Bittersweet: Contemporary Black Women's Poetry
The Bittersweet Tour's Final Stand
Bittersweet: Contemporary Black Women's Poetry is a remarkable collection of international writing, edited by Karen McCarthy. Since the book was first published, literary promoter Melanie Abrahams of renaissance one has organized a series of readings by the contributing poets, which culminated on 27 January 2000.
The final reading was held in a beautiful space called The Voice Box at the Royal Festival Hall in London, an elegant arts center on the Thames with a remarkable view of the city. The Voice Box is immediately adjacent to The Poetry Library, reputedly the largest collection of contemporary poetry in all of Europe. As the English say, this is a very up-market locale. Case in point: the next speaker at The Voice Box will be Isabel Allende. It's a spare postmodern room with theatrical lighting, perfect for an occasion of this kind of seriousness. On the other hand, the "Serious Literature" setting was frequently undercut by these fine and audacious female poets who repeatedly made the stage and setting something all their own in various ways. They sang, rapped, danced, performed, recited, and were fully engaged, as they succeeded in engaging a mesmerized room.
The space ordinarily holds 80 people, and tickets for the event were sold out weeks ago. Poetry readings are notoriously unpredictable when it comes to attendance. I've been to readings by hugely famous writers where half a dozen people showed up. The organizers finally brought in an extra 20 seats, but it still didn't begin to accommodate all who wanted to attend. They could have filled a much larger space, though the intimate nature of the event added to its character. The audience was unified, appreciative and wildly responsive. It included numerous poets (Vanessa Richards, KA'frique, Roger Robinson and Janet Kofi-Tsekpo), as well as the father of one of the featured poets Patience Agbabi, giving it the feeling of a family reunion, yet very open.
Six poets read for approximately twenty minutes each: Karen McCarthy, Raman Mundair, Malika B, Dorothea Smartt, Bernardine Evaristo and Patience Agbabi. This event made two things immediately clear: some of the most exciting poetry being written in England today is by Black women. Secondly, the variety of their work, especially in form, demonstrates tremendous diversity and scope. This is not one cohesive genre, which is very much to the good. Stereotypes of "women's poetry" or "Black poetry" could not be applied.
Frequently they dealt with similar themes--family, and especially the roles of mothers and fathers; cultural history and memory; hair and other issues of female adornment; male/female relationships and power dynamics; political events such as the Stephen Lawrence case (dramatized in an excellent poem by Mundair); music and song; alienation and otherness; freedom. A number of these poets developed specific characters through whom they spoke, demonstrating a concern for "giving voice." Some of the poets made use of narrative and elements of storytelling, although clearly working within a lyric poetry tradition.
These features connect some of this writing to African American poetry. It's important to recall that until 1998, when Bittersweet was published along with Lemn Sissay's The Fire People (Edinburgh: Canongate Books: 1998), few anthologies of Black British poetry were widely available. Many in this generation of poets (in their twenties and thirties), as well as their elders, looked to such volumes as Dudley Randall's The Black Poets and Arna Bontemps' American Negro Poetry for influences. The shared themes were also explained by the participation of many of these poets in workshops held by Kwame Dawes, who was invisible but very much present at this reading. He was repeatedly credited with having been a tremendous guide and enabler for today's young Black writers in England.
For example, several of the poets (including Karen McCarthy) read a "Last Slavery Poem," which was a Dawes assignment. Dorothea Smartt's "Cut," a 'last slavery poem' dedicated to her own ancestor, was one of the evening's highlights. It was highly intuitive yet precise in its logical connections, returning jazzlike to its central theme by means of repeated phrases and images ("cut: it'll grow back," the metaphor of beads).
These poets are very much individuals in spite of surface similarities. Malika B, who lived in Guyana until age 13, often uses patois and vernacular diction. She read twinned poems for her mother and father that were strong and spare. A poem that was a standout was a work in progress, a 'madwoman's rant to the universe' (appropriate in light of the twentieth anniversary of Gilbert and Gubar's classic text) that took the form of a dramatic monologue. The audience was howling in laughter.
Bernardine Evaristo read excerpts from new work, which continues the novel-in-verse form that she used in her acclaimed book Lara (ARP: Kent, UK, 1997). The influence of Derek Walcott is strong, and at moments it also brought to mind Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah. The most formal poet of this group, her new writing juxtaposes and joins historical circumstances with current language and issues. She is an enormously polished and serious poet.
The only other poet of this group who has her own collection in print is Patience Agbabi, who was given the honor of closing the reading. Her first book, R.A.W. (London: Izon Amazon, 1995, in association with Gecko Press), brought Agbabi a great deal of attention within Black British poetry circles, but also extending to more general readers of contemporary poetry within and outside of the academy. Although she is an Oxford graduate, her work is probably the most strongly rap-influenced of the evening's poets. This is performance poetry, without doubt, yet reads beautifully on the page. Her long-awaited second collection, Transformatrix, will be published in May, and she read from both older and new work. "UFO Woman" (pronounced oofoe) foregrounded feelings of alienation using the imagery of science fiction ("First World Meets Third World"). Her closing poem, titled "Word," was a tour de force, playing the dozens with the word and concept of "word," and touting her skills like the most self-assured of literary mc's.
This event made it clear that there is a great deal of hunger for the work of these fine multicultural writers in a country whose poetry has been mired in the bogs for at least one long generation. These young Black female poets are very much the future of British literature, and this is all to the good. On the other hand, the audience was still largely young and Black. This is probably not surprising, though still an important indication of the fact that England's "new multiculturalism" has not been an easy or rapid process. But it's a bittersweet irony that this British poetry which exudes historical awareness and contemporary cultural vibrancy is a gift created by the formerly colonized subjects.