. For the most part I resisted. You're welcome. 

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Frequently Asked Questions (part 1 of ?)

How are you? / Where are you from? / What do you do? / Do you fancy a drink? ...

None of these questions really say what they mean, for different reasons. As multi-purpose tools of conversation, they all require context, an intake of breath, a questioning of motive or an automated reply.

I think I've tackled the where are you [really] from? question before as a micro-aggression; I don't wish to retrace that territory now. How are you? Well, usually it doesn't even require more than a perfunctory grunt in response. It's the what do you do? that gets me all the time. And it hasn't got any easier over the years as my freelancing antics have broadened out. Anyone who's mentored, written and performed poetry, run workshops, or got through a complicated-sounding PhD programme will be familiar with some of the nuances in answering that question. What I do isn't simple. Sometimes I like to be able to explain what I do. And sometimes I like to filter out those who ask what I do in the same way they ask how are you? It takes a lot of effort to condense all the elements of my life into something coherent.  

The thing is, I'm constantly reminding myself that things have changed. I'm now a full time doctoral student*. That's pretty much my job. I've got the funding and the student card to confirm that... Repeat after me. I'm a full-time doctoral student.

Let's run through some questions...

What do you do? I'm a full-time doctoral student
How are you? I'm a full-time doctoral student
Why do you have so many books? I'm a full-time doctoral student
Are you free now? I'm a full-time doctoral student
Why can't you go to the library tomorrow instead? I'm a full-time doctoral student
Do you fancy a drink? I'm a full-time doctoral student
Do you want to come to X poetry gig on Wednesday? I'm a full-time doctoral student
Do you want to come and decolonise academia and kill patriarchy tonight? I'm a full-time doctoral student

Let's practice in the mirror...

"I'm a full-time doctoral student"
So there you have it. You'd think that would be simple, but the problem is, I still have my poetry hat on, I still run workshops from time to time and I still need to explain to people what my area of research is. I'm a full time student in what? 

So I cheated. I went to a brainstorming session for creatives - something akin to group therapy but less triggering - which Paula Varjack organised one gloomy Wednesday evening. All of us in attendance got to ask questions and expect 8 responses to them**.



I asked not "how do I explain what I do?" but "how do I make people understand what I'm doing?"

Looking at the sheet of paper I got back, the make people understand bit sounds aggressive [cue Diana Ross: I'm gonna make you understand! / Oh yes I will, yes I wi-ill...]. The "making" may sound aggressive but sometimes desperation comes across that way. The amount of times I've faltered at such a question beggars belief. I love what I do. I love talking about what I do, when people are genuinely interested and I have time. I just find it hard to pin it down. I'm that rare breed of person who's managed to turn all of my hobbies into work and so what I do means something to me in a way that it didn't when I was an admin assistant.

The thing is... some of the advice I got is contradictory.

Reply #1: Condense it into 3 clear sentences... Reply #2: don't explain too much, it's good to be ambiguous!

Let's try...

I'm a full-time doctoral student undergoing an interdisciplinary project combining Creative Writing and research on London Jamaican culture through the lens of a particular doctrine within Pentecostalism. As well as a writer of fiction, I'm best known as a poet, predominantly working through live performance. I also conduct poetry and spoken word workshops with young people and adults, taking a holistic approach to writing and performance.  [Be even vaguer] I also work with young people and various adult groups. 

Sounds clunky to me... but a good start.

Reply #3: Don't write what you do but WHY!

Ok... how about this? 


I'm interested in identity. I'm particularly interested in the ways race, religion and sexuality interact with dominant, hegemonic narratives [lose the b/s] each other and how I can best use language to explore this. I'm interested in the flexibility of language and how it can be used to break conventions. Pretty much most of what I do revolves around this.   

Reply #4: don't try to fit. Reply #5: practice writing funding applications, which force you to explain what you do anyway Reply #6: ask other people to explain what you do.

All good but I particularly like #6. Although, for a laugh, I sent a text to mum at midnight: 'Mum, what do I do?' She wasn't impressed.

Reply #7: Just be you. Reply #8: Get a clear, short phrase

Good idea, and while I'm at it, I need to change my Twitter handle (it says 'Lover. Fighter. Reader. Writer.') Some people actually think I'm a fighter... I've never so much as even slapped a fly.

