Five Birmingham Poets
Birmingham may be famous for its Spaghetti Junction or its new, glittering Bull Ring centre, but, for those who want to look a bit further, there is another major attraction: Black British or Afro-Caribbean performance poetry.
Dr. Eric Doumerc is conducting an ongoing research of the Caribbean oral traditions' influence on Black British performance poetry. His main interests include the study of Jamaican deejaying (the early 1970s period) and its influence on oral poetry.
In Birmingham he interviews five poets with Caribbean and other international links. In the book are the responses and poetry of Sue Brown, Moqapi Selassie, Leon Blades, Martin Glynn and Roi Kwabena, all poets living in this vibrant British city. Dr Doumerc tells us about Five Birmingham Poets:
The West Indian presence in Brum dates back at least to the 1950s when many immigrants from Jamaica and other then-British islands in the Caribbean came over to rebuild the economy, work in the NHS and on the local buses.
Five Birmingham Poets
In the 1970s, these immigrants’ children, the new Black British generation, made their voices heard through reggae and sound-system culture, and one of the local reggae bands, Steel Pulse, from Handsworth, went on to achieve considerable success all over the world. The other Birmingham-based reggae band that made it internationally is of course UB40, today considered as reggae ambassadors.
So West Indian culture has always been a massive presence in Birmingham, but its local black poetry scene is not as well known as its vibrant music scene. A new book attempts to draw attention to that little-known scene.
The book is entitled Five Birmingham Poets and is made up of interviews with and poems by five Birmingham-based performance poets of Afro-Caribbean parentage: Leon Blades, Sue Brown, Martin Glynn, Roi Kwabena and Moqapi Selassie.
These writers represent various facets of the Caribbean oral tradition which includes songs, proverbs, riddles, religious hymns, mento, reggae and calypso tunes, but are also Black British poets.
Indeed, Sue Brown, Martin Glynn, Moqapi Selassie were born and raised in Britain while Leon Blades and Roi Kwabena came to this country in the 1960s and 1980s respectively and have been living in Britain long enough to be considered as British.
The Caribbean oral tradition is probably most visible in Moqapi Selassie’s and Roi Kwabena’s pieces, with their debt to reggae and calypso respectively, and their use of dialect.
Birmingham Dub poet Moqapi Selassie
In 'Respeck Due', a poem he wrote many years ago and that he uses at the beginning of his performances, Moqapi Selassie pays tribute to the late Louise Bennett (1919-2006), the great Jamaican poet who pioneered the use of dialect poetry in the Caribbean:
Moqapi’s 'Confidence' is a morale-boosting piece and bears the imprint of the Jamaican deejaying tradition:
Roi Kwabena’s 'As is Oui' reads or sounds like a calypso and celebrates the power of Trinidadian popular culture and “mas”, while his 'Birmingham – Capital of Culture', written when he was Poet Laureate for Britain’s second largest city in 2001-2202, celebrates the many riches and the multicultural nature of Brum:
Caribbean culture features prominently in Leon Blades’ poems and his “Tribute” to the Baptists of his native Trinidad is a reminder of the importance of religion in people’s daily lives in the Caribbean, but also of the persecution that the Shouters, as they were known, had to suffer in the days of the Empire:
You shout, you groan, you prophesy,
Martin’s “Tranes Blue Madness”, his tribute to John Coltrane, pushes boundaries and challenges the notion of what a Black British performance poem is supposed to be. Indeed the poem’s rhythm is patterned after Coltrane’s bassline and the relentless drive of the piece is meant to recreate the phenomenon of mental depression:
Sue’s pieces about greed, personal relationships or the beauty of an English autumn also redefine the nature of Black British poetry:
Autumn in the park, suddenly it’s autumn in the park.
Leon Blades, Sue Brown, Martin Glynn, Roi Kwabena and Moqapi Selassie represent a tradition that started in the Caribbean and continues to flower in Britain.
Their poems are characterised by a variety of styles and approaches, from dub poetry to jazz poetry, and by a broad thematic range. These poets perform regularly in the West Midlands area. Next time you’re in Brum, go and see them.
Five Birmingham Poets is available on www.lulu.com
last updated: 07/10/2009 at 12:55