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Roger Robinson: 'Poets can translate trauma'

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The writer and musician talks about his prize-winning poetry collection, his Caribbean education and why the death of George Floyd has been felt so strongly in the UK

Roger Robinson is a writer who has taught and performed worldwide. His fourth poetry collection, A Portable Paradisewon the Royal Society of Literature’s Ondaatje prize last month, an award for a work evoking the spirit of a place: while his previous books have focused on the memory of the Caribbean, here he turns his gaze on England, unflinchingly portraying a place far from paradise as he tackles topics including the Grenfell Tower disaster, the Windrush scandal, and the legacy of slavery. The collection also won the TS Eliot prize and is shortlisted for the Derek Walcott prize. Robinson was born in Hackney in 1967 to Trinidadian parents and moved to Trinidad aged four, before returning to the UK at 19. 

In a manifesto you wrote for The Poetry Review you said: “The poet’s job is to translate unspeakable things on to the page…” 
Poets don’t get into poetry for money, they do it for vocation – I feel like that anyway. Poets can touch hearts and minds; they can translate trauma into something people can face. Sometimes there’s a cost for the poet to do that as it takes looking at the trauma right in the face and then allowing others to bear the idea of trauma safely. That’s why I write poetry. Poems are empathy machines.

I’m interested in people who think what they’re writing is important and, despite not getting recognition, continue

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Poem of the week: My pity is fake … by Miriam Neiger-Fleischmann

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These stark lines set out a hard, unfinished personal reckoning with atrocious memory

My pity is fake,
my poems, atonement.
Mutation in my genes
began in the gas chambers.
Even before that,
antigens were
created in my blood
against torture and murder
and mindless oppression
and all kinds of atrocities.
Yet, nobody cares
if we count their dead
or our own dead.
See the dead
arranged in a row,
arranged in a pile
or burned in a pile.
Everyone wants
to keep evil at bay.
Therefore, I don’t cry
over the Palestinians,
nor do I cry
over anyone else!
Because, if I cry
over my dead,
they will stand before me
in a long line,
their fleshless corpses
eaten by time,
as in a roll call
or on the “day
of visitation”,
and their mute
muselmann hands
will offer
faded shreds
from an old shroud
to wipe my tears if I weep
If I weep

Translated by the poet and Anthony Rudolf

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WeRNotVirus review – responses to a pandemic of racism

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Available online
Ten short plays responding to the rise in racist attacks since the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak have a cumulative power

The idea that racism is itself a virus with a toxic global spread has gained traction during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly since the killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. This series by Moongate Productions and Omnibus theatre begins with that premise and focuses specifically on racism exacerbated by Covid-19 and enacted against Britain’s east and south-east Asian communities.

“We are not a virus,” is a repeated refrain in these 10 quick-response dramas made to raise awareness of the 21% rise in reported hate crimes towards these communities, and amounting to two hours of theatre on film that incorporates animation, poetry, music and dance.

WeRNotVirus is available from 17 June on YouTube.

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Forgotten plays: No 4 – Bloody Poetry (1984) by Howard Brenton

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This magnificently honest play about the Shelleys and Byron’s summer of sexual experimentation raises difficult questions about the cost of utopian aspirations

Howard Brenton’s output is massive. I reckon there must be more than 50 plays ranging from early, disruptive pieces including Revenge and Christie in Love (both 1969) to mature historical studies such as 55 Days (2012), about the trial and execution of Charles I, and Drawing the Line (2013), charting the arbitrary partition of India. But if I had to pick out one work that deserves regular revival, it would be Bloody Poetry which deals with a utopian experiment in living, and describes both its aspirations and resulting angst with magnificent honesty.

Brenton leans heavily on Richard Holmes’s book Shelley: The Pursuit for his story. He shows the Shelleys, Percy Bysshe and Mary, accompanied by Claire Clairmont, meeting up with Lord Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816. The plan, in Byron’s words, is that “we will all go communist” which, in reality, means a summer of free love, shared creativity, book talk and party games: the most significant of these being a shadow-play in which the group enact the parable of the cave from Plato’s Republic. In the more sombre second half, we see the aftermath of the experiment: Shelley, forever haunted by the ghost of his first wife, pens some of his greatest poetry and Mary writes Frankenstein yet love is betrayed, lives break up, children die. Was it all worth it?