I could go for something alliterative or rhymey like 'Word Wrangler extraordinaire' [Noo! What are you on?] 'I read, research, write, repeat.' [Yeah, not really sure about that]. Or something generic and brand-like, if not a little sinister, like: 'I'm changing the world, one line at a time'. Or something even more generic: I'm an artist and a researcher. Or more generic still: I write [but prepare for the follow-up question: What do you write?]. Or I could just go to bed - I mean, the library - and forget the whole thing

Ok. Yes, I fancy a drink.

*I ought to flag - and this happens with any identity grouping - that there are issues with the term 'student', which some see as a downgrade in status. Technically, I'm a researcher... and if/when I pass my upgrade exam, I'll become a PhD 'candidate' but, whatever... Repeat after me: I'm a full-time... [ad infinitum]

**And, as a professional researcher, I ought to confirm that the respondents' data has been anonymised for ethical reasons.  

Monday, 4 April 2016

Upcoming Gig: Tongue Fu in the city... TODAY!

Hear ye, hear ye... Last minute city gig at Broadgate Circle with the Tongue Fu crew (if you know the refrain, sing along: This is how we do Tongue Fu/ get on this train of thought/ you know we're coming through/ choo choooo!)

If you're free and care to join, there are details here... If you want to hear more about Tongue Fu, there are details here... If you want to hear more about where I'm next performing, there are details right here.. and I'll be updating soon!

Today, I'll be joined by Deanna Rodger (whoop whoop!), Kat Francois (oh yes!), Ben Norris (yee haw!) and the Tongue Fu band (brap brap!)*. Excuse the excitement, folks, but I'm looking forward to taking part in this one. It's an outside, FREE gig, taking place at lunchtime, 12.30-2. I'm expecting lots of city workers taking a lunchtime break, and we're gonna hit them with some poetry and music, and make sure they get back late! I'm hoping for tears, laughter and solid entertainment. Come along if you can.

 

*They've all got proper lush websites and thing, with their names on them... and they've all got Youtube vids and other bits and bobs... worth a visit. 

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Postcard From Home: This is Art

Regents Canal, Camden NW1

UPDATE COMING VERY SOON!

Sunday, 13 March 2016

UPCOMING: Jazz Verse Jukebox - TONIGHT!!

This is set to be the last ever edition of Jazz Verse Jukebox, upstairs at Ronnie Scott's. There's a stellar line-up and I'm particularly looking forward to seeing the Barbican Young Poets doing their thing. Am excited!



P.s. come early as it's set to be crowded!

Monday, 7 March 2016

Lunar Poetry Podcast Interview... and what we didn't discuss


This is what happens on a mellow Friday morning, being interviewed by David Turner for Lunar Poetry Podcast:





We talk art, influences, fiction vs.  poetry, why I struggle with trap music, education and more... We don't talk about unicorns, dragons, the EU vote or the US election, thank goodness. We also don't get to elaborate on why I suddenly draw a blank when thinking about my influences, nor why I chose the poems I did...

But that's what blogs are for, right?

I read out three poems:

1) ...a new spelling of my name
2) Whom Shall I Fear?
3) 10 Ways to Avoid Hearing Him Say Sorry

I knew beforehand that we'd be chatting about education so I decided two of the three poems - the first and last - should be work I'd written in schools for pupils, as part of themed workshops. As you might imagine, one of the workshops was about names - where I've had pupils dissect their names for the purpose of poetry writing; the other workshop was an exercise in writing lists, something I adapted from an exercise in Cliff Yates' Jumpstart Poetry in the Secondary School.

On a second listen of the podcast, the middle poem probably sounds the most random. I would have read out a longer poem, Hip Hop Salvation, but it's an energetic performance piece and it was a chilled morning with birds tweeting outside. So, instead, I chose to read its follow-up poem, 'Whom Shall I Fear?' which I wrote as a tongue-in-cheek response to questions about religion I've had from audiences who've heard the former piece.

Finally, all 3 are in my poetry pamphlet I Speak Home. And it's a neat way of plugging the book, something I didn't do but I can do here :)

[There's a BUY NOW link at the top of this blog, just in case you were wondering...]

Secondly, why did I draw a blank when asked about my influences?

What you can't see in the podcast is the moment when I point towards my bookshelf and shrug my shoulders. (Also, I'm too lazy to process a picture of my bookcase now). But I was trying to crane my neck towards it and find the key to my writing. What are your influences? It's one of those questions you're always meant to have an answer for, however dishonest.

