The Poetry Evangelist: An Interview with Malika Booker

by Lauren K. Alleyne 


It is the keen attention to voice that is the distinctive forte of Malika Booker’s work. In her poems, the pitch and tenor of the Caribbean rings true—whether through characters caught in the Windrush return or summoned to the region via the King James bible, or Booker’s own lyric voice. This precision operates as more than simply musical acuity. Booker also understands voice as a vehicle of culture, and so within the poems’ rich dictions, too, are Caribbean concerns, consciousness, humor, and critiques. Her poem, “Nine Nights,” which was shortlisted for the prestigious Forward Poetry Prize in 2017 delightfully transplants the biblical story of Lazarus into the Caribbean,

“When Lazarus fas up and step cross the threshold of he own wake, rank with corpse stink, the wake bruck up. Who put foot out of door quick time. Who start pray fast fast. Who faint and get revive with smelling salts. Miss Gibbs forget she hips bad, till she tek two steps and fall Bra-tap. Mr Power start moan bout the good good money he dash way on pretty funeral frock for Betty and now she can’t even use it. Uncle Johnny start fling rum shouting  You      dead     man,     you     dead! like libation have any power over the resurrected.”

The language here carries the weight of the entire conceit—Lazarus truly becomes a dreadlocked West Indian man, and his friends and neighbors, through the speaker’s voice as well as their own speaking, are fully of the space and of the story. Booker’s rendition of the Caribbean demotic here both grounds and elevates the poem. At the same time the Caribbean consciousness is revealed. Between the speaker’s description of Lazarus as a “fas up” resurectee, and uncle Johnnie’s desperate weaponizing of the ritual of libation, the biblical “miracle” in Caribbean consciousness reads, in turn, as terrifying, demonic, economically inconvenient, and hilariously, in Uncle Johnny’s perspective, a perversion of the order of things. This juxtaposition serves both entities: the biblical story is re-animated (pun intended), lifted from the worn familiarity of its long re-telling by the vocal performance of the poem’s speaker and characters; while the Caribbean and its people, set as they are in this familiar narrative, are lifted to visibility, seen and known.

Through the generosity of the Amazon Literary Foundation and the Academy of American Poets, Furious Flower was able to host Malika Booker in Harrisonburg for a week of readings and workshops. She engaged with 242 middle school students and 39 high school students, gave a reading attended by around 200 campus and community members, and worked with around 60 James Madison University students, faculty and staff. Her visit culminated with this in-studio interview for The Fight & The Fiddle, which has been edited for clarity.

Malika, it’s so wonderful to have you here. Welcome to James Madison University. Welcome to Furious Flower. Welcome to Harrisonburg. So, you’re a UK writer, you’re a Caribbean writer, you have family in New York— you’re very cosmopolitan and dashing. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and also what that self brings to your poetry? 

Okay, big question Lauren! My name is Malika Booker and I am a Black British Caribbean writer; I’m a writer of Caribbean descent. My mom and dad are Grenadian and Guyanese. When I was born, it was so racist in Britain that they didn’t want to bring up a child there, so they went back to my father’s country. We were there until I was 11. When they separated, I moved back to England. My mom and brothers were going to come, but the citizenship laws changed under [the prime minister, Margaret] Thatcher, and so they went to Grenada while they were trying to figure out what that meant for two boys born in Guyana. My mum got a job in America and, by then, it was too late to uproot this child again from school and start her in an American system. So, I grew up with my aunt in Brixton, England. I suppose Brixton is very relevant, because it’s such a Caribbean hot spot—I kind of grew up in the Caribbean in Britain! And then I would go to Grenada or Guyana, or Trinidad or Brooklyn, wherever the family were. So, it was a cosmopolitan, diasporic, Caribbean upbringing. I didn’t know for a long time that Brooklyn wasn’t Caribbean, because I went and all theGuyanese family were there and the Grenadian family were there.

I think that’s informed my writing. My writing tries to capture all these places. I think because of my formative years being in Guyana, the imagination conjures up imagery and images from there. I think having such a very strong female-centered upbringing, the work really looks at, talks to, and tries to create the Caribbean woman on the page with all her complexities—the way she has to navigate the world and the legacies of plantocracy on the Caribbean body and also the diasporic body.

It’s interesting, because you’re saying “plantocracy,” and I’m thinking of you being rooted in England—the orchestrators of that system in many ways. So, you’re in the source, in the aftermath, and you keep moving between them… That’s definitely in the work as well.

Yes, yes.

I’m curious about voice. You talked about trying to capture “create the Caribbean woman on the page with all her complexities,” and I think the primary way you do that is through voice. And I’m curious about how or if that voice shifts from space to space, or if part of it is putting your voice in an unusual space? How do you navigate that idea of space and voice and “capturing” in the poem?

