Poetry Library news

#Afterhours Blog 15 | 17-Sep-15

17/ 09/15

Today I began writing the 17th poem of the #Afterhours project in which I rewrite my childhood through British poetry, by writing poems after/in response to poems published between 1984 and 2002, from when I was born to when I turned 18. 

Last week, I was in Paris working where I finished the 16th poem. Perhaps because of how close I was to Calais which is one of focal points of the migration crisis, and the various debates raging, including the use of the image of Aylan Kurdi ('Why was Aylan Kurdi's life worth kindness from the press in death, but not in life?'), as an immigrant, I felt even closer to the issue. So I did that arguably pointless act of venting my frustration by tweeting something - a deconstruction/response/image to the headline of an article by Melanie Phillips. At the time of writing, the tweet has been shared 866 times and favourited 494. Now, this is laughable, even insignificant by viral standards, but what it showed was a public interest in the history of language and specifically in the language we used to 'other' people/things we do not understand or are afraid of.

Halfway through searching for the 17th poem to respond to, I was interviewed by Huck Magazine and asked the question 'Why do you write?'. The answer I gave, the one I usually give, is to describe what it felt like to sit in Holland Park School, in my first class and discover that the whole world was there. There were kids from Iran, Egypt, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Jamaica, Japan, Turkey, Algeria, France and Sweden all within touching distance. Before that, in Nigeria, every kid I'd schooled with was black. I thought these new kids looked as different to me as it is said chalk does to cheese, but the more time I spent with my new friends, the more I discovered not just very similar character traits and mannerisms but muscular movement beneath skin, small ripples and twitches that reminded me of friends in Nigeria. The profound effect this had on me, which it still has on me, is a belief that we are the same essential beings, that things like skin, race, pigmentation, language, accent, etc. are illusions we give weight to, or allow weight to be given to and placed in our subconscious. I write because I want to chip away at the illusion.

I think nations and borders are part of that illusion. I think they are nothing more than lines in the sand which the wind can shift, which the wind does shift, which is to say is moved by something often gentle and invisible, which is to say myth, which is to say we are destroying each other for how the wind blows, which is to say the reasons are not good enough. I won't bother laying down the argument that Britain's colonial history, recent foreign policy and military escapades in the Middle East, Northern and Southern African countries are partially, if not the sole root cause of the crisis now. There seems to be collective amnesia or something - but this isn't the place. This is about poetry. Selecting the 2000 poem, got me wondering if I had allowed the same illusion I write against to disqualify various poets.

The PBS selections and recommendations for 2000 included books by Michael Donaghy, Maurice Riordan, August Kleinzahler, Matthew Sweeney, Alan Jenkins, Douglas Dunn, Michael Longley and George Szirtes. The Afterhours project is about responding to poems by British poets, so I removed August from the list as he is American. Michael Donaghy is American but he settled, lived and died in London. Sweeney and Riordan are both Irish poets: Sweeney used to live here and Riordan is the current editor of Poetry Review, and lives in my corner of the world, South London. They have contributed more to British poetry than I have, immigrants all, as I am, and I can't bring myself to disqualify them. Michael's book contains the incredible poem 'Black Ice and Rain' and I adored 'Make Believe' by Maurice Riordan, but the poem I choose is called 'A European Dream', by Douglas Dunn.

The poem is perfect for what I hope to write. It is a dense, sensual, exhilarating whirlwind journey through Europe through Poland, Sweden, France, Lithuania, going back and forth in time, full of history, music, forests, swords, crankshafts and armour, about what may or may not have happened. I want to write about the three years I spent before moving to Dublin in 1999, the phone call I had in 2000 - a friend updating me on all that I had missed out on, and the word 'sonder'. This video explains it well and this is the definition taken from the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own - populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness - an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you'll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Next week I start writing, I start chipping at the illusion, yet again, as always.

Read more about the #Afterhours project here

#Afterhours needs your help in suggesting poems for Inua to rewrite, published between 1984 and 2002. You can suggest entire collections for Inua to browse or specific poems from these years. Why not set Inua the challenge of rewriting your favourite poem from this period?  Take a look through your books and magzines at home, search online or access the library's holdings for each year through searching online here

Send your suggestions for Inua to or tweet us @wetblackbough @InuaEllams

:: Back to Poetry Library News ::

Back to top Register for newsletter
Bookmark This Page