Jay Bernard is a poet, writer, and film programmer. Her published pamphlets are Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl (tall-lighthouse 2008), English Breakfast (Math Paper Press 2013), and The Red and Yellow Nothing (Ink Sweat & Tears Press 2016).
Hi Jay. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your latest pamphlet The Red and Yellow Nothing which features the Arthurian knight Sir Morien and weaves a tale exploring race, gender, and identity. Can you tell us about the genesis of the project and what it was that drew you to write about this character?
I really enjoy a blog called Medieval POC. One day I was reading it, and I came across a post about Morien. Having studied English and medieval literature at university, I knew that there was a strong black presence in medieval literature and art, but I’d never explored it as a subject.
Coming across Morien chimed with a burgeoning interest in the Black Arts Movement and the Caribbean Arts Movement, here in the UK, and in politics. I wanted to write something about blackness that wasn’t tragic, but still spoke to the situation we are currently in. The paradoxical nature of now: the way you can be erased, snuffed out, disfigured, distorted, while being privy to the remarkable insight that is only possible from the margins.
I thought that writing about black characters in a world before the construct of race as we currently know it would be a liberating move. I thought it might open up a contemplative space less weighted by the ballast of the media, and American media in particular. We are always expected to view ourselves in a certain way – and I wanted to present and view Morien completely differently.
There’s a melting pot of influences evident in the sequence – Jessie Weston’s translation of the original medieval Morien poem, the melodies of the Child Ballads, the poetry of William Dunbar, and the lyrics of Kendrick Lamar. Was this intertextuality a conscious decision to try and create a dialogue with the past and forge something new?
Yes. I was consciously ramming things up against each other. The Red and Yellow Nothing is very much an experiment. I know there are parts that are more successful than others. But the point wasn’t to create something smooth. It was to take everything I have in my head, and put it together, and see what else I could do. A total departure from English Breakfast and definitely from Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl. When I was writing those books, I wasn’t aware of blackness as a mode of enquiry or as proximity to death or as something I was thinking very deeply about.
I understand you took your poetry to audiences across the pond earlier this year as part of the ‘Breaking Ground: Black British Writers US tour’ organised by Speaking Volumes. I’m curious what similarities and differences (if any) you’ve noticed between UK and US poetry audiences?
Those who are interested in this kind of work will be interested whatever side of the pond they are on. But I know that a lot of the allusions I make, and the general aesthetic, won’t fly in a typical American context. When we were reading at UC Davis, I decided not to read one of the poems I’d included in my set, because I knew it just wouldn’t work. But I did read Poem II, and I think that was enough. More generally, I don’t know. People are basically the same.
You also participated in ‘The Complete Works II’ project a few years ago where you were mentored by Kei Miller and which culminated in Bloodaxe’s Ten: The New Wave. Can you tell us a bit more about this experience and your selection process for the poems that eventually appeared in the anthology?
I think the reading we all did at the Southbank was one of the best I’ve participated in. I thought a lot about who I am, what I’m writing, who I’m talking to. It feels like a lifetime ago. A while later, I realised that I was never going to be part of any scene or world or group, really. Which is a very valuable thing to understand, but then you’ve also got to learn to be at peace with that knowledge, and I don’t think the Arts Council funds a programme for that.
The poems in the anthology were chosen by Karen McCarthy-Woolf, not me. I think they make sense as a selection. I am especially glad ‘Fake Beach’ made the cut, because it’s a very intimate poem for me. I first read it on radio with Joelle Taylor and a group of rappers and we had a discussion about the taboo sexual undertone when a parent really goes for it when hitting their child.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed this year or are looking forward to in the future?
I was very sad to have missed the Forward Prizes this year. I read Measures of Expatriation while away from London, and found it extremely expansive, very deep. I loved Say Something Back – I learned a lot from Riley’s very clever wordplay – and at one point I had to stop reading Considering the Women and look away for a bit. Would have been good to hear everyone. It was a really good line-up.
I am looking forward to the event I’m doing at the British Library on December 3rd. Linton Kwesi Johnson is hosting it, and I’m presenting some of the work I produced during my residency at the George Padmore Institute.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
Poem X is near the end of the pamphlet. The whole structure of the book is that Morien is wandering around a kind of pre-story universe, which is non-linear, mutable, shifting etc. In this poem, he detaches from his own face, essentially moves backwards in his own mind and finds an expanse there, finds that he can kind of swim around the inside of his own head and see the chinks of light from the outside world through his nostrils and eyes, which I liken to a chandelier. But I also wanted to explore the idea of Morien as completely abstracted – not a physical thing anymore, but a kind of rule. It’s a fun thought, to be expanded on.
Dusk: shadow and form change place –
Morien walks backwards from his face
his lips part –
he swims backwards from the slot –
a fairy shrimp afloat
the ovals of his eyes
glass bones shivering
in his ear
his face, his sex, is dark,
of a chandelier
every colour –
chemicream, gin-coloured vectors
see through quantities of green
peach-thought foam and
mouth coloured mousse –
At swim, a Morien,
backstroking round his face
s/he has ceased to be a thing,
but a rule – a how or why,
a what things are