He has previously held the role of Birmingham Poet Laureate and his debut full-length collection Beginning With Your Last Breath has just been published by Nine Arches Press.
Hi Roy. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on your debut collection Beginning With Your Last Breath. Can you tell us a bit more about the poems and how long it took for the book to take shape and come together?
Thank you for inviting me. Beginning With Your Last Breath has been an incredibly rewarding journey for me, both personally and as a poet. During 2014 I was playing with the idea of a pamphlet when my mother became ill again. She had been fighting cancer for the last ten years in some shape or form and was resigned to giving up the fight. She was tired and wanted no more operations; she was just chilling with her God, family and friends. I became her carer during this period of time. It was a struggle for me.
Around this time a friend gave me Rain by Don Paterson. He said read and write, write in the moment, in the hospital, in the waiting room, in A&E, wherever just write. He also introduced me to the idea of duende, a term developed by Federico Garcia Lorca. I guess he was helping me to come face-to-face with death and to be able to create something beautiful from it.
The duende or “black sounds” as Lorca put it, is a spirit that inhabits your writing, the pain, the sorrow, and translates into the reading and performance of it. I recognise this duende is in my love poems, moments of loss, the journey of Bevan, coming to terms with my adoption, identity, injustice and racism. There seems to be a theme resonating there with hymn-like beauty.
My mother passed away last November and the title poem was the elegy created for her funeral service. My employees then gave me a couple of months off and I gathered all my notes, scribbles, and began writing again. Twenty poems were sent to Nine Arches Press in the spring of 2015 and Jane Commane said yes, she wanted more.
The shape of the book started taking form in these twenty poems. I knew my mother passing away would take me back to the day I found out I was adopted, but I was unsure what would be sandwiched inbetween. I found old poems, new poems, half-written poems, and discovered identity and love, sensuality and spirituality, running through the heart of what would become the finished collection.
Keats speaks of the blood and imagination of poetry, which I’ve poured into this book and I humbly hope there’s an intellect that bolsters the collection too.
The opening section features poems which begin with the revelation of your adoption and subsequent journey to meet your birth mother for the first time. I’m curious if the impetus behind these poems came from a need to document and make sense of what would have been a confusing and emotionally-charged time?
I wanted to write about this incredible position of being the son of two mothers, two people who loved me equally, two people who have and continue to shower me with love. But at the same time, I hadn’t imagined how much pain was residing deep down inside of me.
The passing of my mother opened up a can of worms and raised lots of questions. I wrestled a lot with the notion of being adopted – the mother I had was the saint of all mothers, so how could there be another?
I believe writing is the truth we sometimes struggle to face. And yes, there was a need to make sense of the whole process. I had read Jackie Kay’s The Adoption Papers many years before. I read it again, over and over, knowing I had my own story to tell.
Your poem ‘A Love Supreme’ arose out of a commission for Love in Leamington where you collaborated with the musicians Steve Tromans and Lydia Glanville. Can you tell us a bit more about the event and resulting performance?
Julie Boden commissioned five poets to join her in writing poems in collaboration with Steve, who in return would compose and respond to our poems. In my hometown of Wolverhampton I’d already played around with the idea of ‘jazzoetry’ and worked on a few pieces with a saxophonist, creating a response to Grover Washington Jr and ‘Nights Over Egypt‘ set in Ronnie Scott’s listening to Incognito.
But this was the opportunity to work on something new. It originally began as my first love, a night of love making to A Love Supreme, but somehow the piece evolved into an imaginary Lord’s Supper with John Coltrane at the head of the table, and then I began to imagine who would be the other twelve disciples of Jazz, and in a short burst of an hour’s intense writing all these wonderful Jazz players made their appearance, stepped into my poem and took a seat.
We took over Leamington Spa Library in February. What should have been a 50mins journey by train took four hours because of cancellations due to heavy snowfall. I was stuck in Birmingham train station, running between Moor St and New St to see which train would leave first. I have no idea why I was so determined to get there, but I made it for the second half and it ended up being one of those beautiful days that was meant to be.
You also co-edited the anthology Celebrate Wha?: Ten Black British poets from the Midlands which collected together and celebrated the melting pot of heritages and cultures where you grew up. How did the project come about and do you think the anthology fulfilled its remit of representing a specific poetic voice and geography?
The late Roi Kwabena was a mentor and good friend, an inspiration to so many poets. He had successfully published, along with Eric Doumerc, Five Birmingham Poets under Raka Books in 2006. Roi wanted to look at another collection but he passed away in 2008. I guess the baton was passed over to me and, in conversation with Eric, we wanted to spread the net further afield and look at the Midlands in general.
The collection struggled to find a home initially. After a year looking for a publisher, Andy Croft came along from Smokestack Books. Andy encouraged the irreverence and urgency of the piece and, if I remember correctly, it was Andy who pushed for Moqapi Selassie’s poem ‘Celebrate Wha?‘ to be the book title.
Celebrate Wha? is the poetic voice of ten black poets, performers who I believed needed to be found on the page, without losing their language, dialect and journey of the African diaspora. As I said in my foreword:
They are living, breathing poems, declaring the colour of skin, the beauty of language, or the essence of heritage. Read them aloud and you feel the energy in each syllable, words full of life, to be spoken, to be released outside the confines of verse and page. Celebrate Wha? is an inciter, a social critique responding to issues at the time of his/her performance.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed or are looking forward to this year?
I’m looking forward to reading with the wonderful Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze on National Poetry Day at The Studio at The REP Birmingham.
There’s also Benjamin Zephaniah and Liz Berry in conversation, and Beyond the Water’s Edge, a Bloodaxe collection of world poets brought to the stage with live music, and Jackie Kay and Kit de Waal. All these guys and more at the Birmingham Literature Festival, how cool is that?
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
It’s funny. As a resident poet at the Shakespeare Birthplace I was in conversation with the head gardener, called Glynn, and we got to talking about many things. He was English and from Manchester. He loved to support England when it came to football, but when it came to rugby he followed his father’s footsteps and was a full-blooded Welsh supporter. I guess he’d fail the Tebbit test.
Our roots are not only our foundation, they’re routes to so many places. The Tebbit test was a response to that madness of what qualified as being patriotic. Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation was one of those classics that influenced many a young black social commentator of the 90’s and I guess it resonates through this poem.
The Tebbit Test (Patriotism)
The Tebbit test, that litmus test of Britishness:
dip us deep enough and we should come out
red, white and blue, but we wore the
colours of Jamaica when the West Indies
cricket team black-washed England or turned
to the Reggae Boyz for the faintest of hopes of victory
when they reached the World Cup Final.
Long before the Tebbit test, we – Young Black
British – had been plunged in the cauldron
of brutishness and found no black in the Union Jack,
except for those Olympic occasions where
Daley Thompson, Tessa Sanderson and
Linford Christie wrapped themselves in the Union flag
a hiatus from the hate, a jubilee for all things sable.
Yet Blacks and Asians we’re more used
to the engulfing experience of John Barnes,
the genius, the wizard that scored against Brazil,
cutting through their defence with pure beauty.
Only to be reminded a few days later on a plane
returning home, filled with the England team and supporters,
that goal don’t count, the one scored by the nigger.