Dog Ear Feature – Interview with Malika Booker

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Malika Booker is an academic, poet, and writer, who has previously been described as a pioneer of the present spoken word movement here in the UK. Her writing spans poetry, theatre, monologue, installation, and education. Malika’s previous professional clients include Arts Council England, the BBC, the National Theatre, and the Royal Shakespeare Company among others. Malika was born in London although spent some of her formative years in Guyana. Her writing performing of poetry began in earnest while she was studying at university, and she would go on to found the poetry collective Malika’s Poetry Kitchen. Subsequently, Malika has been widely published and in 2013 her first collection, Pepper Seed was published by Peepal Tree Press. Pepper Seed was well received and was indeed shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre prize for best first full collection published in the UK and Ireland. And it was not long before Malika was picking up the awards her writing deserved. In 2019, Malika received a Cholmondeley Award for her outstanding contribution to poetry; and in 2020, Malika won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem for “The Little Miracles”, published in Magma. Malika is a full-time PhD candidate at Newcastle University, and a poetry lecturer at Manchester Writing School where I believe she has worked alongside friends of The Broken Spine, Andrew McMillan and Helen Mort.

Hello Malika, how are you? Are you having a good day?

I am having a good day. It feels really good to be cosy inside while the wind outside batters the window. It’s been so sunny up here recently, and then all of a sudden, this week it’s been very interesting. So, I’m nice and cosy. I’m very happy to be locked down at this moment with that breeze outside

To what extent do you think that your early years impacted upon your writing – those formative years in London and then away in Guyana – coming back here to the UK? How much of a lasting impact has that had on your own work?

I left England as a baby, so I don’t remember that trip. I think we went home by ship. I don’t remember that. I think the Caribbean is a large part of my imaginative journey. The images, the landscape, the characters I draw from. Even the Caribbean in terms of Guyana and Grenada where my mum is from, and also the Caribbean diaspora I write a lot about them. I was the girl who had to finish a book, who was always reading and I would often be under my bed reading –  so I had an active imagination. In school in Guyana, I was on the debating team and I was on the poetry recitation team. We had different houses. Mine was the green house. So that kind of performative aspect was important, if there were ten of us reading a poem, I would ask to go last and build on everybody else’s energy. If we were doing Blake, or Wordsworth – we were always doing classical British male poets – I didn’t think they were female poets about then, you would really feed off these other readers. So, by the time it came to you, would bring it to life in a way.

I’ve always said books were my friends, more so than other people. I think all of that and then coming back to England and being an outsider, within the British landscape, within school has had an impact. I stayed in my Aunt’s household, who I hadn’t met, only spoken to on the phone, and it was such a stark difference in environment. I think it made an impression on me. Also, in school I was bullied a lot and I did not make a lot of friends easily in the beginning, whereas in Guyana I had so many friends. So, I read a lot and I asked the librarian if I could shelve the books. I didn’t understand, with my Caribbean self, the point of being in the playground for lunch and for break. It’s so cold. I was trying to find a way not to be in the playground and I realised she really needs someone to shelve those books for her in the library, you know, so I talked with her about shelving the books. Else, I’d be in the middle of the playground reading and a football would hit me or someone with run into me. For years, I walked up my road reading a book, I’d get off the bus and I knew how to navigate the road when reading. I was an average kind of reader and reading was my world. Mostly novels, my favourite poet was William Blake. Growing up in the Caribbean as well on Saturday mornings you had Louise Bennett who is who is a Jamaican poet and storyteller who would be on the radio, telling stories and sharing poems, and I would not miss them. It was religious! All of that I think played a part in me becoming a writer just loving the worlds I could exchange into. I think it’s no coincidence that my poems are more narrative forms than lyric.

You have made quite an interesting point there about the whiteness, and the maleness of poetry that is taught in secondary schools. I’m quite interested in how that impacts who takes English Literature at A-Level, and beyond, that knock on effect. Poetry is bigger than those writers and we sort of narrow the scope for young people. Consequently, we’re finding it quite difficult to bring in submissions, or draw in submissions from black and ethnic communities to The Broken Spine and that’s a problem we’re trying to remedy at the moment. With this in mind, what was it that served as inspiration to set up Malika’s Poetry Kitchen?