When I was growing up, what I was struck by, is a kind of bilingual English that I lived with. And I’m always interested in the musicality of the language. So, when I’d listen to my Trini cousins, they kind of go [makes sound effect]. I really like the lyricism of the language. My upbringing with my mom was through air mail and telephone, so I love the way that my mother would answer the phone. Because she was part of the Windrush generation—she grew up and she worked for a long time in Britain—she would answer the phone in this really posh English voice, and then as soon as she realized that it’s me, or a relative, or a Caribbean person, she would slip effortlessly into the Caribbean vernacular. I’m really interested in that kind of movement. And the difference is…the English is very clipped. Or if it’s Cockney, or working class, it’s very musical in its own way. And I’m interested in the shifts of those musicalities. I think I attack voice through sound. I remember I was writing a poem called, “Heathrow Immigration.” They had turned back a whole planeload of Jamaican people, and I was thinking, well, a whole planeload of Jamaicans? The whole plane could not have been problematic! And I thought about people having to get visas to come, and then being turned back after they spent all that money on visas. I wanted to do this Jamaican accent, so I kept listening to my Jamaican friends, and just kind of noting the high note and the low note—it’s a bass really—and then using that: “When she hear them say dem haffi go back, / Charlene start feel like dark night[.]” Although, because I’m Eastern Caribbean, Kwame Dawes, who is my mentor, pointed out that instead of “she” in terms of grammar, it’s “her.” Them say “’er” as opposed to “she.” We put “she” in there. I’m interested in the musicality of language, and poetry that enables you to do that.

I’m curious about your own journey to poetry. How did you discover the genre, discover that it was the thing you wanted to do? What was that ride… that road?

This is such a complicated one. I start by telling people I was always a reader. I’m the child who would be under the bed. My brother would do my chores, because he’d be like, she ain’t coming out from that bed and Mommy’s gonna come home and she didn’t do nothing that she was told to do. I’m that child who would be reading, and reading enabled worlds for me. It opened up worlds. I really love Blake. I loved, in school, having recitation and learning work. And also, I’d want to go last because, you know, I wanted to make points for my house, and I could feed off everybody. I’d be like, oh, she did this, oh, she did that, because you all have to do the same poem. I loved the sound of the poetry in recitation and bringing it alive, and how in recitation I realized that all these people are doing the same poem but it sounds like a different poem. So that’s one. Two, I wanted… I didn’t see myself in those poems and in those books; in the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, in the Blake poems, in the Wordsworth poems. I didn’t see myself. So, part of it was wanting to place that. But I thought I wanted to be in the arts. I didn’t realize that this thing that I was doing for myself—to express myself—was something that I would do later on.

Also, when I came to England, it was quite traumatic on the playground—the racism. And one of my teachers—my two favorite teachers were Mrs. West, my English teacher, and when I went to sixth form at St. Francis Xavier College, my [other] English teacher—and they would encourage me to keep a journal and write these thoughts because they could see that I was quite bright and I read a lot. I was always in the library. I was always reading books. But I got quite withdrawn, so they encouraged me to write. So, there’s a thing with writing as expression, with writing as trying to bring people out, you know, to kind of capture the color and the flavor of these different households that I lived in and moved throughout.

Do you think it was also a way of belonging and placemaking?

Yes. I’m an outsider in all those spaces, right? So, the only time I was inside something was when I was between the ages of one to 11. Then I was inside, even though people said, “You grew up in England and you’re English,” but I was outside. But since then, I’ve been in these spaces, but outside and you have an observer kind of mentality— you’re in there, but you’re observing. You’ve gone to visit your mom and your brothers, and you’re part of that family, but you’re still outside. So, you’re always kind of looking and observing, and I think that makes good poetry, or a good poet [Laughs]. 

I’m interested also, in the role of community in the work. There’s Malika’s Kitchen, and I know you were a part of Cave Canem here in the States, so how has community been informative or instructive or impactful for your work?

I think there’s this thing that the writer writes on their own. I think when you’re growing as a writer, you’re hungry to learn, and there’s no coincidence that movements and people start from an age group or generation of writers working together. We were hungry to grow a poetics in England. Roger Robinson—a British-Trinidadian poet who just won the T. S. Elliot Prize—and I were speaking in my kitchen; we were really good friends. And we just finished doing Afro-Style school, which was a workshop put on, that was organized by an organization called Spread the Word, Kwame Dawes taught. And it was a foundational experience. All of us had been going around doing poetry quite ignorant. And when it finished, I wanted other people to experience that. And I remember I was sitting with Roger in my kitchen, and I said, “Oh, I’d love– we should have that, and put food, and then we should create a space where people can critique each other, give feedback, bring their knowledge as well, and also grow together and create a community—and we will look at things like the Harlem Renaissance, the Negritude movement, and stuff like that.” And Roger said, “Let’s do it.” And I said, “When should we start?” And he was like, “Next week.” And I was like, “Where?” And he’s like, “Right here in the kitchen, like right here in the house. What should we call it?” Well, “Malika’s Kitchen.” (It’s called Malika’s Poetry Kitchen now). And then it was like, “Okay!” So, we just asked people to come. The first week, one person came and sat between us, and did an intense workshop. The next week, people started coming, and it’s been going for 20 years. It’s a space for us to grow— if someone discovers something, to bring it in. We write, we give feedback to each other, we encourage each other with prompts, we bring knowledge that we learn about poetics. And we support each other outside of the space. That kind of growing—and it’s a healthy competition— also makes you work because you think, Ooh, you did that? You did that in your poem? I’ll do that.

