To Count for Something

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Interview 

 

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.

____________________________________

 

 

Poems

 

 

REMEMBERING SCHOOL

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,

unlike Them,

who lived in ramshackle patches on estates.

 

They ate saffron fish with jewelled rice.

It was normal for Them

to go hungry.

 

When Them

started saying

They were cousins,

seeds of the earth,

They should share,

They hurled punches,

smashed bottles on heads,

beat Them

raw.

 

Sometimes when

They battered Them

it made Them

feel like putting an exit bag over their heads.

 

They made Them

build prisons and museums,

poached objects,

made Them

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

to stop.

 

When the butts became handles

They grew frantic,

feared bayonets with cutting edge.

 

So They made up stories,

wicked 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,

crawling, cockroach-like

on two bent, bloody legs,

was one of Them.

 

 

 

HUMMINGBIRD I

 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…

 

 

I COUNT

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,

Dalmatians spots,

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

 

count

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

 

count…

 

 

 

 

 

BRUTES

do not fear the steel

of a woman, armed with spears,

but beg her to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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