Part 5 #HayFestival: The Iconoclasts

You are probably suffering from Hay Festival fatigue by now as you notice that just 2 1/2 days spent there produced a whole week’s worth of output. Anyway, after a short lull yesterday, here is the last of the posts on this topic. 

I mentioned in my first post that Hay Festival does feel a bit like it should be part of the Henley Regatta, Ascot Races, Wimbledon summer circuit, although in a fairly muted way. But the festival organisers are trying hard to incorporate more diverse voices into the programme and some of these events have been attracting a considerable crowd. Nevertheless, it is amusing to play the game of ‘spot the false liberal’, who’ve come to the event to establish their ‘tolerance credentials’ and are slightly nonplussed or unmoved by what is being said. [I suppose this is where my status as an ‘outsider’, albeit a white one who speaks English with a flawless accent, comes in handy. I lull them with a false sense of security and the then – wham! – am hit with a vicious side-glance or nervous rictus.]

The Dylan Thomas Prize winner Kayo Chingonyi is perhaps the kind of black man that the Hay audiences are most comfortable: born in Zambia, he came to the UK as a child, is well-educated and widely read and speaks with the required accent (this is important when I compare him to the other two below), has published two poetry pamphlets before his debut volume Kumukanda, and has been winning accolades from the established literary community, including residencies, shortlistings, judging poetry competitions, being poetry associate at the ICA and so on. In other words, he has played by the rules and been successful, so we can think of him as a ‘good immigrant’. If he had arrived in a suit and tie, it would have been like Sydney Poitier in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?’.

I’m not saying this to make fun of the poet, who was indeed most impressive and felt no need to pander to the audience. Yet it has to be said: he was signalling all those things which the largely pale and posh audience could understand and accept. But I really enjoyed it when he started talking about growing up in a multilingual home, that Bemba was his first language but English is the only one he can express himself in poetically, and that he feels the loss of that native tongue. He talked about the different texture of languages when you grow up multilingual, how you search for the chewiness of a particular word which might be missing in the other language. He was very modest about his poetry, saying that the moments when he feels most like a poet are when a word or line or poem takes on a life of its own and he says to himself: ‘That’s not absolutely awful!’. But that feeling never lasts too long.

Kumukanda is a rite of passage in his ancestral tribe, one that he never undertook back home, so in his poetry he describes the rites of passage of an immigrant black child in Britain. He told us about being discriminated against, listening to pirate stations and rap and making mix tapes, his discomfort with his own admiration for Eminem, the ‘white man’ who made rap acceptable. Yet in his poetry he warns against those easy generalisations, against typecasting of black people. His poetry is witty and just the right amount of angry without sounding resigned or bitter. I wonder to what extent the poem below is autobiographical, but it doesn’t matter, because it will be familiar to many.

My agent says I have to use my street voice.
Though my talent is for rakes and fops I’ll drop
the necessary octaves, stifle a laugh
at the playwright’s misplaced get me blud and safe.
If I get it they’ll ask me how long it takes me
to grow cornrows without the small screen’s knowing
wink. Three years RADA, two years rep and I’m sick
of playing lean dark men who may have guns.
I have a book of poems in my rucksack,
blank pad, two pens, tattered A-Z, headphones
that know Prokofiev as well as Prince Paul

So the content of his poetry is less comforting than his appearance might make you believe.

Akala is the less acceptable face of black youth: with dreads, hip-hop artist, poet, political activist, founder of the Hip-Hop Shakespeare company, brother of Ms Dynamite, he has produced a book called Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire. He talked eloquently about growing up poor and mixed race in Camden, about suddenly realising that his mother was white and the conflict that led to during his teens, how he very nearly became a bad boy and certainly had plenty of friends who did, but how he was treated very differently in Jamaica because of his lighter skin and British accent. He considers himself lucky because although he was economically poor, he was culturally rich. He’s been called ‘unpatriotic’, Britain hater, but as he said: ‘If you’ve got a problem in the family, you don’t do anyone a favour by avoiding talking about it. So perhaps what people are trying to tell me when I dare to criticize anything about Britain, is that I am not really part of the family.’

He explained why he thought that a lot of the present-day discourse about black on black crime is not based on actual statistics, but about stoking the flames of fear, about pitting class against race and thus not having to deal with either. ‘We can’t afford racism and classism as a society, because it leads to so much wasted potential.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last but not least, it was fascinating to see Anthony Anaxagorou again, this time in action with a predominantly young British audience (you might remember I brought him over to Geneva Writers Group for a memorable workshop on performance poetry). He ruffled a few feathers back then but had a mostly rapturous reception, and it was the same now. The young people loved him, while their parents were somewhat less sure about his ‘working class London accent’. He talked very openly about growing up without many books and aspirations, but how he taught himself the craft of poetry while being stuck in a series of dead-end jobs. I can personally vouch that he has reached an almost encyclopaedic level of knowledge of poetry and literature by now, and that he can speak to a wide range of audiences. He also spoke about how he very nearly got caught up in a life of petty crime, how he often gets asked ‘But where are you from?’ because Cypriots are racially somewhat ambiguous, too dark for some, too light for others. And he is very openly political, because, although he often talks about things he hasn’t experienced personally, he feels that as a poet he has to highlight the problems – although it’s policies, not poetry, that can offer solutions.

