Archive for May 2015

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.


Why I love grime (and why Novelist reminds me of Iniesta).

Grime will always have a special place in my affections. It’s Robin Hood music, the artform which, like its most celebrated MCs, wasn’t meant to succeed. Grime is the story of survival not only against the odds, but in contempt of them. I thought this as I looked at the cover of a Ruff Sqwad album, and saw a group of stern-faced black boys standing in the shadow of Canary Wharf – a world from which no money would trickle down to them, and which, through gentrification, might even one day force them out.

I love grime because of its defiance. I love JME’s work because, in my favourite track of his, he is full of righteous anger. And that’s what grime will always be to me, at some level: the perfect distillation of the fury of the socially disrespected, the disadvantaged. Basslines that feel like winter midnights, mournful strings, and MCs who, to paraphrase Ghostface Killah, want success so badly they might cry.

Some people are afraid of fury, but, if correctly focused, it can be a marvellous thing. James Baldwin is the writer I probably revere the most, and he often seemed to write in a state of rage. The reason I love the Wu-Tang Clan so much is because, like the grime artists of today, they grew up in neighbourhoods that were maligned even by the standards of the inner-city, and from that adversity crafted some of the greatest poetry the world has ever heard.

And the best part of any grime tune? Everyone will have their own, but for me it is the moment that an MC arrives on a beat. As I tweeted recently, you can tell how great an MC is by the way they enter a track – it’s like watching an elite footballer take a first touch, like seeing Andres Iniesta bring down a high ball. The best recent example I have heard of this is Novelist’s “Showering” on Rinse FM. I had been told by a friend that he was the one to watch, and so I visited his Soundcloud page: and, within a few seconds, I just knew. His flow exploded onto the track with precisely the same rhythm as the shuddering bassline, and, for me at least, his stardom was assured.

So I love grime. I see it as alchemy: a way of taking all of that disrespect you get as a young person, mostly black, always working-class, and turning it to art. And when I see artists such as Novelist emerge, to claim bigger and bigger stages, I have say that – at the risk of sounding patronising – I am proud of them.

On my first ten years as an artist.

“The words will come. They always have, and they always will.”

I love writing, I always have. But wow. Sometimes it gives you days that truly surprise you, and not necessarily for the best.

Today was one of them. Last night, I caught the train to the town centre and picked up a very expensive voice recorder, with which I aim to start recording my first ever podcast. This morning, I sat and put together a to-do list of all the projects I have planned for this year. This year, I wrote proudly in blue ink on a fresh sheet of blank white paper, I will launch my first solo EP, “The Nomadic”, inspired by my move to Berlin just after the World Cup last summer. I will self-release my first ever collection of poems, “Eating Roses for Dinner”. I will start my first podcast, which currently has a working title so embarrassingly pompous that I cannot bring myself to type it, which probably means that it is the wrong title. I will self-release the best thing that I have ever written, an illustrated poem called “I Had a Dream”, which is a deeply personal story that I did not even know was heartbreaking until I began to write it six years ago.

– You see? There it goes again. Just as I typed those final lines, I felt it again – that fish-leap of optimism at the base of my gut. That hope that, of the above projects, one of them would strike creative gold, would be widely acclaimed. That fish-leap is cruelly deceptive. It accompanies every piece of work that I put out into the world. And, recently, it has seemed more mocking than ever.

I have been writing and performing poetry for ten years now, and there was a time when I would jump at any gig that I was offered. Now, though, I find myself wearier than ever. That isn’t just the saunter of age: it is the grim familiarity of the over-excitement that accompanies the beginning of every new artistic adventure. As I began to put together my collection, I thought about the care with which each of the pieces were written, and when I wrote them. It has been such a journey, such a long and often lonely walk. From hundreds of poems, I trimmed the list down to a few dozen, pieces ranging over topics from climate change to city life to lost loves and my other merciful escapism aside from writing, which of course is football.

Ten years. I left the corporate world a decade ago to pursue the artistic dream, and every now and then I am reminded of the starkness of my choices, financial and otherwise. Many of my friends – most of them, in fact – continued on to excellent careers in the City, and while I do not remotely envy them their wealth – because, my God, they worked all the hours their bosses could send them, years on end – I sometimes wonder why I had to be the odd one out, why I felt compelled to chase such a dangerously elusive sense of creative fulfilment. I wonder why I was motivated by a desire that sometimes feels as futile as trying to stare out the sun.