So, I think community is very, very important. Especially when you are marginalized in a country where, really, you’re trying to find a poetics that’s very much trying to capture a vibrant country and community. You’re looking to writers in the Caribbean and to African and African American writers to enable you to write. Because the spaces that you’re in, in that country, are not facilitating that [kind of writing]—the poetry is an object, and about subtlety. You can’t do a Caribbean woman and be subtle! [Laughs.] I think community enables you to discuss poetics, to discuss thoughts, to form yourself, and also to have people focus on the work. Sometimes, within other communities, people focus on the erotic or exotic or go “oh, this is performative”— all these terms that are used, which means that we don’t look at the work itself.

When I went to Cave Canem, I felt seen. It was the first time I’d ever been taught by Black writers who were not my peers, and, it was the first time that I was receiving. I was being taught by these people whose books I used to learn [craft], you know, by Terrence Hayes, by Patricia Smith, you know, by Toi Derricotte. By Toi Derricotte, oh my god! I remember when she sat next to me in Cave Canem and I was like, in my head I was like, “I’m sitting next to Toi Derricotte!” I nerd out and kind of go weak with writers. You know, some people do it with pop stars. I do it with writers! But yes, writers need a space to cultivate, need a space to… commune. It’s almost like church.

You mentioned Toi and the writers that you used to teach yourself. Who would you call your poetic ancestors? Go as far back as you want to go, because you said Blake earlier too, which tells me, especially being from the Caribbean, the ancestral lines are quite diverse… or maybe not. Tell me, who are yours?

I really loved William Blake, because I felt like he talked about social things. And also, there’s this religious element to his work. Sharon Olds enabled me to try and figure out how to write the woman, the domestic. I was a Sharon Olds fanatic; I could tell you about several of her books. It was biblical, and I wrote a lot of poems after her, trying to figure out how she did this conversational tone. But then, the language would just… I don’t know… climax or crescendo with an image that just turned everything. Toi Derricotte, as well, in that same vein. Yusef Komunyakaa. Gwendolyn Brooks was later on—my friend Peter Kahn, who is a poet, introduced me to her. Patricia Smith. Lorna Goodison. Merle Collins, Valzhyna Mort, although, you know, more recently.

That’s the thing about influences; they don’t stay put, right? We keep being influenced!

Yes! It moves and moves! Recently, it’s been Kamau Brathwaite; I’ve been reading all his work. One minute it was Elizabeth Alexander. The next minute it was Natasha Trethewey. The next minute it was Tanya Shirley, a Jamaican writer. Kwame Dawes. Two of the foundational influences before poetry were [Ntozake] Shange and [Toni] Morrison, because I really knew I was trying to write women, so For Colored Girls was really, really important. But most importantly, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo was so important. Sula was so important. Paradise was so important. Toni Morrison gave me a hunger to try and capture that Caribbean psyche, that Caribbean mentality with all its complications, because her characters are so complicated. And so, they’re two foundational people I really, really go back to all the time. If I’m going to write a play or a monologue, I pick up Shange. 

Speaking of plays and monologues, you’re not just a poet, but you also write for stage. What’s the movement, the overlap? Where does it diverge from or converge with what you try to do with a poem—to write a play, to write a monologue, to write for stage?

So sometimes, I’m trying to write a project and it’s like, I’m not a poem. I’m not compact. The poem is a very compact form. It’s the essence of something. And sometimes I want to explore bigger issues, bigger themes—and sometimes it’s things that I’m not equipped for. The last thing I did was a love story between a gay couple who were having a relationship at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean. That could not be covered in a poem. You need to go and research writing plays; you need to go and research the AIDS epidemic in the Caribbean; you need to go and do research around gay men in the Caribbean who are coming of age during this time because you know absolutely nothing. But this story really wants to be written.

I often think that there’s something more self-to-page, and that wrestle, that is about writing the poem. But the play, the drama, has to have room for the audience, for the other actors, for the collaboration between the person writing it and the people who are going to enact it, who are going to embody it, right?

And space for letting go. You have to let it go. Because you go into the rehearsal space and, for the first day, maybe, the actors will actually ask you your intentions. And then afterwards, it’s a collaborative process. That piece was also looking at what happens when language fails—it was looking at movement, and so it had a movement director, and it had a script director, and it had the two actors. And so, they, then, begin to make this thing. They, then, begin to imbue the characters. So you have to be able to let go. It’s so different from the poem, where every deliberate intention is there and you’re in control of it.