I mentioned Kei Miller, because his books appears on my poetry shelves, my fiction shelf and non-fiction too... I also mention Danez Smith because I'd just loaned his beautifully-crafted collection [Insert Boy] to a friend the day before.

I didn't mention growing up and hearing John Agard poems read out to me, without knowing they were John Agard poems.

I didn't mention Gabriel Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Alejandra Pizarnik or Cesar Vallejo - poets I studied at undergrad level, which got me interested in poetry again*

...Nor Elizabeth Bishop - who got me through my last degree. ...Nor Gwendolyn Brooks, nor Terrance Hayes, who has single-handedly sparked a craze around a new poetic form - one I've written in several times.

I didn't mention Gloria Anzaldua, or Audre Lorde, or James Baldwin, solid US poets who weren't afraid to be political. Nor some of the London poets I know who've been a more personal influence on my writing, such as Jack Underwood, James McKay, Malika Booker, Warsan Shire, etc. etc. (Btw, I've told none of them this). The list could go on.

Next time I'm asked that question, I won't mention any of those people :) I'll stutter and delve into my memory bank and pick out even more names... or I'll avoid the question. Or I'll say what I think I'm meant to say. Or I'll write another essay and do it justice.

*Related question - I read these in Spanish but why doesn't poetry in translation get more kudos? English-language only is a dangerous prison/prism to see the world through








Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The Last 2 Weeks in Books: statistical break down

Sometimes I feel I'm starting to spend more time acquiring books than reading them.


In real terms this means:


  • In the last fortnight, I've purchased about 8 or 9 books for different purposes (7 of which are pictured above). 
  • I've also ordered two more (one of them, necessary for my research, setting me back an ouch-provoking £42 plus p&p).
  • I've had several book recommendations, one via MMS, another by phone, the rest via face-to-face recommendations
  • I've had 2 full length books sent to me in PDF format  
  • I've returned two books to the library (they had been requested by someone) 
  • This leaves me with 18 - 18! - books out on loan at the moment, mostly from Senate House, my university and the Poetry Library
  • Of the 18 books I've borrowed, I've renewed at least 7 of them more than 5 times
  • Of the 18 books, probably only about 6 or 7 are directly relevant to my studies  
  • In addition to books, I've printed off several essays, papers, articles etc... 
  • I've spent 3 days at the British Library, photographing several pages at a time (the ones I can't get anywhere else) so I can figure out what's important enough to go into the first chapter of my thesis
  • I've spent several hours searching for books and then putting them into my digital reference storer
  • I've spent nearly an hour thinking about what books I'll take with me on holiday at the end of the month...
  • I've spent several moments wondering when I'll get the chance to properly enjoy reading a book again!

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

FEBRUARY: 5 things I want to say

1. Before We Start...

A recent study suggests that poetry audiences are more likely to die during weekend literary events (there's an estimated 11% difference in outcomes) than during the more routine shows that take place during the week. Some of the factors contributing to the difference may include: higher alcohol consumption, overcrowding, inadequate access to metaphor, etc... 

Government proposals based on these studies, set to alter contracts for Emerging Poets (EPs) to create a "seven day" poetry service, have been blocked by the British Poetry Union and the National Emerging Writers Alliance. EPs, who maintain that poetry already occurs on a seven day basis, voted unanimously to take strike action that will stop these measures. A spokesman for the union argued that poets are already overworked, with little financial compensation, and must be entitled to family life; imposing new contracts on poets would compromise safety both for the artists and audiences. The unions also point out that it is impossible to absolutely correlate the number of audience deaths with a given day of the week; audiences admitted on a Saturday night to a theatre or bar often need more critical care than weekday audiences, for instance. They believe that this is an ideological tactic to (further) privatise the pursuit of creative endeavour. 




A few days ago, I was having a lighthearted conversation (as you do) about the junior doctors' strikes on the way back from a poetry gig. Imagine what it would be like to have a professional body of spoken word artists under the same political and contractual pressures junior doctors are facing right now...