Because, though I love writing, there are days when it unexpectedly feels like a burden. You’re not supposed to admit to feeling a sense of failure as an artist, but, then again,  taboos are there to be shattered. So let me admit it: after ten years of writing, I can safely confess that I feel that I am a failure. That is not for want of trying, at least not in the early years. When I was 27, I wrote my first book, completing the final 63,000 words in three months whilst working a four-day week. I even wrote a great deal of that on Christmas Day. It was nominated for a Sports Book of the Year award, and I thought I was on the verge of something: yet I was not. When I was 30, I wrote my second book, from start to finish in just six months: I did that whilst doing a day job too, and the experience was so stressful that, even as I sit and type this, I cannot bring myself to write another.

I hope that this feeling is temporary. At the same time, it is something that extends to other areas of my work. I look at my music career, and the three bands that I was a part of: all of them had their beautiful moments, but (whilst I was in them, at least) never reached the level they should have, never reached the stages I wanted them to. I look at my poetry career, which has again had great moments, but I have still been unable to write defining work, that reaches a significant number of people beyond my niche. Perhaps the problem, as Warren Ellis recently wrote in a stunningly candid newsletter, is that artists like me are simply not good enough.

And I think that is why I had a slower day than usual. It is because, having filed one article and finished the bulk of another poem, I sat and looked at my four new projects and thought: but seriously, who beyond a narrow group of people is actually going to like any of them. And that is a pretty profound thing to think about something to which you have devoted most of your recent life, your soul. I think what happened today was that I looked back over it, and thought: I am not sure that I have made anything more than a passing impression in the fields that I care about.

Since the above paragraph might seem spectacularly lacking in perspective, perhaps even narcissistic, I should add that I recognise that my life in comparison to many others is far from tragic. My Twitter feed, filled daily with the suffering of the Rohingya and the West Papuans and the Syrians and women, my god, the black women, is reminder enough of that. I guess what I am expressing here is a weariness that I will never truly shift the burden of expectation that I and others have placed upon myself from such a young age – that I will never really be as good a writer as promised back in my teens, when my ego was propelled forward by awards. I still have not written that novel, with the most recent attempt abandoned after a few thousand words. I still have not made that music, or that – actually, God knows, I never will, and I don’t mean to repeat myself yet again. 

What I am beginning to realise is that I am simultaneously fortunate and unfortunate as a writer. I am fortunate because I am just good enough at it to earn a living: but I am unfortunate because I am not good enough at it to be celebrated. And being celebrated isn’t just about the pride of people telling you how good you are – it would be the vindication of my gamble that, when I truly began to care about my writing in my early teens, I would be someone who could make a difference. It would be the vindication for going through those boarding-schools as one of the only black people there, where for years on end you felt as though you were representing your entire race. It would be the end of a truly exhausting walk, but as I assess my career so far I must conclude that this walk is far from over.

So here I go, again. I will start the next ten years of my artistic career by putting out these four pieces of work, and I will somehow drag myself forward. At times like these I remind myself of a phrase I say to myself whenever I have writer’s block, whenever I am approaching a wedding or funeral and have been asked to compose a poem that will appropriately mark the occasion:

“The words will come. They always have, and they always will.”


On Shy Tories and the diversity of Conservatives.

It has been really striking, in the last few days, to see how many people don’t know any Conservative voters (or, at least, don’t think that they do). I disagree with very many of the Conservatives’ policies but the fact that I have friends who vote for them means that I am able to separate the politics from the person and I am very thankful for that. It means that there is mutual respect underlying every discussion or disagreement that we have about politics. I can’t see myself ever voting for them for a range of reasons, primarily because – even though the party has several very good MPs (Dominic Grieve on civil liberties, Jane Ellison on FGM) – I don’t think that they will ever be influential enough against people with, say, the mindsets of Chris Grayling and Owen Paterson (who, in my view, both did very damaging jobs). As for the next five years, I am just drawing up a list of areas where I would like to see more fairness and progress that we have seen so far, and then working out how best to bring about that fairness and progress, regardless of who is in office. There are plenty of smart, compassionate people working in politics, and in the next five years we are going to need every single one of them.