We’re here in America and, you know, part of what brought you here is Peter Kahn’s commitment to Americans knowing more about Black British writers. Who are some of the writers that we, over here, may not have heard of that you think we should know about?

First of all, there are two people that I forgot to mention—foundational—that I have to mention, and that’s Paul Keens-Douglas, who’s a Trinidadian writer, storyteller and calypsonian. And then Louise Bennett. When I was growing up, they were on the radio, so you heard them on the radio telling stories, right? I grew up with that on a Saturday morning; where people had comics, or cartoons, I had the radio.

There are such amazing writers coming through in Britain! There’s Roger Robinson. About a year or two years ago, just at the beginning of lockdown—COVID has taken away a sense of time—he won the T.S. Eliot, which is the biggest prize [in the UK], for A Portable Paradise, his book. And A Portable Paradise is such a beautiful book. The key poem is the fact that his grandmother said, “wherever you go, you can take a piece of that ‘portable paradise’ with you.” The immigrant is a kind of portable paradise. Also, he writes really amazing poetry that captures the nation’s sense of loss; for example, when we had one of the biggest fires that killed a lot of immigrants—the Grenfell [Tower] fire. We’ve got Raymond Antrobus, who writes from a deaf poetic. He’s someone who has hearing impairments, and is trying to figure out writing from mixed heritage, Blackness, and also his hearing impairment and what that suggests, and what that does. You have Karen McCarthy Woolf, who writes very hybrid, very experimental work. Her first piece of work was actually about a loss of a child. I mean, it’s beautifully lyric. You have Anthony Joseph, who hails from Trinidad originally, and he’s just written this book of sonnets for his father; he’s a very experimental writer and doesn’t only write poetry, but also writes fiction. And Warsan [Shire]—she is Somali-British now turned American; her book has just come out and has been shortlisted for a prize.

Is there a resource where one can go to learn more about British writers and British writing, especially diverse kinds of British writing?

Nick Makoha, another poet, started up an organization called Obsidian Foundation to develop writers, and what he’s been doing is also thinking about archiving writers. He started a partnership with Poetry Archive, archiving some of these writers, and then you would have access to their books, access to their publications, and access to their poems online. So that’s one space. The Complete Works was a developmental program that was started because publishers were saying that they weren’t publishing the work of Black and people of color because of the quality of the work. Bernardine Evaristo—who is also very much an activist for writers—was running Spread the Word, a development agency, with the Arts Council, initiated a nationwide report and the report found that there were all these Black writers writing and all these people of color writing, but less than 1% were being published. So, the Complete Works Program was born. At the end of the program, they published an anthology where they would have the poets that were involved, but also essays about poetics from their mentors, and that was to address that thing of “what is the poetics doing?” 

If you had to write the job description for a poet, what would it say? 

It would say “eclectic.” [Laughs.]  It would say, “Be prepared to do a variety of different jobs. Observe, write, teach, mentor, market.” [Laughs.] “Publicity, publish, edit, write blurbs for other writers.” The list goes on. Understand practicing stillness. Understand that reading is part of writing.

I think, maybe, that’s why I’m a writer, because I get to read; I think I like the reading more than the writing. So I get paid; I have a job where I read. But I would say that, yes, understand that you’re writing poetry and there’s all this work that goes into writing poetry. And that actually the pay that you get for the work and the investment that you do is this little thing. Don’t think poetry is easy, as well; it’s not the easiest of art forms in order to be so compact. But also understand that poetry is what will put you in the world, but that there are all these other things that you will have to do in order to maintain it and sustain it. That’s not a job description, that’s kind of an advice column. [Laughs.] A poetry agony aunt advice column. 

[Laughs.] That’s awesome, we need one of those! I’m curious, too, about teaching. You teach at Manchester Metropolitan University, so maybe you want to take an opportunity to do a little plug.

I’m a lecturer—a creative writing lecturer—at Manchester University. And we have one of the biggest writing departments in the world, the writing school, and we look at all different genres from YA novels to publishing to fiction to nonfiction to playwriting, we do all of that. And we do, you know, MA’s, MFA, PhD. And you have different strands that you can take; you can do a low-level which is low-residency, or you can come to Manchester, of course, in person. And also, you can do it from where you live, so you can do it online, as well. It was started by Dame Carol Ann Duffy and she’s still there, and teaches on the MA [track], so a lot of people come to do the MA with her. Andrew McMillan is a brilliant writer, writes a lot about queerness, and the body, and masculinity. He’s my fellow poet, and we’re teaching poetry and writing this term. I really enjoy working there. Oh, and we’ve got the biggest poetry library in Britain, which just opened as well! So, there’re some exciting things at Manchester.

