Described as “spellbinding”, Malika Booker launches our series on poetry and poets. With a career spanning 23 years, Booker is an unforgettable spoken word artist and playwright. Currently the first poet in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), she is also the first British poet to be a Fellow at Cave Canem, the prestigious African American poetry body. The founder of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, tells Joy Francis about her current projects and why, as a poet, you never stop learning.
What have you been doing as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s first poet in residence?
I was commissioned to write poems responding to the reopening of the historic building. I have been gathering personal stories from visitors, many of whom have been using the theatre for years, and RSC staff. I’ve had people tell me about their visits to the theatre, their journeys through the years and the first play that they saw, such as seeing Paul Robeson in the 1950s. I created low key installations which allowed people to put up their stories, answer questions or make appointments to meet with me. I wrote four narrative poems based on the interviews, which was challenging, and I keep a blog.
Is there a story or situation that stands out for you?
I interviewed this amazing nine-year-old girl who wanted to work with me on a poem. She came in specifically to see “the poet”. I filmed her for the blog. I also did a Desert Island Disc on Shakespeare. Also some of my poems will be placed on the wall at the RSC.
Did you feel part of the RSC during this creative process?
Yes I did. I had a space in the Swan Room, which had a picture of me and what I was doing. People could come and talk to me. I also had a space in the café area. It has been great. The process has taken a year. I got to see so many of the plays. The RSC team is very talented. Their work ethic made me feel lazy.
How would you describe the state of British poetry?
There are still issues in publishing poetry but there is a thriving spoken word artists’ scene. I was a part of Ten – The Complete Works Showcase [a two year project to support talented black and Asian poets in their professional development], along with people like Roger Robinson, and spearheaded by Bernardine Evaristo. Being part of this meant I was mentored by Professor Bill Herbert from Newcastle University. It is still a difficult landscape to negotiate, but something is happening.
You are now part of an African American poetry powerhouse – Cave Canem. As a Black British poet, that must feel pretty special.
It has been phenomenal. I was overwhelmed at first. You have to apply and be shortlisted. Graduates include Elizabeth Alexander who read for Barack Obama at his inauguration. I got accepted in June 2010 as a Cave Canem Fellow. I was the first British poet to be accepted onto the programme. You have five years to complete the programme, and go to three retreats. It enables me to have a bigger conversation beyond the British landscape.
What next for you?
I’m also doing the final edits of my poetry manuscript, which will be published by Pepal Tree Press. I don’t have a name as yet. I’ve been studying and working at my craft. You have to keep up as poetry is very demanding. I will also be going tour with Roger Robinson, where we will revisit our solo shows, 10 years on.
What advice do you have for aspiring poets?
It is not an easy road. You’ve got to commit all the way and always know that you are learning. If you are a computer programmer who started in the 1980s you would have to keep up with what’s happening in 2012. Poetry is no different. You must go to workshops and meet other inspiring poets. Have the conversations that you need to have and build up your own network. Meet the tutors who are more experienced. Build your craft and know who came before. And don’t just read Western poetry, read widely.
My mother wanted to boil the salt out of the fish,
so much harsh salt, then chip that saltfish smaller
and smaller so she could cope with the hawked spit
of her patients, their hatred gutting her raw
so that some days she wanted to tell them
it’s only skin, we bleed the same underneath,
but she held it in. Some days she wanted to crawl
back into her mother’s belly, her little island home
and be safe. Some days she wished she had stayed
in that small place because this country
couldn’t handle green fruit; If you study the cruel dogs
in this place, they go bite you up, break you down,
everyday you feel like your teeth cracking
on hard stale cassava bread. This place ain’t winning at all,
is like they don’t realise we still have a home to go back to.
©Copyright Malika Booker 2012