Shuddhashar: What is it that you strive to explore and convey through your poetry?
Panya Banjoko: Often voices like mine – Black, working-class, female voices – go unheard. I want people to hear voices like mine, not only because we have something to say, but also because I want to see change. I hope that my poetry influences people to think, to speak out, and to encourage those with privilege to become allies. Through my work I want to show the impact of power and privilege on the powerless, but also I want to convey the message that we all have a voice and we should, if we can, use it.
Shuddhashar: How do you interpret the present world, and how have current events spurred you to write?
Panya Banjoko: The inhumane murder of George Floyd sent shockwaves around the world and impacted me greatly too. It was brutal, cruel, and heartless. It made me realise that some lives can be extinguished at the whim of another, and so I want to make mine count for something. George Floyd’s death has energised my resolve to be outspoken against discrimination and to ensure that when I write poetry, I continue to write for a purpose. That can either be amplifying hidden voices, or speaking out against injustices, or inspiring others to speak out too.
Shuddhashar: What literary pieces – poetry, fiction or non-fiction – and writers have informed and inspired your own writing? How have they done so?
Panya Banjoko: There are a number of writers who have informed and inspired my own writing, for example, the late Louise Bennett-Coverley for her audacity to write in the Jamaican vernacular and to narrate the circumstances of the times in Jamaica during the Windrush era and beyond. She exposed me to ‘patwa’ in written form and encouraged me, through her work, to be culturally aware. Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze has also been inspirational as a pioneering female dub poet; she was a role model for me as a Rastafarian during my early years as a poet, and I modelled my early style from her. Finally, James Berry: he was the first professional writer to give me feedback on my work and point me in the right direction to improve my art. I also greatly admire the work of poets such as Kei Miller, I think he is a brilliant poet and, Tishani Doshi, Claudia Rankine, Anna Deavere Smith, and fiction writers such Marlon James and Meena Kandasamy — her work made me cry.
Shuddhashar: In what way do your personal identity and experiences shape your poetry?
Panya Banjoko: Essentially I write about the Black experience, my own and others. More recently over the last two years I have begun to write the stories of the Windrush generation. As the founder of Nottingham Black Archive I have a well stacked cache of artefacts and oral histories of the pioneers who arrived post WWII. My mission is to amplify as many of the untold stories as I possibly can. Their experiences of ‘colour bar’ Nottingham is a story that remains untold.
Shuddhashar: How do you use structure, language and grammar to accentuate the message of your poetry? Do you subscribe to conventions or break them?
Panya Banjoko: I take every poem individually and let each decide how it wants to come to life, whether that is on a page, or to be spoken, or some combination of the two. Sometimes I break rules and other times I stick to a particular form such as the sonnet or villanelle. My forthcoming collection (Re)Framing the Archive is being written in both standard English and Jamaican vernacular. How I write and approach a poem all depends on what I want to say and what I believe is the best way to say it.
Shuddhashar: What is your opinion about the conflicts and solidarities between political poetry and the literary and artistic values of poetry?
Panya Banjoko: I started my poetic career as a dub poet, writing and performing in the Jamaican vernacular, and then turned away from dub poetry because there was so much bias against us as poets in Nottingham during the 1980s and 1990s. Dub poets were not seen as serious writers or seen beyond being entertainers. We were shunned because we highlighted injustices, and our work was deemed as political and angry. As a result, we were only booked for one-off poetry performances and treated more or less like one-night stands. Opportunities were few and far between, and publication was an unobtainable dream. I spent an age fighting this discrimination and trying to make my work not only fit the page but also stand up to performative scrutiny. While I can now say that this discrimination has enabled me to become more versatile in my range, there is also anger at the nepotistic and insular environment that had the power and privilege to decide what is ‘good’ poetry and what is not.
I have suffered and still suffer for my art, and that is why I continue to use it as an activist tool. I will not be silenced.
Shuddhashar: Does your poetry transcend national boundaries? Does it appeal to different nationalities or linguistic groups?
Panya Banjoko: Although the stimulus for my work is the ongoing racism experienced in Nottingham, discrimination is ubiquitous, and on that level I feel there is solidarity with others wherever they are. I hope my poetry transcends national boundaries, but that is for the audience and the reader to decide. It is for the reader to bring their experiences to the work I create in my small-minded city and take what meaning they can from it.
In my home,
damp moulds itself to our skin
and plaster peels from the walls
to form gaping mouths,
while mother bends over the old tin bath
with one eye closed from an ogre’s fist,
agitates our uniforms with waterlogged hands
and hums with a knot in her throat.
Even when we use our index fingers
to poke her in the chest
to find a beating heart,
there is nothing.
Later, in the cell of a cloakroom,
the teachers wear pastel cardigans
like regal robes,
and peg us, three in a row,
thwack us for being too bold for our own good.
