Last month we held a Black History Month open mic, hosted by spoken word performer Tawona Sithole. And what an event it was, showcasing the talent of five Scottish poets. But while it’s important to have this Black History Month event, I agree with Tawona, who looks forward to the day that black history ‘spills over’ the boundaries of the allotted month, and permeates discussions of history the rest of the year round. We had an exciting selection of poets reading their work: Mary Irvine, Kate Tough, Ingrid Leese, John O’Connor and Ray Evans, as well as our host Tawona. He passes a beaded bracelet around the audience and asks us to share a thought with the person we pass it on to. Poetry, he says, is a conversation, something he learnt growing up in Zimbabwe where his grandmothers were storytellers in a circle of vocal listeners. Throughout the evening he calls out and we respond with ‘hekani’, an affirmative Shona word. Tawona merges his discussion of storytelling, Zimbabwean traditions and his own spoken word pieces, sprinkling jokes throughout. His poems explore stepping stones and roots, manure as ‘fruit for the rose’, and words ‘like food, you have to cook them well’. Tawona introduces each writer by asking their birthday, and reads a corresponding saying from African Wisdom: 365 Days (Danielle and Olivier Föllmi, 2005).
Mary Irvine reads the poem-song ‘Strange Fruit’, made famous by Billie Holiday. Apparently the first time Holliday heard the song (she didn’t write it, as is often believed) the only thing she said was: what does pastoral mean? Irvine offers a mixture of music, scholarship and contemporary politics. She presents her research on the history of lynching in the US and closes by naming men who have been lynched since 2008, honouring them. This list is too long to complete.
Following the publication of her latest pamphlet tilt-shift, poet Kate Tough reads her edited version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The result is lyrical, and exposes the Declaration as hollow, and certainly not universal. Her version of Amazing Grace deals with Glasgow’s involvement in the slave trade, taking the city’s slogan – People Make Glasgow – literally. Scotland also imported sugar from plantations, and Tough links this to contemporary obesity and diabetes, ‘killing them is killing us’, she says.
Ingrid Leese reads her poems ‘Justice’, ‘Iron Mask of Shame’ and ‘The Other’, engaging with the effects of colonialism still felt today. She fuses English with Shona in ‘The Moyo Brothers’, a poem that celebrates her Zimbabwean friends (Tawona included) and their culture. We learn about the mbira (traditional thumb piano), and sadza, a cornmeal dish so popular that, as Tawona points out afterwards, people say that when you die you have left sadza behind.
John O’Connor’s ‘Long Poem’ is an epic stream of associations, ‘one’s own meanderings’, that sweeps across time and place, from Egypt to the Himalayas. He connects suffragettes and 15th century lacework; Crusaders, dolphins and Nina Simone. O’Connor alternates the absurd – ‘take a guitar strip, put it up your nostril’ – and the philosophic, in a ‘Möbius turned in on itself’. I suspect there’s more to find with each reading of this poem, which is a flood of images and characters.
Ray Evans thanks the Tories for annoying him so much that he’s been compelled to write them poetic responses. Cameron’s ‘a bunch of immigrants’ comment fuels Evans’ poem, ‘The List’, which names everyone he knows that fall into that category: friends, family, colleagues. ‘The Shipping Forecast’ and ‘Jumble Sail’ both address media portrayals of drowning refugees. The latter poem is modelled on the nursery rhyme ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, with the recurring refrain ‘they sailed to sea in a sieve’.
Words by S. McCracken