I am a Poet

1 Feb

Now there’s a sentence that is very difficult to say without cringing. When people ask: what do you do? Or what do you want to do? It can be very daunting to reply: Well, I write poetry, I want to be a poet. Even if this is something that makes you extremely happy or is something that you are genuinely talented at doing, it is often very difficult to speak out and say so. Poetry is traditionally a sphere for privileged white males, and yes, some of the best-known and most-beautiful poetry has come from these dominant voices. But there are voices, intelligent and fascinating voices, that have been oppressed since the first verse of poetry was written.

I’ve been writing my English dissertation on Grace Nichols’ poetry. She is definitely a Mouthy Poet. I first came into contact with her when doing GCSE English. Many of you will be familiar with her Island Man Poem:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bACVeAclpU

(She begins speaking the poem at about 3 mins 17 secs).

Despite writing a lot of interesting poetry, however, there has been relatively little critical comment on her work. Indeed, having studied English literature at University for nearly three years, I am astounded that black literature has been largely ignored. Universities tend to prioritise the literary voices of dead white males over any minority voice. I was shocked to discover that in my first year, only 10% of the books that we studied were written by women, and these were white women. I don’t wish to devalue the importance of reading Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Brontë; no one doubts their excellence as writers. But the fact is that there is a wealth of literature written by people whose voices have been silenced by patriarchal and racist oppression. If this continues to be overlooked in Universities then critical work on these texts will continue to be muffled. These voices will continue to be drowned out.

Grace Nichols was born in Guyana and moved to Britain in 1977. Her poetry emphasised the importance of deconstructing racist and gender prejudices and reconstructing identity through self-celebration.

In Beauty (below), she decontructs the limiting white, Eurocentric ideals of beauty by personifying the concept as a ‘fat black woman’. She dismantles the familiar stereotypes and celebrates the multiplicity of beauty in the world:

Beauty

Beauty

is a fat black woman

walking the fields

pressing a breezed

hibiscus

to her cheek

while the sun lights up

her feet

 

Beauty

is a fat black woman

riding the waves

drifting in happy oblivion

while the sea turns back

to hug her shape

 

As a woman who emigrated to Britain in the 70s, her poetry also provided a significant political commentary on her individual experience of moving to a country which was hostile to immigrants. The way in which the white British would undermine her sense of the home that she had created in the UK by asking ‘Are you going back sometime?’ illustrates the racist hostility that was (and continues to be) prevalent towards immigrants. Fear is a poignant poem which voices this atmosphere of aggression:

Fear

Our culture rub skin

against your own

bruising awkward as plums

 

black music enrich

food spice up

 

You say you’re civilised

a kind of pride

ask, ‘Are you going back sometime?’

 

but of course

home is where the heart lies

 

I come from a backyard

where the sun reaches down

mangoes fall to the ground

politicians turn cruel clowns

 

And here? Here

 

sometimes I grow afraid

too many young blacks

reaping seconds

indignant cities full of jail

 

I think my child’s too loving

for this fear.

Grace Nichols, The Fat Black Women’s Poems (1984)

 

It is, therefore, paramount that people write poetry and assert their individuality. Poetry can be a powerful tool to deconstruct the prejudices and injustices we see/experience around us every day.

So never, ever, be afraid to say it, sing it, or shout out it loud: I am a Poet and Proud of It.  

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