‘The poems began to dance with each other’: curating a new mixtape of black British poetry | Books
PMaking an anthology is, as the American poet Katrina Vandenberg once said, like making a mixtape. It is an artifact filled with various resonances. Much like the painstaking process of recording tapes for each other in the era of the pre-playlist, editing an anthology is intimate, a gesture to the reader. And just like you could never put absolutely every piece you wanted on tape, the same goes for anthologies. The beauty of form is in the suggestions it makes, the ways it invites deeper exploration. In More Fiya, the anthology of black British poets that I have edited, a selection of poems stand together as a gesture to the larger and more expansive community to which these poets belong.
Looking back on the careful reading and listening I did while writing this book, I am struck by how sentences, whole lines of poems, can stick with you. Sometimes I would talk to someone and something they said would match a line I had read, and that poem and the conversation would start dancing together in my head. Then the poems began to dance among themselves; the shimmering signet ring in Dean Atta’s poem ringing with the knife in a Dzifa Benson poem; the fires that burn in the poems of Janette Ayachi and Momtaza Mehri; Inua Ellams’ reflection on the consequences of wounded masculinity and Kim Squirrell’s poem on those first moments when youth falls under the toxic gaze of men.
It seemed important that there was such an anthology opening space for black British poets to express the wide range of their poetry. The past few years have shown us how far we still have to go to challenge anti-Blackness. In publishing, efforts are made but these have probably only raised a narrow conception of darkness: a version that the market recognizes.
Frustrated with this state of affairs, I began to think it was time for a reissue of the 1998 anthology The Fire People, edited by Lemn Sissay. I first read it in my late teens when I was trying to navigate the overwhelming whiteness of studying for a degree in English Literature. This book was a life raft, a shield, a loudspeaker on my shoulder. I contacted publisher Canongate, asking if there were any plans to bring the book back. During this conversation, I suggested a new companion volume with more recent vibes. Plus Fiya is that companion. It is an attempt to expand the range of poetic archives and let poems, in their various forms, shape new possibilities of being in the world within Blackness. There is room for sympathy, as in Scalp by Keith Jarrett:
Withdrawn for twenty-four years, I think of all the thin-skinned prophets
with thinner hair, how in other circumstances could I have been president
And make way for laughter, as in Catching Joke by Bridget Minamore, where the poet meditates on the different forms of harm that could happen to Blacks in an anti-Black society, before concluding with this gesture of survival:
I try to make him laugh
Elsewhere, Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa depicts dance as a revolutionary way of thinking-with-the-body; going so far as to completely abandon the words in a poem in favor of punctuation marks arranged in a sort of score.
The poems collected in More Fiya testify to the ingenuity and endurance of black British poets and, by extension, of black British culture. In the face of so many signs that the places we’ve settled into don’t always like us, we persist. We find, in the republic of letters, a durable and suitably large place for be.
Midnight in Foreign Food Aisle by Warsan Shire
Dear uncle, is everything you love foreign
or are you a stranger to everything you love?
We are all animals and the body wants what
he wants, believe me, I know. The blonde said
Come, my love, take off your coat, what are you doing
you want to drink?
Love is not haram but after years of fucking
women unable to pronounce your name,
you find yourself totally alone, in the foreign food aisle,
next to turmeric and saffron,
remember your mother’s warm dark hands,
bowing down to halal meat, praying in a
language you haven’t used in years.
Howling Wolves by Inua Ellams
When the sister says her colleague’s husband came
to strike / for his wife / and for the family in his warm
eyes / open the empty office at dusk / the hanging sky
without a question mark / the brother yawns
When the sister describes this husband / separates her /
splattered braids against floral wallpaper / the shake
rods / his pulsating head / the loosening belt / the
brother is consumed / with an anger he has never known
When he tells his boys / they offer to visit him / do the
husband the kinds of violence for which the alleys are primed / a
tells the story of a mob at home / who grabbed the accused /
dug a thin hole in the raw earth / forced consumption /
until he bleeds
When the husband is asked why / he says / he could not
help him / she drove him / he was drunk / dressed like that
the way she asked / no one had complained
before / and / that’s what men do
When their fathers accepted / it was true / they were from
different eras / these new complaints also confused them /
the brother had nightmares / of men like wolves / their
bleeding jaws / devouring the world / he feasts / among
As if by Rachel Long
I miss your hands on me, your mouth. Earlier
I missed you in the honey aisle – we didn’t even
I haven’t done the grocery shopping yet, but I want
be at the forefront in the kitchen, open the highest
closet, put the things you like inside;
white bread, long-life cow’s milk. I even bought
instant coffee and refrained from informing the cashier
that it was not for me, a woman of refined taste.
Who am I kidding? I’ll buy you a bag of rice
and put it back on my head. I don’t even hate
admitting that. I forgot what I once did
before shining in search of slippers.
If you don’t like your feet touching the ground,
they no longer have to.