And then I didn't have to do too much imagining. Many spoken word artists I know work in schools, theatres, bars, bookshops - all places that have faced a lot of challenges over the past few years. Add that to the fact that artists, and writers generally, have been complaining for years that cuts to local authority funding are unsustainable, that library closures are brutal - and set to affect the most vulnerable segments of society - and that venues that house literature and art are under increasing threat. The loss of Ideas Tap is one big example of creative sector fatalities. Huge ideological shifts are taking place under the auspices of "long term economic plans" or "streamlining" or "fixing the legacy left by the last government". The thing is, these shifts start in the less mainstream/ more controversial areas - a few libraries here and there, because who uses them any more? A few cuts to the arts because, seriously, a few self-serving risqué theatre pieces won't be missed - or they can be funded themselves. But then it hits the education (see British Values, for instance) and housing systems, a way of creating longterm shifts... and finally things get a bit bolder, and measures are made to stop legitimate protest. It's harder to strike than ever before, the new junior doctor contract has been imposed anyway, the House of Lords is being curtailed that tiny bit more, and even institutions like schools, universities and local authorities are set to be denied the basic right to boycott products. Regardless of where you sit on these issues, the changes are radical.*


*I deliberately linked to news sources across the political spectrum and across the country. I'm not the only one who thinks a lot of things are out of control.

2. Identity Politics





It's LGBT History Month here; it's Black History Month in the US; and it's also now become a thing to attack so-called "identity politics", i.e. the ideology that our experiences in the world are shaped by our status in society - whether that status is constructed by ourselves or society at large - and that we must engage with these labels to reform it.

From Raven "I want to transcend" Simone to Stacey "BET is evil even though I made my name through them" Dash (if you don't know the names, don't worry about it) to Nigel "let's get rid of equality laws" Farage, to the random person in the post office queue, there are people who believe that identifying with these statuses/labels - as contested as they may be - is a problem in itself, rather than the fact that power automatically favours dominant groups.

In a not-particularly scientific experiment, tired of all the issues that occupy my daily life, I decided to have a race-free/colour-blind and sexuality-neutral week. I would have extended it to gender, but I attended a university seminar the day before - on conducting research, funnily enough. The woman leading the seminar pointed out something about our gendered seating patterns (there was a hint of manspreading and crosslegged women taking up little space); I decided it would be less controversial to choose areas where I'm not automatically assumed to be in the dominant grouping.

During my colour-blind, sexuality-neutral week, I went to a supermarket and bought race-free meat and race-free fruit and vegetables.

Here is a picture of an apple.





[Picture of apple. Notice the absence of race. Notice its powerful plea: "Are we not all equally part of your 5 10 a day? Cut us and we all bleed the same colour pips (unless we have been genetically modified...)"]






During my race/sexuality-blind week, I avoided Robert Dyas. I avoided black cabs and white vans. I avoided meeting new people; I anticipated moments where I might be asked, "Where are you from?" in a knowing way. I had to turn off the Facebook when a certain singer released a video and everyone started talking about it. I eventually had to avoid the internet completely. I avoided walking into gentrified spaces, including a pizza store in Dalston where I'm usually the only person without a full-blown brown beard. I turned down two rather "queer" poetry gigs. I had to shield my eyes from all the Valentine's Day marketing and banner ads baying for my heteronormative attention. My sexuality was determinedly neutral on the 24 bus home.

And then I went to a vigil outside Holloway prison.



An inmate, Sarah Reed, died last month. She allegedly strangled herself. There are videos on the internet of her being punched and dragged across a room by her hair by a police officer, after being accused of shoplifting (she suffered broken ribs and the officer, charged with common assault, received community service)*. She had experienced mental health problems, exacerbated by the circumstances surrounding her child's death (it's worth looking at the details for a more complete picture). She had been interned at a mental health unit when she was sent to jail after striking a fellow patient who allegedly sexually assaulted her. Her story speaks of a failure by the system to protect the most vulnerable. I don't think anyone can argue that she wasn't vulnerable.

I almost didn't go to the vigil; all the way towards Holloway on the red 253 bus, I questioned my motives. I turned up late and walked through a couple of camera crews to get to the middle of the crowd. I stood in the cold, looking out for the few familiar faces; I recognised mostly poets and they were standing so far away. They were so far away and we were all being made to chant her name (Say her name. Sarah Reed. Black Lives Matter) and I knew I was about to break my pointless resolve. This wasn't about me and my neutral transcendence but about something I felt. I felt the facelessness of all these institutions (mental health units, courts, prisons...) and the power they exert on the few, away from public scrutiny. I'm fortunate not to deal with any of those institutions on a daily basis but I've dealt enough with schools to know the mechanics of these institutions.