I know that you’ve also taught through Malika’s Kitchen, at the university, you do community teaching, you’ve talked in the schools—here in Harrisonburg, you went to the high school and middle school, and you taught faculty. When you teach poetry, and especially in those limited encounters of one class session, what do you try to give? What’s the thing you’re trying to impart that they can walk away with, if they’re not around for an entire semester? 

Right. Well, first of all, at the heart, I’m a poet evangelist. So, my thing is that when I leave, I’ve converted somebody to poetry. That’s a personal thing. And that’s also when you read. When you have some friend who dragged somebody kicking and screaming to a poetry reading and they’re like, “Oh, God…” and then at the end, they go, “I didn’t know poetry was like that.” I think, “God, our job is done.”

In terms of teaching, first, I think about fun. And then I think about: what is it that this group needs at this precise moment? Not everybody really likes poetry, not everybody wants to be a poet. But what do they need? Sometimes you don’t know your needs.  one of the things is, they might need to hear poetry that’s contemporary, that challenges what they think poetry is about. They might need to be given permission to say, “I don’t like this” or “I like this” and not have to think about theme, what the poem is saying. I also think how can I be in here as an artist, and not as a teacher? As an artist teaching true craft and practice? And then I think, what are the skills that are transferable? So they might want to think about image-making. Or there are people in here who might have problems or find it challenging to face the blank page, so what strategies can I give them that I know that they can use if they’re creative writers, or playwrights, or artistic that it’s like, “Yes!” And if they’re not, they can go, “Oh, this is something—I didn’t know it would be this easy. I didn’t know that this is how you could do this.”

If I’m working with groups who are migrants, what can we do that can enable them to feel in control of language, and to feel that and to enjoy this feeling with a poem. So it might be that I find poems that are in their language and in English, and they read it in their language, so in that way, they become an authority. And they tell us in the translation, we can talk about, you know, what is left out, what is not there. Because they go—“It’s not capturing it enough!”—and they get a sense that they are authorities on something; a lot of times people think I don’t know English, because English is very self-centered. So I think about the clientele that I’m teaching: what are their needs? What do they want? And how can I facilitate that and facilitate a learning that’s a life learning and skill that they want, but also, at the heart of it, an advertisement evangelizing poetry.

I’m curious about what has been different, most strikingly different, in your experience here in the states, in the classroom, or just in general?

So, one, we don’t have security guards in our schools. Two, the schools here are huge! They’re just gigantic. Teenagers and young people are the same everywhere; they’re just the same. If they’re year sevens or grade sevens, they’re going through the same thing. I think what I liked about the schools that I went to in Harrisonburg was having really good conversations with the teachers around the fact that this is a—is it a haven city? A sanctuary city! And that the sanctuary city means that there are people from all different walks of life. And so, people come in at different levels with languages, and the teachers are thinking about trying to be inclusive in that space and then enable those students, and are very proud of the diversity of the school. I found that quite fascinating, because I think sometimes, in some schools in England, there’s this notion that we want you to learn English and English is the thing. And I love the clearing of that. I’ve been in loads of schools in inner city, London, where there has been that, but I think that’s been something London’s been grappling for a long time. It felt like this is something that is new, is recently being grappled with [here]. And how do we look at that? And how do we kind of think about that in our curriculum with the curriculum demands? So that has been interesting, but students are mostly the same everywhere.

You were unphased by 250 middle schoolers, is what you’re trying to tell me? [Laughs.]

Yes, I was. Before they came in, I thought, oh, my God, are we going to understand each other? Because I know when I was teaching in Columbus, Ohio, I said, “so you know, you sit down and you start to write and then you get bored, and then you wanna hoover.” And everyone was looking at me, like “Hoover?” Peter Kahn was there and he said, “vacuum.” So, I thought, okay, there might be moments like this. But I’ve been doing workshops in schools, universities, prisons, and some spaces that, once you’ve done them in those spaces, you can do them everywhere. I’ve done them in, you know, Brazil, Singapore, India. You realize students are the same, you just have some adaptations to make. 

I want to turn to your practice as a writer: What does it look like from notion to finished product? How do the poems come? How does the work come, if it’s not a poem?

So, one, for years, I don’t write alone; I’ve written in community. I’ve written with groups where we put up prompts, and we work together, and we send each other the drafts of the poems in closed groups on Facebook. There was group for several years, every time there was a 30-day month, we would go, “Is anybody up for doing 30/30? We need seven people to prompt,” and people would put up the prompts. And what that means is that if I’m working on a particular project, the prompt is going to force me to go outside of my comfort zone, because I’m still going to be trying to meet the demands of the project that I’m working on, the theme I’m working on. But this prompt this person puts up might challenge me or get something different. It means that when I’ve been doing that, I’ve been also always in the practice of writing.