I’m a community junkie. Even now you know I have communities in Facebook groups, where we write together. It’s perilous being a lonely writer, writing in your room, or in your head all the time. There’s something to be said for writing communally, or to having a community that you kind of support and that you’re into. So, Roger Robinson and myself we’re always around craft. We were always reading and writing, but we felt that in literature at that time there was a very big demarcation between literature and performance. We felt like we wouldn’t ever be published. There were no doors opening in terms of publishing and so Spread the Word, this literary organisation, started. They invited Kwame Dawes who had just won the Forward Poetry Prize and they invited him to do Afro styles. There were a lot of poets who had been performing and building reputations for ourselves through performing. For our work at that time, Roger and I brought over a lot of poets and we were responsible for kind of showcasing so called published poets and performance poets, and beginner poets alongside headline poets. So, we would always have this kind of intergenerational conversation. But we couldn’t feel that happening within the community that we were reading and performing around. Poets like Patience Agbabi, and Bernadine Evaristo have gone on to be really big names on the literary scene, and we were hungry to talk about and to look at craft and every time Kwame came over from the States he would lead and we would be on it. I remember, I was sitting in my house talking to Roger Robinson saying, ‘We should have a space where we can do Afro styles, where we can write together and craft together, that creates a healthy competition but also enables learning.’  We wanted to build this community and I suppose we started to see that we had become advocates for each other. We understood each-others’ work. We wanted somewhere to bring our work and to get feedback, because that’s what you need, support. So, all these things we felt we wanted to happen. I was so talking to Roger in my kitchen and he said, ‘We should start this!’ I said ‘Okay. Great! Where should we have it?’ Roger said, ‘In this house.’ We started the next week because that’s what you’re like when you’re young. We started asking people if they wanted to come to the kitchen. I said to Roger, ‘What should we call it? He said ‘Malika’s Kitchen, at first it we had poets and novelists, and then it gradually became Malika’s Poetry Kitchen. The first person the first day we had one poet. The poor poet sat for an hour between Roger and I doing poetics, but wasn’t traumatised and came back the next week and we had more people. The majority of the poets who came in the early days were black, but we were but were a space for people who wanted to write and who weren’t getting that chance or space to write and those who were marginalised, be they women or whole communities. I thought we were just going to meet one Friday a month and when we finished that second Friday, everyone just said ‘See you next week!’ So, for about the first I don’t know seven years of it, I was always on a Thursday night, cleaning up my house because these guys were coming over. We would rotate, I would teach, Roger would teach and then we recruited Jacob Sam-La Rose so we would rotate us teaching, and then gradually we would have other people in the group lead the Kitchen. Now the Kitchen is run and directed by Jill Abram. It runs the same way, people bring their skills in to lead the Kitchen sessions, which are craft motivated. They might look at lyric poetry or prose poetry or something that they’re reading at that moment that they want to discuss in contemporary poems. But it’s mostly about encourage in writing, setting goals, really upping your game, encouraging reading too. Then we have feedback sessions.

I think that we share that kinship in the way that we have similar ideas about community  and that is something that we’re trying to establish. At the moment we have Twitter where Paul and I found each other again and that community is vast, but it’s not always the kindest and sometimes unpleasant things go on so we’re making use of Discord to provide a safe space for the sharing of successes and failures, where work can be workshopped.

Writers need a safe space in order to in order to bring our vulnerabilities, bring our raw work, to try out things that we’ve never tried before. We need people who know what we’re doing to challenge us and say, ‘I can see your growth and development’ or ‘It’s time for you to start writing that chapbook now, you’ve got enough poems.’  

Is the work that you send out in written submissions, the very same work that you would perform?

