The next time Sandra Bland

The next time Sandra Bland

Should drive through a particularly bigoted town,

She should make sure she does so

with her windows rolled right down,

so the officer can see her hands, and is reassured

she’s not storing an assault rifle in her lap.

She should also – I don’t know – try being polite;

That is to say, female and white –

For when a white policeman is in pursuit,

A black woman is only acceptable if mute.

Still, Sandra fell silent in the end,

So it’s doubtful anything she now says can offend.

The usual will happen:

People will loudly gawp at the injustice

But quietly conclude her temper was not to be trusted.

Sandra’s crime was simply that:

Smoking a cigarette while black –

Another heinous vice to add to the list,

Such as attending Bible class in Charleston,

Or simply daring to exist.

“Danger: The Role of the Poet” – my talk at Mikrofestiwal, Wroclaw, 26 June 2015.

Recently, I was very kindly invited to speak in Wroclaw, Poland, at the town’s Mikrofestiwal; below is a copy of the short talk that I gave on Friday 26 June.

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I have been asked to say some words today about the political potential of contemporary poetry and spoken word in the UK. And so I thought I would give my short talk the title “Danger: The Role of the Poet”.

Why am I saying that it should be the role of the poet to create a sense of danger? Well, I’m probably being a little dramatic. After all, poetry can just be about describing nice countrysides, and flowers swaying in the breeze. But it can also do so much more. Poetry is dangerous because, in a world where we are so often encouraged not to feel, poetry makes us connect with the people and the society around us. It makes us pause through its perception, through its beauty: and, most frighteningly of all, it makes us think.

Authorities are well aware of the threat posed by poets. Just a year and a half ago, in Qatar, a court upheld the prison sentence of the poet Mohamed Rashid al-Ajami, who was jailed for insulting the emir and spreading incendiary material. Al-Ajami had been arrested late in 2011 for his poem, “Jasmine”, in which he appeared to look forward to the prospect of political revolution in Qatar. “I hope”, he wrote, “that change will come in countries whose ignorant leaders believe that glory lies in US forces”. By Western standards, this might have seemed relatively tame – after all, it was alleged that Al-Ajami did not even perform the poem – but the authorities had seen enough danger in his words, and consigned him to fifteen years in prison.

Fifteen years. Qatar clearly understand the danger of the poet. Al-Ajami was speaking at a time when the “Arab Spring” looked as though it would sweep away a succession of governments. “We are all Tunisia”, wrote Al-Ajami, referring to the first country where an authoritarian leader had fallen. Shortly after the publication of these words, in what was perhaps the ultimate sign of his potential influence, he was deprived of his freedom.

British poets have a far easier time of things. For the most part, we are able to speak as we please. If I would have to name the UK poets who, in recent months, have been particularly effective on the political stage, I would have to identify five people: Hollie McNish, Michael Rosen, Kate Tempest, Inua Ellams and Raymond Antrobus. I will discuss those poets each briefly in turn, but first I must explain what I mean by “effective”. By that, I simply mean that they have, through their skill with words, enabled many people to reflect upon what it means to be human, and to celebrate our common humanity.

That may not sound like much, but we are currently in a political climate where we are being encouraged daily by our media and our elected leaders to think less of “The Other”. Just last Friday, in Berlin, I attended the funeral of an unnamed Syrian man who had died whilst crossing the Mediterranean. His burial, with the consent of his family, was carried out in a cemetery in the German capital by a group called the Center for Political Beauty. The Center’s aim, in their words, is to “tear down the walls surrounding Europe’s sense of compassion”. They seek to do this by reminding us that these dead migrants are people, by making us grieve for them.

This is why the work of the five poets that I have mentioned is political, and therefore dangerous. Each of them examine the lives of those whom we would regard as marginalised, and they do so with a sympathy that is not helpful to the powerful. The first of those poets, Hollie McNish, published a poem on YouTube in February 2013 called “Mathematics”. In this poem McNish, who studied development and economics at university, challenged the assumption that immigrants merely came to the UK to take the country’s jobs. This poem has now been viewed almost two million times, and has seen McNish tour the nation with its message. “Your maths is stuck in primary”, she recites, “and most times immigrants bring more than minuses”.