I waved at a woman I know from an LGBT poetry night, who turns out to have been a former inmate at Holloway. I spoke with her later. She didn't relish the idea of returning to the place that had once taken her liberty, but she felt the need to mark Sarah Reed's untimely death, and all the injustices that do indeed transcend race but, ultimately, disproportionately affect people from certain ethnic backgrounds. I won't link now, but there is well-documented, easy to retrieve evidence that black people are treated differently in the mental health services, social services, the justice system and in education. This also intersects with issues of class, wealth, gender, religion, immigration history etc., all factors that cannot be looked at in isolation. If I were to take the anti-identity politics agenda in good faith - although, sorry, I don't - I could see the argument that isolating one group risks oversimplifying complex individual realities. And while it's great that David Cameron made a statement a couple of weeks ago about Oxbridge not doing enough to take in more students from ethnic "minorities", the facelessness of a system that pathologises, criminalises, patronises and, sometimes kills, cannot be changed with a few measures targeted at a handful of black and minority ethnic students.

My race-free week was drawing to a close and here I was chanting Black Lives Matter, along with a mixed black, white and Asian crowd - mostly women - gathered at the front of a prison which is soon to be demolished. The prison will be gone within a year or two and most likely this spot will be replaced by luxury housing units because, in truth, it's a prime location at the end of Camden Road. To my knowledge, this is the only women's prison in London. The families and friends of London inmates will have to travel long distances just to visit them (dead or alive) in a new super jail, and the prison building itself - a reminder of the undesirable elements of society - will be moved out of sight and remain out of mind to most.

My fingers started to numb as I stood and listened to speakers approach the megaphone with poems and impassioned speeches. The tips of my ears began to burn in the chilly wind. Our allocated time was nearing the end and I became increasingly aware of my hunger, my tiredness, my weariness at questioning what a vigil might do in the long run. Were we here for the benefit of the family? Were we here to protest? Were we here in her death when we could have been there in her life in some small way?

A representative for Sarah Reed's family came to the megaphone and led two minutes of reflection time. In those two minutes of silence when we were asked to close our eyes, the back of my eyelids glowed red. Right then, in the car park of the prison, I thought about what it means to stand in solidarity with someone, with a group. I thought of all the people gathered standing alongside me and the journeys they had made to reach there. I thought of the injustice of a system that allows more than 500 black and minority ethnic people to die in police custody without any convictions for their deaths. I thought of the names of some I could remember. I thought of the list I have in a book at home, that only goes up to the year 2007, which I used for an abandoned poem. I abandoned the poem, mostly because I was embarrassed to talk about race, identity or, more generally, "labels", mostly because I didn't want to come across as being in a perpetual state of victimhood or antagonism. The militant black man trope is alive and well and I didn't want to be that. Nor did I want to be a spokesperson for queer issues. I have so many other things that can and do occupy my time and energy. And yet... And yet...

And yet...


*sometimes it seems we're starting to pick up the worst bits of American culture here.

3. The Ballroom 




I'm so proud for my friend Anna Hope, whose second book, The Ballroom, is now out. She had great reviews this weekend in the Guardian and the Weekend FT - and probably a few more (I haven't gone around checking). She's part of a workshop group I'm a part of, The Unwriteables, that's been running for a few years now - and they're all amazing.

Returning somewhat to the last theme, the book is set in an asylum for the mentally insane in 1911, during a period where some who subscribed to eugenics - including Winston Churchill - were seriously toying with the idea of massive social engineering (to put it euphemistically). There are strong resonances with the present and, ultimately, it's a story about love and poverty and rebellion.




4. Other fab stuff my colleagues are doing


The other Unwriteables have a few things cooking too...

First up, there's David Savill, whose book They Are Trying to Break Your Heart is coming out in April.

Also, there's Olja Knezevic, making a great name for herself in the Balkans, (and I'm hoping she starts publishing in English again soon so we can all read it here in the UK).

Then there's the group of original Spoken Word Educators, all bouncing around doing great things.

You can follow this link for Raymond Antrobus's latest YouTube offering.

And both Pete Bearder and Cat Brogan have recently delivered TEDx talks on education and their experiences teaching spoken word in schools. All pretty amazing, really.






5. Coming Up


Coming up, I have:

i) Polari on Sea next week Weds in Hastings,
ii) Jazz Verse Jukebox (the final one!) in March
ii) And I've also just agreed to do a one-off Polari salon at The Light Lounge in Chinatown on April 11.

Tickets for April's Polari are selling out fast... Come along!













  
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UPCOMING....


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