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Poem of the week: Glacier by Gillian Clarke

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Finding an unsettling symmetry between ecological catastrophe and the Aberfan Welsh pit village disaster, this sonnet conjures a fragile beauty

Glacier

The miles-deep Greenland glacier’s lost its grip,
sliding nine miles a year towards the sea
on its own melt-water. As, forty years ago,
the slag-heap, loosened by a slip
of rain-swollen mountain stream, suddenly
gave with a roar, taking a primary school,
crushing the children. The century of waste
has burned a hole in the sky over the Pole.
Oh, science, with your tricks and alchemies,
chain the glacier with sun and wind and tide,
rebuild the gates of ice, halt melt and slide,
freeze the seas, stay the flow and the flux
for footfall of polar bear and Arctic fox.

Clarke’s translation of Y Gododdin comes out from Faber next year, when a new collection of essays and a journal, Roots Home, will also be published by Carcanet. Gillian Clarke’s most recent collections include Ice, Selected Poems and Zoology.

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Michael Rosen home from intensive care after coronavirus

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The 74-year-old children’s author tweeted ‘I’ve survived!’ after leaving hospital, having been admitted at the end of March

Michael Rosen has finally made it back home after going into intensive care with Covid-19 at the end of March.

The award-winning and popular poet and children’s author began charting his illness on Twitter in March, writing of “bed-breaking shakes” and “freezing cold sweats”, of “deep muscle exhaustion” and the “image of war hero biting on a hankie, while best mate plunges live charcoal into the wound to cauterise it”. He went into intensive care at the end of the month, with his family warning that he was “very poorly” at the time.

Home! @MichaelRosenYespic.twitter.com/8rNyjSG275

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Roger Robinson meets Rachel Long: 'I feel like a mosquito taking on Godzilla'

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Continuing our series of cross-generational conversations between black British artists, poets Roger Robinson and Rachel Long discuss the prejudices of the white publishing world and the power of today’s youth

Roger Robinson, 52, is the 2020 winner of the TS Eliot prize and the Ondaatje prize for his latest collection A Portable Paradise. Having previously explored his memories of Trinidad, where he moved to from Britain when he was four, his fifth collection focuses on the lives of black Britons, from Grenfell to the birth of his son. Rachel Long, 31, has recently published her debut, My Darling from the Lions, and in 2015 set up Octavia, a poetry collection for women of colour hosted monthly at the Southbank Centre in London.

Roger Robinson: I wanted to start with a poem. It is called Won’t You Celebrate With Me by Lucille Clifton:

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Diversity in poetry on the rise – but 'resistance to inclusivity' remains

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UK report finds magazines and newspapers now featuring twice as many poets and critics of colour as in 2009

The poetry world has made progress on diversity, a new report finds, but “resistance or indifference to inclusivity remains”.

Analysis of British and Irish publications found an overall improvement in the proportion of poets and critics of colour appearing in their pages. Between 2009 and 2016, the newspapers and poetry magazines published review articles by non-white critics 190 times – 4% of the total for those years. Between 2017 and 2019, non-white critics were published 201 times – 9.6% of the total.

Related: War baby: the amazing story of Ocean Vuong, former refugee and prize-winning poet

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‘There’s no such thing as a socially distanced mosh pit’: artists on the thrill of the crowd

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Poet laureate Simon Armitage and comedian Lolly Adefope love the buzz of performance. Here’s what we’re all missing

There can be no such thing as a socially distanced mosh pit, can there? This is the centre of a gig, a place where semi-legitimised frenzy and mayhem take place, where drinks are lobbed, shoes are lost, clothes are torn, human beings are borne aloft, and where entanglements of bodies move in unpredictable directions to the push and pull of invisible forces, like a glass in the centre of a Ouija board in contact with a particularly violent spirit. (If you’re thinking, “Blimey, poetry readings aren’t what they used to be,” then bless you.) True, spaces of two metres or more do occasionally open up in the mosh pit, breaches and rents in the crowd where the actual floor becomes visible, but they are momentary and quickly mended. The music stops, the crowd settles and finds its level, only for the music to start again, this time with a more urgent rhythm or tribal beat, and the upheaval resumes.

Live music was enjoying one of its most important periods, as a riposte to the near-collapse of the record industry

It’s been inspiring to see how people have kept the spirit of live comedy going online

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Michael Rosen: ‘The incredible NHS saved my life’

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The children’s author and poet, 74, talks about surviving coronavirus, enjoying getting older and moping all weekend when Arsenal lose

I’m only alive because my wife and our friend who is a GP had a sense that I was on a downward spiral with coronavirus and got me to A&E. But I’ve got no recall of being critically ill it because I was in an induced coma. I’m only finding out now how the NHS saved my life while I was in intensive care for nearly seven weeks.