Alongside McNish is Michael Rosen, whom you can follow on Twitter as @MichaelRosenYes: he uses this platform to write poems and open letters critical of institutional excess and corruption. Kate Tempest, a poet, playwright and musician, is fearless in her examination of the struggles faced by everyday people. Inua Ellams, like Kate a poet and playwright, writes and performs work with nuanced portrayals of black life. Raymond Antrobus, meanwhile, is one of the country’s first graduates of a programme where poets are trained as educators. He now teaches poetry at a school in East London, and performs his best-selling poetry collection to audiences at various festivals.

What do these poets have in common? Well, they recognise the tremendous power of the spoken and the written word. We arguably now live in an age that is better for poets than any other. The poet, after all, is gifted at one thing above all, which is to distil an image or an emotion into just a few lines, just a few words. In a world where attention spans are shortening all the time, where many of us – including me – are constantly staring at our smartphones, poets still have the ability to capture us, to captivate us. There is a reason why, when advertising agencies are looking to launch their campaigns, they come looking for the expertise of poets. It is because they know that we have an eye for a slogan, for a quick catchphrase.

This skill – to condense a complex situation into just a few lines – also lends itself well, I have found, to a career in journalism. I would encourage any poet who thinks keenly about the world around them to blog more, to report more, to comment more. When leading UK poets are called upon to provide their view to the media, they are frequently very impressive. Benjamin Zephaniah, for example, has been an outstanding advocate for social change for many years. Many other poets are actively involved in fundraising for political causes, and can be found joining marches for progressive causes.

I have spoken of the danger of poets, but I should also speak of the danger for poets. Speaking frankly, most poets will never make that much money or gain that much visibility, which can make many of us susceptible to flattery by the powerful. In that desire for publicity, celebrity or attention, we must be wary of lessening the severity of what we wish to say in order to be acceptable to a wider audience. This is, I think, a temptation. At such times, we poets need to remember that we can amplify the voices of the marginalised partly because, as a genre of artists, we are often marginalised ourselves. We poets must remember that we can promote the cause of the Other because, in so many ways, we are Other.

I don’t mean to congratulate myself and my peers too much, but I am proud of one thing. I am proud that, though the poetry world is by no means perfect, it at has at least managed to provide spaces for self-expression that many other art-forms have not. Some of the most compelling voices in the genre right now are women, or women of colour: Sabrina Mahfouz, Jessica Horn, Warsan Shire, Rosie Knight, Chimene Suleyman, Vanessa Kisuule. Poetry has also been something of a refuge for black people, for queer people. And that, I think, is because – despite the conservatism of the institutions that sometimes surround it – poetry represents freedom. It represents, at its best, the ability to speak from the heart with a carefully-honed craft.

That is poetry’s danger, and its power within the political context. Whether using YouTube or Vine, using microphones or speaking in front of a classroom, we have the ability to humanise, to inspire. That is a skill that those on our society’s fringes – the disabled, the poor, the carers, the unemployed – need us to use more than ever; and, at the risk of preaching, we must not fail them.

My debut poetry collection, “Eating Roses For Dinner”

Musa on the stairs (6)

So, as some of you already know: I am self-publishing my debut poetry collection this summer, “Eating Roses For Dinner”, to mark my first 10 years as a poet. The cover of the book is the photo above, taken by Naomi Woddis; and the book features a foreword from Scroobius Pip, and other very kind words from artists whose work I greatly respect. It will be just under 150 pages in length.

I am charging £10 per copy, plus postage to wherever you may live; I will also sign the book with whatever dedication you would like me to include.

