Less than 1% of poetry books published in the UK is by Black and Asian poets. This is the troubling statistic that Free Verse – a report by the Spread the Word Writer Development Agency – produced in 2005. Contemporary Britain is diverse and multicultural, so why isn’t its poetry? Ten: New Poets Spread the Word, not only aims to draw attention to this under-representation, but also hopes to help redress it.
Edited by Bernadine Evaristo and Daljit Nagra, this Bloodaxe Books poetry anthology showcases the writing of 10 new Black and Asian poets: Mir Muhfuz Ali, Rowyda Amin, Malika Booker, Karen McCarthy Woolf, Nick Makoha, Roger Robinson, Denise Saul, Seni Seneviratne, Shazea Quraishi and Janet Kofi Tsekpo. The intention is to raise the profile of these budding poets, with the ambition that they will all go on to publish full-length collections of their own and that, as Evaristo writes, “…when they come knocking, the gatekeepers will at last open their doors.”
Evaristo’s introduction ‘Why It Matters’ explains the background of the anthology and outlines the complex issue of race and poetry. Wary of the dangers of tokenism and acknowledging that labelling poets either “Black poet” or “Asian poet” can be problematic, she nevertheless stresses the importance of facing the fact that there is still – with the exception of the success of a few collections such as Look We Have Coming to Dover! by co-editor Daljit Nagra – a disproportionately low number of these writers published in this country. She suggests the possibility that publishing is institutionally, albeit unconsciously, prejudiced against non-white poetry and urges publishers to be more open to writing that comes out of unfamiliar cultures.
In spite of its contents all falling under the common banner of “Black and Asian Poetry”, Ten is by no means a homogenous read. Each of the emergent poets within it writes with a distinctive voice and their poems cover an unpredictably diverse array of subjects, from tattooing to the creation myth; ranging from the intensely personal to the stridently political.
The first selection from Karen McCarthy falls into the former category. Painfully direct, her six poems all deal with the stillbirth of her baby boy. The fear – that comes with loving – of losing someone, “like the sun on a so-so afternoon” is captured movingly in Yellow Logic, whilst a touch of humour is retained in the midst of the grief in bathetic lines such as “Autumn is head down in the sink” from The Weather in the Womb. Whereas with the second set of poems, from Rowyda Amin, the subject scope expands to encompass myth and magic, past and present, animal and human – all mingled and scattered with pithily observed quotidian details. For instance, in Desert Sunflowers – a poem about the atom bomb – the nuclear scientist Teller is “slapping on the sunscreen” And in the sexual Insect Studies, a mass of vivified butterfly tattoos descends on their tattoo artist, “each eager proboscis/burying deep in the tissues”. Desires of love and hate are picked out by Amin’s vivid, often disturbing imagery. In her magic-realist world daffodils have teeth and monkeys have eyes like olives to be shaken out of the jar. Denise Saul displays an equally visual imagination. An artist as well as poet, Saul has an interest in single objects; poems such as Moon Jelly, for example, capture in words the freakish appearance of a jellyfish – “a blob of streaks and patterns”
Several of the poets write about their experiences prior to moving to Britain. Mir Mhfuz Ali writes about his experiences during the war of liberation in Bangladesh. Declaring in Midnight, Dhaka, 25 March 1971, “I am a hardened camera clicking at midnight”, he describes the atrocities he saw with his “Nikon eye”. Roger Robinson, meanwhile, poignantly recalls his childhood in Trinidad, evoking his already-forming sense of isolation from his community in The Stand Pipe. And Nick Mahona’s poems focus on his exile from Uganda. Others focus on genealogical themes. As well as writing about immediate family, Malika Booker also explores the past of her ancestors under slavery. Shazea Qurashi, however, goes even further back in time with her poetry by bringing back to life the The Caturbhani – a Sanskrit narrative about a courtesan chamber from 300 BC.
Indeed, although Ten is eclectic in subject matter, there is nonetheless a potent theme of connectedness to cultural and personal heritage that threads through the anthology. Like the speaker who “split the soil’s richness” to unearth memories of the saffron scent in Amin’s Grandparents, the poems in this anthology often seek to resurrect the past, whether it be a lost child, a victim of war, a birthplace or even the paleontological. To borrow W.N. Herbert’s phrasing (from his introduction to Booker), this may owe to “The two tugs on every writer’s sleeve – of their own immediate experience and the ghosts of others’ rites of passage” From roots around the world, the buds of a new generation of exciting British poets are growing – and there are certainly some promising ones to be found in Ten.