The NHS is an incredible feat of the imagination – complete strangers care for you and this means that it is social medicine and social health at its best.

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Michael Rosen: ‘I am only finding out now how I was saved from coronavirus’

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Home at last after seven weeks in intensive care, the poet pays tribute to ‘incredible’ NHS doctors and nurses

The poet Michael Rosen is only alive because his wife, Emma-Louise Williams, and a GP friend recognised that his condition was deteriorating and took him to A&E in the nick of time, he told the Observer Magazine in an emotional interview this weekend.

Rosen, 74, who came down with coronavirus in mid-March, returned home last week after spending 48 days in intensive care at the Whittington hospital in north London. He spent a further three weeks on a rehabilitation ward, learning to walk again.

He is the kindest, most expressive, hardworking, articulate, laughter-inducing, tear-jerking poet in the business

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Poetic justice: black lives and the power of poetry

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Leading black British poets including Linton Kwesi Johnson, Grace Nichols and Raymond Antrobus share their thoughts on protest, change and the trailblazers who inspired them. Introduction by Kadish Morris

Performance poetry revolutionised me. When I was 13, my mother invited me to a group called Leeds Young Authors, which she co-ran with founder and poet Khadijah Ibrahiim. Together, along with visiting poets, they ran writing workshops for teenagers. The selling point was that I would get the chance to travel to the US to compete in a poetry slam festival, but the excitement of getting on an aeroplane was soon overshadowed by what I can only describe as enlightenment. Poems performed at the festival taught me about police brutality, gentrification and climate change before I even owned a computer. Performance poetry immersed me in a world of critical thinking, but also, a community of black poets. I shared stages, shook hands and was taught by some of the greatest black British and African American poets before the age of 20. From Sonia Sanchez to Saul Williams to Lemn Sissay and Jackie Kay.

Black British history and literature are intrinsically connected. Poems such as Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Five Nights of Bleeding explored the 1981 Brixton riots, while Benjamin Zephaniah’s The Death of Joy Gardner lamented on the killing of a Jamaican student who died in 1993 after being detained during a police immigration raid at her home. Literature was a forum for idea-sharing, community-building and support too. The Caribbean Artists Movement, founded by Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite, Trinidadian publisher John La Rose and Panamanian-Jamaican writer Andrew Salkey in London in 1966, set about promoting the work of marginalised Caribbean artists, writers and poets. More than 50 years later, black writers are yet to be fully absorbed into the mainstream. A 2018 study found that only 7% of work published in poetry journals were by people from BAME backgrounds. Black voices have often felt like guests in UK literature, despite being routinely summoned during political events. “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark” – a line from Home by the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire – was a prominent slogan of the migrant crisis in 2015.

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Poem of the week: Incendiary Art: Ferguson, 2014 by Patricia Smith

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The US poet’s reaction to the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown is a searing elegy for black lives destroyed

Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith is published by Bloodaxe Books in the UK, and TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press in the US. The Bloodaxe website also features some powerful recordings of Smith reading from her work.

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Four new collections up for the Forward poetry prizes – review roundup

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Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz; Citadel by Martha Sprackland; Magnolia 木蘭 by Nina Mingya Powles; and The Air Year by Caroline Bird

When the toxic legacies of US racial politics boil over into mass protest, as now, it is always worth remembering how one person’s state of emergency is someone else’s quotidian normality. “The war never ended and somehow begins again”, writes Natalie Diaz in the opening poem of her remarkable collection Postcolonial Love Poem(Faber, £10.99), which has been shortlisted for the Forward prize. Building on her striking debut, When My Brother Was an Aztec in poems of blasted landscapes and fierce desire, rivers and snakes and basketball (which she once played professionally), Diaz unfolds a poetry of radical embodiment and embodied radicalism. An inscribed member of the Gila River Indian Community, Diaz commands a cosmic-mythic range (“I carry a river. It is is who I am … This is not metaphor”), while also writing poems of rare intimacy (“Ode to the Beloved’s Hips”). Seldom since Allen Ginsberg’s Howlhas British poetry had more to learn from a US import.

This article was amended on 2 July 2020, to correct Will Harris’s name and the capitalisation of his book, RENDANG.