I am printing a very short run of books now, just to gauge initial interest, and if that goes well then I will print some more in time for Christmas. (Please share this post with anyone who might find it of interest – I have included some recommendations below from other artists, for those who do not know my work.) Thanks very much for reading everyone, and have a fantastic day.

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About my poetry:

Ed Sheeran, musician:

“I’ve known Musa for many years and I’ve always found him a very honest, poignant wordsmith. He writes from the heart with no filter, and that’s what the best lyricists do. I’m a fan.”

Kate Tempest, poet, playwright and musician:

“Musa is precise and all-encompassing in the same line. His poetry is intimate and erudite, passionate and beautiful.”

Cerys Matthews, musician and broadcaster:

“From the first time I heard Musa’s work, at a launch event in Old Street, I found it to be lyrical, heartfelt and compelling, and I have enjoyed collaborating with him since then. His work is warm, engaging and reflective, and I hope you enjoy this collection.”

Nikesh Shukla, author and playwright:

“Musa Okwonga’s work is often about space – distance travelled, loneliness, the terse relationships between people, cities, digital lives impacting our analogue sense of being in the moment, actual outer space – and it’s these landscapes that give his poetry the gravitas of someone who plays the part of social commentator in the trenches as well as alien observing our peculiarities from afar. I never fail to be moved, astonished, surprised and humoured by his warmth and deep understanding of what it means to be human, and what it means to be other.”

Steven Camden (“Polarbear”), writer, spoken word artist and playwright:

“Musa dances between worlds and circles that many others can only stumble into. He writes importance and compassion and homage and love. I think of him as a disciple of beauty, in all its forms.”

For McKinney, and Eric Casebolt: “They handcuffed the black baby the second it left the womb”.

They handcuffed the black baby the second it left the womb,

Replaced its umbilical cord

With a chain attached to the wall.

“Well”, they reasoned, “it can’t get used to freedom;

Once it’s set free, it will attack.

What it needs is a knee in its back,

A SWAT team watching its cot,

And a drone sneering overhead

As its mother combs the hair of this sighing, gurgling threat.”

All in all, they say, “that police officer, Casebolt,

Did one thing wrong; he got there too late.

He should have pulled that gun on that girl

When her mother was eight months pregnant with her,

Should have pinned her down in the ward

And warned her of the angry cargo she was carrying,

Who might, fifteen years later,

Slip on a bikini and wander lethal as anthrax

Across a white suburban lawn.

Eric Casebolt did nothing but obey one whispered law:

That the birth of each black baby

Is a fresh declaration of war.”

FIFA and Loretta E. Lynch: a milestone for black women.

Several of FIFA’s senior officials have been arrested on charges of corruption, news which has been welcomed by very many people outside the organisation (and, I suspect, more than a few within). The person leading this effort is Loretta E. Lynch, the US Attorney-General, who has only been in her job a matter of weeks. Lynch is the first African-American woman to hold this post, and here she is, holding possibly the most powerful organisation in world sport to account. This is, I think, a milestone for black women. At times like these, I look back at the history of civil rights activism, and consider those who fought just so women just like them could one day have access to the same opportunities as their fellow citizens. Regardless of how these charges against FIFA go, I believe that the very fact that Lynch is here to make them is historically important.

It is probably important today, too. When speaking with several of my black female friends, I see how many of them – despite their considerable success in their various fields – still experience remarkable self-doubt, as if they do not feel worthy of even greater platforms for their talents. That self-doubt is often derived from a world which through the twin stings of racism and sexism frequently tries to hold them back. I doubt that Lynch herself will stop to reflect on this moment – for her, it is probably just one more day in an outstanding career – but many black women, those long gone and those yet to come, may thank her for showing that someone just like them can make it as far as she wants to. And, somewhere out there, I hope that countless ancestors – among them Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, Rosa Parks – are raising a glass.

 

 

On Asian-American men: John Cho, Hollywood, and inter-racial dating.

