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Afterhours Blog 17 | 28-Oct-15


Today I began writing the 19th and final poem of the #Afterhours project in which I rewrite my childhood through British poetry, by writing poems after/in response to poems published by British poets between 1984 and 2002, from when I was born to when I turned 18.

Years ago, during a mini-nervous breakdown, the writer and musician Musa Okwonga sat down with me and, in one of the most devastating and rewarding conversations I've ever had, told me that everything I write comes down to three words - identity, displacement and destiny - that they are the square roots, the common denominators, the ground on which my everything stands. That night I looked at all I'd written and found that Musa couldn't have been more accurate.

Identity is there: my Irish/English/Nigerian-hood is the rubix cube I keep unpacking, the gift that keeps giving. Displacement is very much intertwined with this: finding myself in new countries led to attempts to fit in, which led to issues of identity. Displacement and the effects of moving, of being moved, of attempting to stay still, still taints all aspects of my life. Destiny however is the most elusive, the 'holy spirit' of the trinity, of Musa's theory, and it is no wonder, as it is largely about faith, belief.

I was born to a Muslim father and a Christian Mother and whereas my sisters only ever went to churches, I accompanied my father to mosques, dressed exactly as smaller version of him. Thus from an early age, I had a plurality of religious belief. My father converted to Christianity eventually, as I did, but those early memories stayed with me and arriving in London, learning about other religions in school, their commonalities settled in me, far outweighing their differences. What religion conjures in me now is a kind of spirituality, a kind of faith, a belief in a vague order to things, and that I will find that order if I look for it; a path will always emerge.

I'd say faith pilots every immigrant journey, and blind faith at that. Hope is there, eternally, ubiquitously, but that 'f' word sharpens hope into a weapon. It gives hope form. Faith points hope towards a destination, towards a promised and an unpromised land, through deserts, jungles, oceans - it is that vast and unquenchable. 

I think poetry is impossible without faith. When you begin writing and are unsure about what is happening on the page, what powers the pen is the faith that meaning will be made, that a vague order will rise from the impulse to write. This is faith working towards the poem's destination and every poem has its destiny. The reading of poetry also requires faith and when we find a poem satisfactory, it is the vindication of our faith - proof that we were right all along to allow the poem to enter us.

Whenever I am too focused on the destination of a poem or play and I begin to question the faith that is powering me, thinking myself too arrogant in my belief, I look for signs that I am on the right path. This #Afterhours project has been riddled with signs right from the start, too numerous to write about, so I'll just focus on signs surrounding the last poem.

I began this project to mark the end of childhood, to mark turning 30 and I am now working on the last #Afterhours poem. I turned 31 last Friday and in my first week of being 31, I am in Nigeria for its first ever international poetry festival. There is a circularity here - a sort-of-prodigal son returning after he has become a man to finish off writing about his childhood. I am also researching, entirely coincidentally, a play for the Royal Shakespeare Company (the dates just happened that way!) and the play is an attempt to write a prequel to Shakespeare's Tempest from Caliban's point of view. One of the main themes I am toying with is what happens when the colonised (Caliban) is forced to learn the coloniser's (Prospero's) tongue. The very first #Afterhours poem, a response to 'Unrelated Incident' by Tom Leonard, covered this exact topic - again a circularity, again a sign.

I returned to London in 2002 and began poking around in poetry. Andrew Motion was Poet Laureate at the time and his first book under that laureateship, Public Property, was published in 2002. This project is, in a sense, an attempt to add a colonised voice to the shelves of the colonisers by writing response-poems to those in the cannon. It makes sense to end when the Poet Laureate of my time began. I didn't know any of this when I began searching for the 2002 poem - a perfect coincidence or another sign.

Motion's Public Property begins with a long sequence. The third poem of that sequence is, incredibly enough, called 'The Aftermath', perfect (again) to end a project called #Afterhours one might say. The poem is about a return to childhood (!) specifically, about trying to return to a place visited decades before, as I have been trying to do throughout this project, and contains the following incredibly poignant, perfect lines:

"The thing I could not see, stumbling through the trees,
across the ditch, and the the stubble-spread, was how

it would still be going on years later, still going on now,
in the long aftermath since I have tried to reach there again"

The thing I could not see when I started this project last October, was how writing about childhood would be governed by the search for home; that Musa's themes of identity, displacement and destiny began way before I was born, in the lives of my grandfathers and in my parents; that it would still be going on years later, and still going on now. My earliest memory of returning to London in 2002 is packing my bag with food one evening and going for a long aimless walk, an attempt to get lost in the city, to see what was out there. This is exactly what Andrew does in his poem - he gets lost in the woods and fields around his home. It is impossible to read Andrew's poem without a faith in its destination, in its destiny; it is long, narrative, detailed, full of youthful spirit and of the kind of spirituality one feels among nature. I will attempt to inject this into my version, an 'urban spirituality' if you will, which is a concept I have been poking at for the last year and will be the focus of future writing, so, in a sense this last poem points towards my next project. 

All of these are signs that I am on the right path, that #Afterhours was destined and I am at its end, its clear destiny. Or perhaps not. Maybe I'm reading waaaay too much into it and I should just chill the fuck out and write the damn poem, which I will now. It is morning here in Nigeria. The sun is proving its dominance of the city, the heat pouring down. I have just returned from an early morning radio show for the poetry festival, returned to my desk, to this poem.

Andrew's begins "I am a child again, going walkabout by day". I'll begin: "I feel like a child again, going walkabout by night".

The closing event for the project is on Thursday 26th November at 8pm at the Poetry Library. Tickets are free, but you should email to reserve your place. I'll be reading some of the blogs and a handful of the original poems alongside my versions. I'll also be accompanied by a the multi-instrumentalist, TJ Owusu. Please come spend an evening with me after work, #Afterhours. More details here

Read more about the #Afterhours project here

The project has come to a close now but please do still get in touch and let us and Inua know your thoughts - you can email or tweet us @wetblackbough @InuaEllams

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