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Natalie Diaz: 'It is an important and dangerous time for language'

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The Native American and Latinx poet’s Postcolonial Love Poem has been shortlisted for the Forward prize for best collection

Reading Natalie Diaz’s Forward prize shortlisted collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, feels like a radical political act. It opens “The war ended / depending on which war you mean: those we started, / before those, millennia ago and onward, / those which started me, which I lost and won – / these ever-blooming wounds.” Wounds reappear throughout Diaz’s book as an image of unhealing trauma, where the public body of history – the genocide of America’s Native population – encounters the private spaces of desire and loss. An intimacy, an erotic interconnectedness, faces this difficult and violent history with love.

Since lockdown, Diaz has been in Fort Mohave, Arizona, on the reservation where she grew up. Here the desert meets the Colorado river (at risk from pollution, damming and development, she calls it “the most endangered river in the United States”), not far from Needles, the California border town where she was born in 1978. ‘‘’Aha Makav is the true name of our people, given to us by our Creator who / loosed the river from the earth and built it into our living bodies.” Diaz is talking in this landscape during a time of national mourning and I learn from her book that the Mojave word for “tears” suggests the word “river”. That “a great weeping” might well be translated as “a river of grief”.

In Mojave, our words for want and need are the same – because why would you want what you don’t need?

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Poem of the month: Prayer at Seventy by Vicki Feaver

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God of thresholds, guide
of souls between worlds,
have mercy on me:

God who, when I asked you
if I could pass my last years
with less anxiety,

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Poem of the week: Sic Vita by Henry David Thoreau

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Before he became a pioneering ecological thinker, Thoreau was a poet and this youthful work contains the blueprint for his development

Sic Vita

(“It is but thin soil where we stand; I have felt my roots in a richer ere this. I have seen a bunch of violets in a glass vase, tied loosely with a straw, which reminded me of myself”
— A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers)

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Benjamin Zephaniah: 'Coppers were standing on my back and I thought: OK, I’m going to die here.’

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The poet and novelist has had a turbulent lockdown, with two relatives lost to Covid-19 and George Floyd’s death bringing back memories of his cousin, Mikey Powell, who was killed by the police in 2003

It is 42 years since Benjamin Zephaniah wrote the poem Dis Policeman Keeps on Kicking Me To Death, and it has never felt more resonant. Although, to be fair, there has never been a time when it hasn’t felt resonant. It resonated when the teenage Zephaniah was battered by the police, it resonated when Rodney King was beaten to within an inch of his life by the LAPD in 1992, it resonated when Zephaniah’s cousin Mikey Powell was killed by the police in Birmingham in 2003, and of course it resonated when the police officer Derek Chauvin asphyxiated George Floyd this May in Minneapolis.

Zephaniah is knackered. The poet/musician/novelist/actor/professor/martial arts teacher thought lockdown meant life would take a turn for the quiet; that he would be able to peacefully tend his allotment at home in rural Spalding, Lincolnshire. In fact, it couldn’t have been more turbulent. He lost two relatives to Covid-19, and his sister and brother-in-law were almost killed by the virus. Then he found himself at the heart of Black Lives Matter after Floyd was killed.

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'Living legend' Linton Kwesi Johnson wins PEN Pinter prize

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The pioneer of dub poetry has been hailed for his ‘political ferocity’ and ‘tireless scrutiny of history’

Linton Kwesi Johnson has won the PEN Pinter prize, with the Jamaican dub poet’s “political ferocity” and “tireless scrutiny of history” praised as “truly Pinteresque” by judges.

Related: Linton Kwesi Johnson: ‘It was a myth that immigrants didn’t want to fit into British society. We weren’t allowed’

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Poetry book of the month: Antiemetic for Homesickness by Romalyn Ante – review

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An NHS nurse pines for her native Philippines in her captivating debut as a poet

Romalyn Ante is a nurse who came to the UK from the Philippines when she was 16 and is now based in Wolverhampton. This collection, her captivating debut, gives insight into her life: the everyday labour of working for the NHS – with its emergencies – offset by memories of the country she misses (the antiemetic of the title being a drug used to treat sickness and nausea). The opening poem, Half-Empty, begins with a quotation from Prince Philip: “The Philippines must be half empty - you’re all here running the NHS.”

His remark, balanced between compliment and insult, throws down a gauntlet (or a hospital glove). Ante is more playful than angry but in this moving, witty and agile book, there is more than one full-hearted poem of prince-shaming potential.

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