So: inter-racial dating. There are a few topics I don’t discuss that much in my writing, mainly because for all my openness as a poet I am reflexively very private about some things, and one of those topics is dating. Every now and then, though, I see something which frustrates me enough to take the leap. I have just listened to a short radio piece on Hollywood’s historical reluctance to cast Asian-Americans as leading men, and – perhaps it was the black coffee, the Monday morning, or the slightly early start – something tipped me over the edge.

John Cho, who is a fine actor and something of an ambassador for Asian-Americans making their way in the film industry, spoke of the boundaries he had encountered when growing up. “Girls would say in an almost benevolent tone that ‘I just (have) zero attraction to Asian men’,” he told the BBC World Service. “It wasn’t considered taboo to say something like that.” I can remember being told similar things, and so his words resonated with me. Whilst who you are attracted to is of course a deeply personal matter, the reasons for that attraction often go unexamined. Cho spoke of the way that Hollywood portrayed Asian men as weak, and not as natural leaders, which had implications for how they were viewed in wider society: including, in some cases, the fact that some would not readily consider them as potential romantic partners.

If you think about it, “I have zero attraction to white men”, or “I have zero attraction to black women”, is actually a really odd thing to say to someone’s face. The response I first think of is “what – all of them? There are millions, you haven’t even met each of them yet”.  Look – it could just be their preference. But it still seems a little strange, particularly when you announce that to someone out loud.

I mean – what do I know. Maybe sexual attraction really is as visceral and uncontrollable as the type of food that you like. Or maybe, at some level, we have been socially conditioned to say No! to the possibility of ever fancying someone from a particular ethnic group, to the extent that we feel entitled to look into their hopeful eyes and say it. I don’t know for sure. All I know is that, should I ever again be in a situation where someone ever says “I just don’t fancy black guys”, I will say “OK, so you’ve not met the hot ones so far. Give me a few moments, let me me go through my phone book. I’ll change all that.”

Steph Curry and Ronaldo, the human Vines

I used to follow basketball almost as closely as football, with my fanaticism for it peaking in my mid-to-late-teens; virtually every morning, I still check ESPN for the overnight scores from the NBA. Today I woke to see what had happened in Game 3 of the Western Conference semi-finals between Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors, and in one sense I needn’t have bothered. Steph Curry, the Warriors’ point guard, gave yet another demonstration of his genius, scoring 40 points as his team overwhelmed the Rockets by 115 points to 80.

Curry, like every elite athlete before him, is a contradiction: he is utterly predictable, yet wholly unpredictable. He is predictable in, every single time he advances down the court, you know the nature of his most dangerous tool — his three-point shot, which is probably the greatest his sport has ever seen. Yet he is unpredictable, in that you never know quite when he is going to release it. In this sense, he is similar to the Brazil striker Ronaldo, whose own uniquely devastating move was the stepover: in Ronaldo’s case, his feet would flurry around the ball until he veered off with it to his left, a technique honed to such a point that it was irresistible.

Curry is currently performing at such a level that, on any given night, it is he who chooses whether or not he will excel: his opponents, despite their most desperate attentions, seem to have little or no choice in the matter. Watching a video of his highlights from earlier this season, it occurred to me that he is essentially a human version of a Vine: each time he releases the ball, its arc towards the basket is one of identical beauty, as though he were playing himself endlessly on repeat. This is the monotony of excellence, the majesty of routine: where the athlete has achieved such supreme command of their gifts that, even as they are scoured by a thousand cameras and millions of eyes, they may as well be at home alone firing jump-shots towards that rusty, unprotected rim.

 

Well played, Ireland. Well played.

So it looks as though Ireland has said Yes to equal marriage by a wide margin. What a day. As John Amaechi recently wrote on Twitter, it really is “restoring faith in humanity” to see that so many Irish people travelled home to vote on this referendum. The reported margin of victory represents a fantastic validation for LGBT people from the society around them – a validation that for far too long they have to draw only from themselves. How remarkable that, in a Catholic country, LGBT people will be able to walk the streets and think “the majority of my nation is on my side”.