Also, I practice a lot of reading, as well. Sometimes I’ll try and read a poetry book collection a day, so that means I wake up in the morning and read a poetry collection before I do anything else. And that way, for some reason, when I’m able to do that—and that’s not maintainable, it’s not sustainable—but, when I’m able to do that, I’m able to write easier. When I don’t read, I’m not able to write. So, if I haven’t read for a long time, I find it difficult to write. And then sometimes it’s quickly responding to a prompt and then going back to it. I have writing buddies or a writing buddy and sometimes we’ll call each other…when we lived in the same city we’d go writing together, we’d go to the poetry library in the South Bank in London, and we would just sit down and say to each other, “Okay, I’m going to be working on this.” We used to be there for four hours, or something like that. There were times when I was writing at the Southbank [Centre] in the evening, I would go down, they would write, two writers. I think Warsan [Shire] was one of my writing buddies at one case, and we would meet up at the Southbank [Centre] and we would write in the evening. We would just say, “Oh, I’m working on this project. We’re gonna write.” And just the idea of another body writing helped. Those are those things that have helped.

And then there’s the getting up, going to the desk. And then setting timers, working against time; I get easily distracted, so I work with timers.

And the poems all depend on what’s happening. Some poems, they’re there and it’s just really to be whittled through. I’m in several master classes where I bring poems to get feedback. So, I get feedback from peers around poems, and I trust them, and they’re vicious, and they’re hardcore, because we’ve been doing this for a long time. And I’ve got mentors who kind of look at the poem and they’re like, “No, you’re taking the easy way out,” and stuff like that. So that always helps. And, you know, I’ve got cohorts, we discuss poetry, we talk about poetry. I mean, you and I have been mentors from overseas. And it’s not that we write together, but it’s just like, “Okay, over this week, we’re going to read a certain number of books.” Because our life is busy and just making a commitment to someone enables us to be able to do it. And yeah, in some poems I know what’s happening. In some poems, I’m trying to figure out what on earth you [the poem] want to be. In some poems, I think it’s nice, but then when I put it against everything else, it’s just the draft and it just helped me. And sometimes I go to my desk to try out things that just go, You know, I don’t… I’m not writing today, I don’t feel like writing. So maybe I’ll try to compose some sonnets just as an experimental space, so the desk can become an experimental space sometimes as well. I hope that answers your question.

It does! Tell me a little bit about publishing too. At what point do you start thinking about, or do you start, at some point, thinking about where you want the work to land eventually?

No, what I do is—and that might be my problem. What happens is, you know, friends of mine go, “You’ve got enough work! You’ve got work!” I will be there thinking, How do I need to gather this work? And I have a false insecurity about the work, the amount of work that I have. When I do think, Okay, I’m starting to work towards publication, what I start to do is polish the poems and send them to places. A lot of times people ask me for poems and I don’t have poems for them; I have a lot of drafts. So that means I’m on my way to thinking about publication because I’m sending them out. And if they’re being accepted in places, because, as a poet, you know rejection is more than acceptance, then I’m like, Okay, those are ready; those are fine. So that’s the way. I’ll tell you more after this next book is published!

I do want to talk about books. Pepper Seed is almost 10 years old at this point. I’m curious about what you still remain proud of when you look at Pepper Seed, and what, when you look at it, is something you wish you’d known or done differently?

No, no. I had a pamphlet out called Breadfruit, before Pepper Seed. And everyone would say to me, “When is the book coming?” And I’d be like, “When the book comes, I want it to be good. I don’t want to have an embarrassing first book.” Like, I just didn’t want [one]. I went through this phase where I was studying poems, poets, and I would get all their books to read how they develop from collection to collection. And I realized that sometimes there were poets who did not mention their first book. They took it off their bios and everything like that, and just did not mention their first book. And I’d been in such an abrasive, really hard environment around the poetics of my type of work, I feel like there’s an insecurity in me about my work. I wanted Pepper Seed to be ready. Also, I was being mentored by Kwame Dawes, so I’d give him a pile of poems and he’d be like, “Mmm, it’s not ready yet.” There’s a grandmother poem in Pepper Seed that’s really hard, and that actually started in the second or third workshop in Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, where Roger told us to write about the taboo—about something that happened in our family that we don’t even remember, that we just don’t want to talk about, it’s so taboo, it’s so hardcore. And that poem doesn’t have to become public. But that poem when I read it out in that session, everyone was like, “Whoa, that’s mad.” And I think with the evolvement of the poems for Pepper Seed, I would come back to that poem and not be able to work on it. And I think when I was actually able to write that poem, and not a horrible draft, going, Oh, how do I put this? Because it’s such a difficult subject. That’s when I knew Pepper Seed was ready. I’m actually very, very proud of Pepper Seed.