I think that Roger and I will always have the belief that the poems have to stand up on the page, but that’s why we were interested in craft. We used Poetry for the People by June Jordan as a blueprint because she’s done that in L.A. She set up and she had this book that we used to help us create a workshop and put together a space safe space for people. We’ve always said you that you must learn as much as you can about poetry and poetics in order for your work to stand up. There are people who come from different walks of life, I’ve collaborated with a poet called Roberto in Brazil who is a performance poet who comes from the acting tradition. As an actor he has never written anything down and comes from an acting/slam-poetry/rap background. But he has learned the craft of oration, of acting, of rapping, of internal rhymes, so I think whichever way that you want to pursue poetry you have to be honest with yourself and understand that you still need to develop the craft of it. You still need to push yourselves as artists to grow and to develop. So, I advocate reading, writing, watching performances. I think there was a space where Roger and I because they weren’t that many poets who were performing, we would watch a lot of singers. I’m always doing that. I’m watching how they use the space; how they use the stage; how they use the microphone; how they create intimacy; how they build a scene. If I go to the theatre part of me is looking at the play, but another part of me is looking at what I can take out of that as a performer, you know what I mean? Most of all we looked at stand-up comedians because they’re the closest you can get to poetry. We ask how did they drop a punchline? How did they negotiate the space with the audience? How did they create an intimacy? How did they tell a story to make you feel like you’re in your backyard listening to your uncle telling jokes? It’s very performative. I also went to a lot of workshops. I went to a lot of mime workshops, to theatrical workshops at Battersea Arts Centre where I worked for a long time. So, in terms of performance I was always feeling that I needed to learn to develop and be better. I advocate this to the people I mentor. Even if you’re saying that you’re a performance poet – you still have to learn elements of poetry, you have to understand repetition in poetry, rhyme in poetry. You also have to understand how to command the stage. You also have to understand that your poems become a script, and that each poem is a different script, mood, or mentality. You have to understand and look for the cliches in performance, just as you have to look for them in writing. So, I advocate that. Craft! Craft! Craft! Reading and studying for the  lifetime!

There are no shortcuts! May I pick up that correlation that you have drawn between the poet and the comedian? This relationship is what drew me, the poet, towards comedy studies when I undertook my MA, and is potentially something I will consider studying and researching beyond that. I am interested in the way that both the poet and the comedian look at life and experience from skewed perspectives. How do you view the role of the poet compares to that of the stand-up-comic?

There’s an amazing storyteller called Jan Blake and I remember her telling a story about how Truth and Story were travelling and telling the world facts and morals and stuff like that. They found that everyone listened to Story, everyone took heed of Story; but they didn’t really take heed of Truth. Jan Blake if you’re listening, I’m sorry for butchering that. But I think there’s something important there, in that the stand-up comedian and the poet are observing life and mirroring it back to the audience. This means the audience can look at themselves without the cringing. They can look at the stereotypes, racial or sexual; our rituals and nuances; our idiosyncrasies. The best comedians are the ones who spin a story and use a lot of repetition before they come back on themselves but something has shifted and changed in that story. I think the comedians role is to transform people, so they can laugh at themselves and have empathy. But through laughter they’re able to look in that mirror even if it’s ugly. I think the poet does the same thing but I think also what the poet also does is be silent in a crowded room and then see the little butterfly right in the corner. They will magnify that butterfly and create empathy for that butterfly. The poet will enable that butterfly to inhabit the emotions and the feelings as well as the story of what’s happening in the room, so the poet is not reporting but they are actually scrutinising, and observing, and transforming, and questioning, and capturing, imbuing that butterfly with human qualities with human emotions. This is why for me there’s a value in poets going into schools. When poets go into schools they encourage young people, especially teenagers because they are dealing with a lot and they don’t know how to talk about it. So, poets encourage them to express themselves, to understand that the poetic form is a cousin of song, and where in song you can sing and the melody enables you to have a shift and this enables you to feel emotional, here you can transform your experience and get it out of your head and onto the page as an expression, right? Maybe then they will understand poetry. They will realise that a first draft of a poem is usually a vomit on the page and then their craft comes  later. I think that’s the impact of poetry. I remember the Poetry Library saying they would have a lot of queries of people looking for a particular poem for Christenings or for a funeral or for a wedding. These are three of the most important transitions in life and often these people hate poetry and they say, ‘I have never been into poetry, but there’s this poem and it has this line in it and I need it, do you know can you find this poem for me? Because I can’t talk at my father’s funeral but this poem can do it for me.’ Also look at when dictators come in, who are the first people that they go after? The writers, usually the journalists and poets. Journalists because they report exactly what’s happening, if they’re good journalists and they are independent. But also, the poets, because they have the power to tap into an emotional landscape and to be able to reflect it back. When you read a poem, for a moment you are transformed; you are transfixed. You understand! I think it is Milosz who writes of how he’s walking to his death and he’s writing on this piece of paper and he’s not writing for an audience, he’s trying to capture this person being killed in front of him, that he’s going to be killed. We are fortunate to get those poems because his widow and everybody exhumed that space and found the poems, but those poems tell us about humanity. They tell us about what is happening, about the human being at the end of experience. They help us to understand atrocities in a different way because that one individual is just writing that miniscule thing. It’s not this number of Jews, this number of women, it’s just one tiny moment and that moment is just so devastatingly big, and so the role of the poet is very complex and it’s a really big role and it’s very, very important. It was important when Trump got in; people turned to poetry and prayer. Throughout his administration poetry became more and more popular. With George Floyd people turned to poetry. In Lockdown people have been turning to poetry. Poetry books have started have been selling really well. Why, at the post the most devastating, the most challenging, at the most transitional periods in life have they turned to the poets?

