Friday, October 12, 2018

The bass says more than words can

Nick Makoha's first collection, published
by Peepal Tree press in 2017
Nick Makoha's poems have been attracting attention in the UK for some time and rightly so. US poet Terrance Hayes says they 'animate in the space between story and song' and his work is an important contribution to British contemporary writing.

On the last morning of Winchester Poetry Festival, Makoha was reading with Karen McCarthy Woolf, who's also established a reputation for emotionally demanding material. The third poet, Katharine Towers, was shortlisted for the 2016 TS Eliot prize for her second collection The Remedies.

And the readings complemented one another perfectly - Makoha's are direct, sometimes hard to hear because of the violence they describe but they carry a sense of history needing to be channeled. McCarthy Woolf's are more personal, sometimes hard to access, fluid and uncompromising, while Towers stays in the natural world, her boundaries firmly established, the metaphorical landscape more familiar but still imaginatively sharp.

As I drank coffee I realised that this festival had a markedly different line-up to those I've been used to. And since counting the representation of women and other so-called minorities was good enough for Tillie Olsen, I did a count of the writers appearing at Winchester. It worked out well - about a third of participants were poets of colour and women (for once) outnumbered men.

Makoha said he wanted to stop feeling embarrassed at being Ugandan in an English space and McCarthy Woolf turned the language used to disparage migrants on its head with her poem telling the migrant narrative in the language of the super rich. She has edited a collection for Nine Arches Press, Unwritten, about the citizens of empire who faced racism despite their willingness to fight for Britain in WW1.

McCarthy Woolf's own poem for this unique anthology weaves three narratives in an almost documentary way. Later a Modern Poetry in Translation session, Profound Pyromania, explored the plurality of languages in Caribbean poetry, placing it far from the colonial centre of empire, as Vahni Capildeo put it.

Ishion Hutchinson went deeper into the influence of Lee Scratch Perry on his writing, explaining that dub had preserved the west African languages introduced into the Caribbean by the slave trade. Hutchinson explained Scratch Perry showed how music, particularly the bass, became a different kind of transport - away from daily life. Dub encapsulated the horror of the slave experience in a way words couldn't, said Hutchinson. Dance became a lamented joy, a journey through horror and a listener was overtaken by dub's deep oceanic sound.

Caroline Bird has had five collections published and she's only 32. The most recent, In These Days of Prohibition, came out last year. To my shame, although she's a regular performer, I've never seen Bird live and I was knocked out. It's her professionalism combined with her honesty, a sense of generosity of spirit that is perhaps a side-effect of her astonishing poems - she has a surreal, unfettered view of life, but also a deep humanity.

If I went to Winchester feeling a bit tired of poetry and wondering if it was relevant, I left in no doubt because there are these amazing writers putting life under the microscope and not giving up on the challenge to express what needs to be said, both personally and politically.

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