In the British environment, I think if Pepper Seed had come out at a different time, it would have landed in a different way. And actually, Pepper Seed fundamentally doesn’t die as a book. People discover it and it’s almost like they’re talking about the book as contemporary. It doesn’t feel like an old book to people when they discover it. And people discover it. And I’m really proud of it as well, because in our country, a national curriculum is the national curriculum—it’s for every school. And Pepper Seed, the collection, has this year just been accepted onto the curriculum. So that means that every school will study Pepper Seed. So yeah, I think the book is now coming into its own.

It’s a phenomenal book and it’s a tough book. And you said that when you were able to edit that one poem, the thing the book had been circling around, you knew it was ready. And having had a similar experience, I’m curious what you think about the ways in which the poem helps the self to grow. Sometimes you think you are writing the poems, but isn’t there also a way in which, sometimes, the poems are writing us?

Yes, yes. And actually, sometimes the poems are… and so there’s two things that happened. One, Pepper Seed is such a hard act to follow. In terms of writing poems, it’s such a hard act to follow. And for a long time, it’s like, what can I do? And I knew I didn’t want to do autobiographical work anymore, because Pepper Seed was autobiographical. But also, the caliber of poems that I’m writing now, I can’t judge Pepper Seed by them, because that’s where I am at the moment in terms of where I’ve grown as a woman. Where I’ve grown looking at gender. Where I’ve grown thinking about certain things. Pepper Seed wasn’t written post-pandemic, where brain fog affects you, weariness affects you in ways that also affects your creativity and your productivity. So, I think it really is different. You do grow. And actually, when you write— I urge my students to do this—if you really want to be a writer, study the journey of writers, study their body of work. Read it in chronological order from the beginning to end and you will see such big growth. Someone like Terrance Hayes is interesting to study because each book is a project in itself and it’s not replicated. And so, he adheres to the demands of that project. But certain people like Patricia Smith, look at her first book to the [last] book. Look at Sharon Olds’ first book, too, and you’ll see the confidence. Look at Lorna Goodison’s first work to her work now— look at how sophisticated it gets. I think you’re able to see, to understand, as well, that you will have this development.

What non-poetry activities feed your practice?

I have two great loves: poetry and carnival. Carnival is my pilgrimage. Not being able to do it for two years has been really frustrating. Carnival is my pilgrimage and my therapy. It’s also a space where, sometimes as you begin to write the poem, you lose yourself. And then you start to think about what the poem demands. You no longer go, I want to do this. You go, Ooh, this is interesting, what’s happening at Carnival. It’s a bit like that. You get up in the morning, you start putting on your costume and you become a different person, you become someone outside of yourself. And then you become part of this big spectacle, this big art piece. You own the road. You conquest the road. And I think Carnival has been going around in all these urban settings from New York to LA, … it happens in Grenada, in Trinidad, in Britain—Notting Hill, Leeds Carnival. All these Carnivals, all these places where Caribbean people are owning the road. And there’s something around space, land, feet pounding the ground. There’s something around the procession. And I could go on and on about Carnival. Carnival and Soca music is my other love, is the other thing that fuels me.

You mentioned the pandemic a couple of times. For someone so community-based, how did the lockdown, the ongoing pandemic time, impact your practice and your personal understanding of what it means to be a writer?

When the pandemic first occurred, I couldn’t write. I cooked. I was cooking recipes; I was going online and doing cooking. I was also going to a lot of Soca parties online. And then I got into hanging out with my friends on Zoom all day. But it wasn’t the same way that you use Zoom for work; we would get on and we’d say, Okay, today, I’m going to do this, I’m going to clean the kitchen, I’m going to do this piece of work. One of my friends is in Trinidad, she was planting little plants and looking at the seeds budding, and then we would have it on and we would go about our business. Because two of us in that scenario were single—were living alone in our houses and you couldn’t go out your house—that was a way to have company and to do things.

And then realizing I just couldn’t write and some of my other friends couldn’t write as well, we started an online group. The first year we did it, it was just every morning you wake up, you write about something, it doesn’t matter what, and just put that draft [away] and at the end, you send five to seven drafts to each other. It didn’t matter how raw it was, it was just to get us in the act of writing. And then it got more sophisticated. The next year, it got to where we would check in at the beginning, all of us. Where are we at? What’s happening? What’s challenging us? Being in the house with the children was challenging to some people—trying to work, trying to be a lecturer, being in the house with the children. For some people it was just, I’m overwhelmed—all this is happening with family and I can’t write, my head is full. For some people it was having been sick. So, we would talk about and [give] feedback to each other about that, and then, each day one of us would set a prompt, and we would go on and do the prompt. We would set a reading as well and bring some of what we’re reading. And then we’d have a check in at the end of the month, and we would talk about reading, talk about writing, talk about whether we were able to do it or not. And that way we could still create a space to nurture that creative growth, and some really good poems came out of that. But on the whole, some really terrible things that will never come out, but actually, the practice of writing—it was good.

I just want to close out with asking about what’s ahead and what’s next?