I think that on the back of what happened with the pandemic, with COVID-19, the widely reported Black Lives Matter movement, that we editors have a genuine responsibility to document these things. I think that we have to find space and provide platforms to people who want to write about their personal lived experience of COVID-19, their lived experience of #BLM and all that protest. We are working to drive up the number of submissions from artists of colour toward our Artist Collective, but it’s something that we’re struggling to do. We feel that at times we’re unable to reach those artists and those communities. It is interesting to be able to speak to somebody like yourself who is from one of those communities, and has worked with those communities and ask questions about how we might be able to reach those individuals and their communities, so we can be truly representative and not just be another publication that publishes white writers with a limited perspective. I suppose I’m really interested in the democratisation of poetry, making it accessible to all, making everybody feel like their voice is just as important as the next persons, be you Black, white, Asian or whatever. Be you an emerging poet or an established poet, young or old. Good poetry is good poetry, but how can we begin to win the trust of hitherto marginalised artists and  communities? How we can potentially break down those barriers going forward?

I wonder if it’s through true collaborations, through conversations with organisations that have that that clientele and maybe having guest editors from those spaces. Or maybe you guys go into those spaces and speak about the magazine. I think it’s collaborations that are the key. I think there are organisations out there who’ve done the work and gathered the people, and it’s about you collaborating with them in an effort to penetrate those communities by showing them what you are doing and what you want to do going forward. Then those communities will work by word of mouth, you know then they go ‘Wow well if you want to send your stuff off this place might be the best place to send it off to.’ I think that’s a really great way to kind of do that. I’m just going to grab some names out the hat, you might try to collaborate with Caleb Femi, or you might collaborate with Rachel Long, or you might collaborate with Jacob Sam-La Rose. I’m sure that extends to trying to get representation of the Trans and of LGBTQ writers too, so I think that we understand that those spaces exist, and find ways in which you able to encourage them to submit. While the submissions they would still go through the submission process, to ensure that the work is of quality, but also so these folk they will go through that process of submitting and understanding how to get work published. I think that’s one of the things that I would advocate or say because that’s a really good way, you don’t have to do a lot of leg work because poetry does not pay a lot of money. It’s your passion! So, the kind the kind of work that you would need to do to be able to access those artists and communities is beyond your time. But to collaborate or to work with other organisations who do that work and have that diverse clientele, enables you to act, and enables you to access, and enables you to also tune into and raise your profile in that space. That kind of collaboration enables you to build you a community of writers, but and it also able enables you to work with people who do have the experience who do know the writers emerging within their communities and to give you access to them and raise your profile with them.

What I would say is that we are definitely being pro-active, by reaching out and having these conversations with folk like yourself, Andrew McMillan, Jericho Brown, Casey Bailey, and Nick Makoha. We’re certainly trying to move this in the right direction. We are also working with Iranian American poet Persis Karim, who is Guest Reader for TBSAC4, and Casey Bailey who will be Guest Reader for TBSAC5.

Yeah, I think these conversations are important and that your interviews will also be reflective. I think asking those questions is important and obviously you’ll be getting different answers from everybody. I suppose I’m thinking about how do you raise your profile as well as access different communities, you know? If you’re working with a writing group or a writing space that has a community that you’re collaborating with, then you are building your network so it’s kind of like a win-win.