When we stampede our way to freedom,
mother asks: what have we learned today?
ONE OF A KIND
They had kept him, seven long years
hidden behind a crumpled wall
in a cavernous shelter, set like a cage.
When the King ordered
they fed him mildew bread
made him drink the milk of rancid yaks
waited for his skin to turn pale
for his voice to leave him.
Then, when he was eager, for water
to dislodge the sand in his throat
they promised him life for his stint
set him to work.
They told him, use your fingers
like the limbs of a Darwin Bark spider
make beauty like purple lilies
and the call of the shuffle-wing bird.
With tools laid out like surgeon’s instruments
he performed his vision
pounding like the call of a woodpecker
he softened and formed thick ingots of gold
into sunbird tails.
Hands bent, nails jagged, he gripped tweezer
between finger and thumb
planted gems in rows like marching ants
with each new tide he cut, pierced and soldered.
When he had shaped his dreams into curves
when he could see the image of his face
in the gleam of the dome.
When he knew it could not be matched
he inscribed it with timeworn text
and it was done.
The King called his people
to behold the work of the master craftsman
and they reveled with delight at the skill in his bones.
Then they cut off his hand.
THEY AND THEM
They had big houses in the City,
who lived in ramshackle patches on estates.
They ate saffron fish with jewelled rice.
It was normal for Them
to go hungry.
They were cousins,
seeds of the earth,
They should share,
They hurled punches,
smashed bottles on heads,
They battered Them
it made Them
feel like putting an exit bag over their heads.
They made Them
build prisons and museums,
with clamped mouths fill the galleries.
One day, it was too much for Them.
With oiled throats,
voices the colour of mandarin fish
could be heard across the broken roads.
When the sounds became shapes
They ordered Them
to be quiet.
When the shapes became the butts of bayonets
They ordered Them
When the butts became handles
They grew frantic,
feared bayonets with cutting edge.
So They made up stories,
about Them stealing children and eating their toes.
When that wasn’t enough
They said that the tails at the back of Them
would strangle women,
but the women liked the tails of Them.
They grew angry,
shoved all of Them
into prison and released the wolves,
cut out the wombs of the women,
salted the insides, fed Them
to the pack.
That was the last They heard of Them.
They were content, picking their teeth.
They didn’t see
out of the ruins of a doorless haunt,
on two bent, bloody legs,
was one of Them.
When Toad met Snake they chuckled.
Neither feared the other, neither cared for the other
they played, side by side, venom bound their fellowship.
When they saw Hummingbird looking at half moon
they planned to topple him, made a pact as tight as a gourd
to bind together loose vines into a snare.
They invited Hummingbird to a party
full of jam tart sweet nectar and coral bells
told him how fine his ruby red throat shone in the sun.
Come sing, said Snake who could turn words inside out.
Come eat, spat Toad soaking his victim like rain.
When Hummingbird was sipping butterfly bush juice
Snake said his wings needed preening, Toad agreed.
Hummingbird had never been told this before.
They fetched their tools, sharpened them whilst he sang
told Hummingbird to spread wings so they could see his beauty
promised to leave them splendid and smooth
then sliced them clean dragged them to the edge of the forest
buried them under mouldy stench.
left Hummingbird to wither like leaves in putrid pool.
Without wings Hummingbird was mute
his beauty gone, his song like a prayer, gone.
Snake and Toad chuckled…
moles with sunglasses,
the spots of a hundred ladybirds,
the flapping wings of a starling murmuration,
a platoon of poets that shout
speak the truth! speak the truth!
the smell of a mystical dragon’s breath,
the moan of mothers who are bereft,
the notes of a lonely soldier’s bugle,
the ‘v’ shaped trail of a water vole,
twigs that make up a thousand nests,
the step of each child lost without hope,
the length of a giraffes neck, multiplied by a yard
and divided by a quarter of a metre,
the teeth of a crocodile as it slinks through water,
a hippographs oath,
the tiny tremors in a heart,
the cracks in a life,
the nerve endings,
gas encased in chambers,
hands that choke,
count this and all this and this and this and more
if sleep remains amiss
beetles with bendy legs,
the hairs on a chimpanzees shoulder,
the number of hands that seek to be picked,
babies born to those who mourn,
the odour of a new day as it dawns,
children who grow up for less and see more,
the squadron of victims made in this place,
the chimes of a hung dead bell,
the rivers we plan to cross,
the brutes who squash,
the clocks that tick,
the locks that imprison,
the clink of keys that flaunt,
the time that is up,
the time that is lost,
the time that is never found
the eyes that beg to be blind,
count this and all this and this and this and more
If sleep remains amiss
do not fear the steel
of a woman, armed with spears,
but beg her to come.
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