I’m working on a biblical project that’s epic. It’s so different from Pepper Seed. I asked myself a question: what happens if the King James—it’s particularly the King James Bible—what happens if the King James Bible, if the geography, the characters, the language, was situated in the Caribbean? What would occur? How would we be able to read this? What would happen in terms of plantocracy? What would happen in terms of gender? What would the women say, if some of these women were Caribbean? What kind of meaning would they allow us to make about the society and people? That’s the broad stroke. What happens to Lazarus if it’s a Caribbean funeral, it’s a nine nights wake, and on the fourth night, Lazarus comes back alive into the wake. What happens in that cultural setting? Or what happens if Mary is a Caribbean young girl—and we know how Caribbean young girls are policed, their bodies are policed and protected by their family—comes home and says, “I am pregnant, but it’s not Joseph’s.” And then saying to the mother, “It’s God’s.”

Sometimes I’m listening to The King James Bible and then all of a sudden, something will strike me. And then I’ll be like, what happens if… and then a questioning starts. And then the answers start to develop in the poem. Sometimes the poems take unusual avenues: what happens if Jesus is a Black man and he’s in the Garden of Gethsemane and it’s the night before [the crucifixion], what does he really want that night when he tells these people not to sleep? Maybe he wants a wake? Maybe he wants rum and dominos. Maybe he wants a lime (a Caribbean party), you know? Sacrilegious. But, you see, when you ask that question, and you place Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and in a Caribbean setting…he knows he’s gonna die and it’s night and he wants his friends to stay up and not sleep and they’re out in the open in a garden… Well, that’s ripe for a wake, isn’t it? So, yeah, that’s kind of what I’m working on.

The King James Bible is such a sacrosanct object in so many Caribbean households. I’m curious if this project has changed, altered, deepened that relationship for you?

The King James Bible has never not been in my life (and most time we just call it King James). So, you know, people say if you hear someone calling your name in your sleep, it’s someone trying to take you to them, so always sleep with a King James at the side of your bed, [and if that happens] put your hand on the King James, and say, “I rebuke you! I rebuke you!” or say the 23rd Psalm. So that’s quite an embedded response, and it’s the King James particularly.

Everybody’s house that I knew had a King James. I remember when I was talking to someone and they were like, “But your family is Catholic, you had the King James?” But the King James is not necessarily seen as a Protestant book; it’s just like, you have the King James. People have their genealogy in the King James, people had King James that was passed down, like this was my great grandfather’s Bible…

But yet there’s some places in history where you weren’t allowed to read the King James. Or to read. And there’s also the fact that some of the rebellions that happened were around the Bible and religion, and around giving these unruly enslaved people, this book to read and allowing them to empower. There’s also the fact that some of these books were extracted because they didn’t want people to read Exodus and read themselves in it and to get too uppity, right? So how the King James was used in the colonial experiment, how the King James was used to justify the Middle Passage. And then in Carnival, the midnight robber—one of the Carnival characters who can speak—draws his speech, his eloquent speech, mostly from Genesis and Shakespeare, you know: “When I was born, you know, on the ninth night of the 10th day, the world changed…”

But I had problems as a girl in Sunday school. I was always like, “Well, why’d that happen to the woman? Why do they want to stone her? But why is she turning to salt?” I was really, really upset about Lot’s wife turning into salt, because as far as I was concerned, every time I saw statues, they were of men. And the one time I experience a woman turning into a statue, it’s salt. It’s washed away. She’d just disappear!

Also, as a poet, I love the language. And then there’s the history of the King James, where King James solicited all these scholars to come and translate this Bible, and create this King James version of the book. But the other thing that’s really fascinating is that there was a knowledge that it was being created for an oral audience, for an audience who couldn’t read, so when they finished translating it, they sat down and read it out to hear how it reads; isn’t that what we do with a poem? When you finish a poem, you sit down and read it. So, I think it’s all of these things that fascinate me about the King James. And I’m able to explore some of them in there, but it’s a complicated book, and I have a complicated relationship with it. I have a love-hate relationship with it. But of course, I’ve got my King James Bible at home.

And you know, what I love and what I’m hearing too is, at the end of it, it’s about that ownership, right? Which is to say, the authority one must have to say, “I’m going to reach into this Bible and reshape and retell some of the stories.” It’s also a testament to how much it’s your Bible, right?

Right! Well, and since I’ve been listening to the King James Bible over and over, I find I would put on a reggae song and hear it differently and realize, Oh, my God, actually, what I’m doing is what reggae artists have done with the King James, you know? You listen to Bunny Wailer or you listen to Peter Tosh or you listen to, you know, some of the old reggae artists…

Buju Banton

Yes! So in a way, maybe I’m furthering that poetics embedded in Rasta ideology, and that’s something to think about…

I’m excited for this book, Malika! It was just such a pleasure having you here this week. It was so enriching for our community.

Oh, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.

Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompt

Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19

Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Executive Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press  April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of  Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020).

Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh

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