We haven’t really spoken about your writing process, I wonder, what is it about an idea that you might have that gives you the impetus so follow it? Unfortunately, none of us artists, poets, painters et cetera have the time to follow all of our creative ideas, so I suppose I’m interested in the choices that we’re making as writers. why we make the decisions we do and if you make similar sorts of judgements about other people’s writing when you are serving as a mentor or as an educator? Are you encouraging similar things?

That’s a really, really interesting question. It actually depends on what happened with the poem. At the moment I’m reading a collection a day and that’s  because I’m trying to write a draft a day. Sometimes a draft will come out and you will look back in your notebook and think I do not remember writing you. Sometimes you’re in the middle of a draft and you know something is catching fire in this poem, and as you walk away from the draft it’s just with you, you know? And even though you are going through a writing process where you’re building up the draft you also find yourself doing research, or sometimes you find yourself finding a line somewhere else which is to that particular poem, let’s call it White Wall or let’s call it Brown Desk or whatever. You might find yourself on the street and something happens to you so you think That’s important for White Wall or brown Desk and you write a line towards it. Or you might be reading a poem and think That’s how I want to open this poem. You might find yourself going down a rabbit hole of research or looking at a space or a geography to build up the bricks of this poem and sometimes that’s when you know that this idea is haunting you and it wants to come. Then there’s some that you just read in your notes and  decide to develop/ Then there are some that just never develop, and next year you pick it out and fiddle with it and you fiddle with it and it just does not do what you want to. Then there’s a different thing as well when you’re working on a project where you have a theme, where sometimes you’re forcing something into that. Caroline Bird talks about that point when you are writing and then something takes fly and sometimes it’s all that work that you’ve done, all that groundwork, all that gathering, when you’re looking at running water you think about it, or the bird flies off and you think That pigeon is going to be important somewhere. All that gathering that you’ve done when you’ve walked away from the desk, but then you sit down and you’re there and you’re labouring and labouring then you’re like, I don’t know. Sometimes when you are reading, a line from a poem triggers a memory and you put that book down at that moment, and you’re gone and you’ve thought a full beginning draft that’s really evolved from a conversation with a writer. I just come at it in a variety of ways and sometimes it’s how it comes or it’s what you’re dealing with. In my Pepper Seed there’s this grandmother poem that I started in the second Kitchen session. Roger said we ought to write something taboo, that is so taboo that we have forgotten it and just lost it or just buried it. Pepper Seed was about eleven years in the making and actually the point that I knew that Pepper Seed was ready, because it was complex and dealing with complex things, was when I reached the point where I could write it. I didn’t have the skills to write it before and I knew it was an important poem. I say to other people, ‘All you are trying to do is get that poem! All you’re trying to do is get to that  point.’ Today, I’m reading In Nearby Bushes by Kei Miller and I stuck a post-it note in because it triggered an idea, and if this gets me a poem I’m happy, right?

But also, when I’m not getting a poem, I am still building skills. When I’m looking at someone I’m mentoring I’m always thinking What is the poem trying to do? What does the poem need? How can they facilitate that? Do they have to go and skill up? Do they have to go and read something? With a lot of beginner writers there’s something their raw talent has, like the raw talent for me was that I could tell a story, I didn’t know how to tell it in a poetic form, but I could tell a story. So, every time I started, I started with a story. Some people when they start, begin with sparse images, that’s what they do. If I’m looking at your work I’m not going try and make you narrative. I’m going look at what you need, maybe for your next step, what you need to push. Sometimes someone needs to work on imagery; sometimes someone needs to work on musicality. I am going to be looking at the possibilities for that writer, what is showing itself to me? How can they equip themselves with that, though reading or with exercises that would actually enable them? It might be that they need to work on line breaks or it might be that they need to work on being precise, or developing their understanding of what precision is. It might be that they need to work on how to tell a story because they’re trying to do that. I’ve been mentored by some of the best mentors in the world in terms of poetry, Kwame Dawes, W.N. Herbert, and Patricia Smith. What I realised about these poets was they got my work because they widely read. Because they’re widely read, and familiar with a variety of poetics, they are able to empower the poets they mentor.

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