Of course homophobia won’t disappear in Ireland overnight. Of course the abuse and the attacks won’t all magically disappear. But that cynicism can take a ticket and wait its turn.  Because this is the type of change that was resisted for years with terrifying aggression, and which was brought about through endless courage, compassion and love.

Every LGBT person remembers the day they came out. For so many, it felt not so much like stepping out of the closet as stepping into flame. For so many, the fear of living life as they truly are will have subsided sharply, to a degree that can never be measured by any public vote. And this outcome will hopefully resonate far beyond Ireland, in deeply religious countries where homosexuality is still illegal, if not punishable by death. LGBT people in those places can look at this referendum and think, “look, the world is learning to care”.

The poet Jessica Horn has spoken of “love as a revolutionary force”, and that is what the Yes vote in Ireland represents today. Well played, Ireland: well played.

 

 

Why writer’s block can be a good thing.

Let’s not lie – writer’s block can be brutal. Some people don’t believe in it, and that you simply need to keep producing work until you shake yourself free from your creative torpor. I do believe, though, that writer’s block is actually A Thing.

Very often the inability to create new work is driven by fear – fear that it won’t be of the standard that you and your readers expect. Very often, too, it is driven by the worry that you are not saying anything that you have not said before.  Whenever I encounter writer’s block, I simply tell myself: this is a good thing. It means that I have exhausted all my influences, and it reminds me that the well of creativity is not of infinite depth, but that I must go out and read more, listen to more, feel more. And then, and only then, can I sit down to write again. So, if you have writer’s block, you can use this as an opportunity to pick up a book by a writer you’ve never read, to check out a genre of film or music you’ve previously left untouched: go to an exhibition, phone that friend you’ve not spoken to in too long, have fun. Soon enough, left quietly to replenish itself, your creativity will return.

(I realise that none of the above advice is of *any* use whatsoever to those of you who have writer’s block and are faced by a swiftly-approaching deadline. In your case, I would advise the two things that always work perfectly for me in such a situation: black coffee, and panic.)

 

The opening line of a poem is like a first date.

The opening line of a poem is like a first date: if it isn’t any good, then people are unlikely to hang around for the second. I’ve been thinking a lot about opening lines recently, and their importance in setting the tone for the rest of the work. The literary establishment doesn’t often refer to rappers as poets, but starting a verse with aplomb is an artform all of its own.

I can say this from wearily personal experience. When writing a poem, I would say that I spend the bulk of my time working out how to begin it. It’s a little like making an incision at the beginning of the most delicate of operations – with each poem, you are attempting to make the reader or the listener sense the world around them in a slightly new way (well, I am at least). If that first line is right, then everything else flows naturally from there.

That’s a difficult enough task without music; when you are working with a beat, the entire enterprise becomes more complex. This is why, at some level, I revere artists like Lauryn Hill and Method Man, whose opening lines at their very best are spectacular statements of intent. Witness Lauryn Hill coming in on “Lost Ones” – “It’s funny how money changes situations”. It’s clear from the outset that she is coming for conquest, a warrior not to be denied.  And then you have Method Man, who so often stole the show on other people’s tracks that he should have been arrested for burglary. On “Shadowboxin’”, he enters in typically formidable fashion: “I breaks it down to the bone gristle; ill-speaking, Scud-missile-heatseeking, Johnny Blazin’”. (Of course, he didn’t steal this particular show from GZA, but that is only a mark of his fellow artist’s genius.)

Yes: the opening line is everything. This was my introduction to the Wu-Tang, and began a twenty-year-odd fandom which continues to this day (of course, I am listening to them even as I type this). Hip-hop fans will each have their favourites – yesterday, when I asked on Twitter, I heard plenty of shouts for Busta Rhymes on “Scenario”, and DOOM on, well, everything – but I will always be grateful to Method Man, as both a fan and a poet, for teaching me the value of the intro.