Who’s got the beat? Poetry, form, and who “owns” it

When my daughter was born, I had several people—including some relatives—tell me how lucky it was that she had an Afro-Caribbean father “because now she might have a hope of being a good dancer”. While I’ll admit that my own Charlie Brown-style dancing is a source of endless amusement to my friends, I suspect this might be at least as much down to my preferring reading to both school dances and (later) clubbing as it is to my whiteness. After all, my historical ancestors (Polish and Irish) invented dances that swept the world in their popularity. But this is the problem with stereotypes—it is as easy to find exceptions as it is to find cases that fit the rule. And stereotypes can be self-fulfilling as well; white people told they can’t dance believe that they can’t, and then they don’t try to improve, or they do try and their efforts aren’t recognized by those evaluating them (whether formally or informally).

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This rather long and personal preamble comes because stereotypes affect children’s publishing as well, and this produces both positive and less positive results. If you look at the last fifty years of British children’s poetry, for example, the non-white poets come predominantly from a single ethnic/racial group: Afro-Caribbeans. And there are some fantastic poets, about whom I have written and will continue to write. John Agard, Grace Nichols, Valerie Bloom, and Benjamin Zephaniah are among the poets that have vastly increased the richness of poetic offerings, not just for Black British, but for all British readers (and readers elsewhere lucky enough to discover them). But these authors do not all define “Caribbeanness” in poetry the same way, or in the same way all the time. John Agard often, but not always, uses patois, as does Valerie Bloom. Grace Nichols seldom does—and her poetry frequently plays with traditional British forms (such as the sonnet) to expound on Caribbean themes. Benjamin Zephaniah has his roots in the Caribbean, but was born in Handsworth, Birmingham, and his poetry uses the rhythms of the urban streets of Britain in many of his most successful poems.

The success of these poets can have a deleterious (though unintended) effect on others, however. If Afro-Caribbeans are labelled as poets (and particularly, as many have been, performance poets), then what does it mean for Afro-Caribbeans who work in other forms, or other BAME writers who are poets? Publishers give such limited space to BAME children’s writers that this can become a real issue. So while an anthology like Out of Bounds, edited by James Procter, Jackie Kay and Gemma Robinson, can show the broad range of British African, Afro-Caribbean, Indo-Caribbean, and South and East Asian poets for adults, the poetry that is published for children is far less broad in scope. A British Indian child, therefore, may grow up thinking that poetry is something that other groups of people do, and that (just as I am thought to be genetically incapable of dancing) she could never produce anything worthy of publication. This is not a plea for publishers to switch gears, and highlight some different group of people (on whatever kind of basis—just because someone is British Indian does not mean they will write “British Indian poetry,” whatever that may be) but rather to expand the options for readers, so that everyone might see themselves in poetry.

In that spirit, then, I’m pleased to highlight two books of poetry by (or edited by) poets of Indian descent. Debjani Chatterjee was born in New Delhi, but now lives in Sheffield (in the north of England). John Siddique’s father came from India, but he was born in England and lives in West Yorkshire. Both have produced books for children that deserve wide attention.

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Chatterjee edited this exuberant collection of poems–and slips some politics in while doing it.

 

Chatterjee, who received an MBE in 2008, “has been described as ‘the best-known Asian poet in the UK today,’” according to her website (debjanichatterjee.moonfruit.com), and has published more than fifty books of poetry. Most of these have been for adults, and some early poetry collections for children were published by small presses. Recently, Frances Lincoln has begun using Chatterjee as an editor for poetry colections, such as Let’s Play: Poems about Sports and Games from Around the World (edited by Chatterjee and Brian D’Arcy; London: Frances Lincoln, 2013). In this collection, Chatterjee’s own poems about sports and games play with traditional forms (the haiku and shape poetry, for example). While these poems are aimed at the general reader, to encourage readers to both play games and write their own poems (as she says in her author’s note), her own contributions are not just about sport. Particularly the “Chess Haiku” that she wrote points—in both form and content—to the global patterns of (textual and physical) migration brought about by historical trade and colonial expansion.

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Siddique’s children’s collection was shortlisted for the CLPE award.

John Siddique likewise is best known as a poet for adults, but in 2006 he published Don’t Wear it on Your Head, Don’t Stick it Down Your Pants (originally published by Inscribe, revised and published in 2010 in Salt Press’s Children’s Poetry Library). The collection was shortlisted for the CLPE poetry award, and like Chatterjee’s collections are aimed at the general reader—but also like Chatterjee’s collections, they are not apolitical. In both obvious and more oblique ways, Siddique’s collection aims to establish a place for himself (and by extension, for people like him) in Britain and in poetry. “Inside In,” for example, discusses both body shape/size and skin color, and the way that these attributes affect how others see us and we see ourselves. “Heybrook Stream Where I Used to Play” is both a poem that, as the last line indicates, is “Reminding a boy once upon a summer” (18) and establishing that Siddique belongs in Britain, more specifically in Manchester, from way back. This notion is more explicitly stated in “Born Here” which introduces the speaker as the child of an English-Indian mixed marriage, and finishes by stating “I am the future” (49). Siddique, through his poetry, shows British Indians as both the past and the future, a permanent part of British life.

 

While both these poets have a long-standing reputation as British Indian poets for adults, the (mainstream) publishing world has only recently made space for them in children’s poetry. We should welcome the broadening range of poetry written by any and all poets, and make it available to children everywhere.

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