‘Poets are perceived as nouns but we’re actually verbs. Poeting is a way of engaging with the world. I can’t do anything else but try to organise the world’s turmoil through a sequence of words.’

I was very sad to miss his evening performance at the Hay Poetry Slam (together with Emmeline Armitage, Sabrina Mahfouz, Sophie McKean, Zena Edwards, Rufus Mufasa and Akala), but I was facing a very long drive home and, after getting lost on my way there, I was afraid that I would do the same on the way back, but this time in the rain and dark. I’m sure they put on an amazing show, however.

Last but not least, if you want to see a literary festival that has diversity at its very core, and hopefully diverse members of the audience as well as participants, then you should check out the Bradford Literature Festival.

 

 

 

 

Short Stories for Millennials

Another pure coincidence: in the same week, I read short story collections by an American and a British millennial trying to find themselves, love and a purpose to life. But, oh, how different their approach!

slutLauren Holmes: Barbara the Slut and Other People

One story is told from a male point of view, another from a dog’s perspective, but in fact all the stories share the same first-person angsty young person’s voice, recognisably white American female and from a privileged background (regardless of how broke they might be at present). The stories are also not really constructed as stories, more as a slice of life, with no seeming conclusion or character development. They almost feel like writing exercises to me – and, as such, they do succeed. They are funny, often outrageous, with that deadpan honesty and wide-eyed egocentricity that is often endearing even if it makes you squirm a little.

I particularly liked: ‘New Girls’, the story of a youngster moving from America to Germany with her family and having to fit into her new school – although it did feel a little superficial; ‘Desert Hearts’ about a young woman who pretends to be a lesbian to get a job as a sales assistant in a sex shop; the interaction with a confused patient at a sex clinic in ‘Mike Anonymous’; and the title story ‘Barbara the Slut’, which seems almost like a nasty fairytale about American high schools. The 16-year-old Barbara is an absolutely brilliant student but also somewhat indiscriminate with her sexual favours (because she doesn’t believe in men and love), until she turns down one of the boys and gets labelled a slut and publicly bullied/shamed. Oddly enough, another recently read book, Viral by Helen Fitzgerald handles the same topic of labelling and bullying, although in that case it’s largely internet-based.

Perhaps my own high-school years were too long ago or not traumatic enough, perhaps I can no longer relate to the aimless and self-centred rambling of young people (at least as depicted in these stories), but I struggled to empathise with the characters in Lauren Holmes’ stories. The situations described were often quite sad, quite hopeless, yet I never felt emotionally involved.

Anthony Anaxagorou: The Blink that Killed the Eye

blinkBy contrast, these stories punched me in my emotional gut!

We come back to the grey shores of Great Britain, except there is nothing ‘great’ about it. It is perceived as a diminished, impoverished island, with fearful people and dysfunctional families, in this collection of loosely related short stories. We find here stories about birth and death, love and work, stories of violence and unfulfilled needs, of having hope leached out of you again and again. This is a much bleaker view of life, and there are many different and distinct voices, of all ages.

In ‘Bad Company’ we first meet Alex, the person who appears in almost all of the stories and acts as a sort of connection. He is a young man working on a building site and hurts his back badly, but dreams of becoming a poet. In a separate story, ‘Keep Still’, we meet Rupal, stuck in a violent marriage with a drug addict husband. This is a virtuoso monologue chronicling her life of abuse and her feelings of abandonment. In the third story, ‘Building Six’, these two characters come together in a rather unexpected way, seen through the eyes of a young security guard working in an office building. Alex is his older colleague and a stickler for correct procedure: with his inflexibility, he torments Rupal when she forgets her ID pass. She has a nervous breakdown as she attempts to humanise the unforgiving Cerberus. The third time we encounter Rupal, she is dead, viciously stabbed by her husband, whose time in prison we witness in ‘Yellow Daffodil’. Alex reappears in another story, ‘Cowboy’, which seems to take place earlier. He is waiting patiently in the car for his girlfriend to say goodbye to her mother as she prepares to leave home and move in with him, but in the next story their ‘great gamble of life and love’ is falling apart in a morass of expectations drenched in failure, shame and reproaches. Alex then tries to work for a charity dealing with patients with brain injuries and meets Arthur, an old man who shows him ‘an entire universe trapped in a wheelchair’.

I read this book before I met Anthony, but I was familiar with his poetry. This short story collection is certainly the work of a poet: despite the gritty subject matter, there is something so right about the choice of words and the emotional fireworks we are witnessing. These are stories made to be read out loud and to be reread.

Avoid Those Darned Clichés!

It’s amazing how difficult it is to stay away from clichés when writing poetry… or anything, really! As part of last week’s fabulous poetry workshop with the performance poetry guru that is Anthony Anaxagorou, we had to work on random concrete nouns and associate them with interesting adjectives. Harder than it sounds to produce a coherent poem out of it. Here is my pitiful result, which I am linking to dVerse Poets Pub and their Open Link Night. Join us there for very diverse explorations of poetry!

Indifferent sunshine taps on the bleary-eyed windows
a cat burglar in white
but fails to wake her.
She grips the eiderdown, she swallows the grumpy phlegm
lodged in her system.
And ten versatile coffees later
she waltzes with the wandering pencil
on the frisky paper.
From the pregnant bag of ideas
she selects yet another, caresses it with bloated thumb,
while a reborn supper
announces itself shyly on the dancing table.

From British South Indians website.
From British South Indians website.