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Reviewed by Lisa J. Long

Friday, October 29, 2010.



‘Ten: New poets spread the word’ is a groundbreaking anthology of poems showcasing the talents of ‘ten’ British Black and Asian poets. The anthology, published by Bloodaxe, was the result of  ‘The complete works’  mentoring programme, initiated in the wake of evidence that less than one percent of all poetry books published in the UK are by Black or Asian authors.  


Thematically, the anthology covers every angle of human existence: Life, death, loss, love, family, exile, trauma, witness, nature, as well as some themes tied to Black identity in Britain such as the legacy of slavery and dual heritage identity.


The first section by Karen McCarthy Woolf is a sequence of six poems based on her own experience of the death of her child at birth. Hers is a penetrating collection, exploring through multiple styles, from metaphorical verse to free style, pregnancy through to the grieving process.  One of the most memorable lines in this collection is in ‘Yellow Logic’; it lays bare on the page, the raw pain of loss converging with the irrationality of the questions posed in grief, “Was it because I should have, bought those handmade, pony hair boots”.


Rowyda Amin’s poem ‘Grandparents’ synchronically explores the multiple themes of memory, nostalgia and familial roots:  “I need to smell their saffron, So I dig them, Out of the earth like soggy bags.”  Amin’s urgent lyrics evoke a sense of desperate longing for familiar aromas and places. She keeps digging until she reaches the “mythical chattering of all the daffodil teeth”.


Roger Robinson in ‘He New La Diablesse’ (for the sex tourists of Tobago), draws on Caribbean folklore to narrate through the eyes of a sex worker, the impact of sex tourism on the island: “To those young men seeking sex, Husbands cheating on their wives. The vain, The opportunists, the experimenters, the kinky-I am the bait for hell, the ecstatic funk of death.” His words have a raw aggressive energy in contrast to the tender portrait of La Diablesse that one is left with.


Seni Seneviratne’s most engaging work is ‘Sitting for the mistress’, based on a portrait of Louise de Kéroualle, The Duchess of Portsmouth and French  mistress of England’s King Charles II, posing with her slave girl. Narrated by the slave girl, across five separate portrait sittings, Seneviratne uses the metaphor of a blackbird to represent the internal consciousness of the slave girl, articulating her bodies desire to move from the position she is forced to sit. Her focus becomes keeping the bird still, representing the internal drama: “blackbird pecks my inside skin so my legs begin to shake. She spreads her wings, pushes at my ribcage, whirls into the sky screeching, and the longing for freedom and the return to her ‘maman’.”


Mir Mahfuz Ali writes poetry of witness; his subject matter is shocking with a brutal honesty. In ‘My Salma’, he writes a harrowing portrayal of atrocity in beautifully descriptive verse, “He laughed as he pumped his rifle-blue buttocks in the Hemonti sun. Then covered in Bengal’s soft soil, he offered her to the next soldier in line”. The juxtaposition of atrocity being described so lyrically drew me back time after time.  


Nick Makoha’s work is shaped by his own experiences of exile and like Mir Mahuz Ali, he writes poetry of witness. In ‘Beatitude’, Makoha explores war and flight, creating hard hitting imagery, the verse is edgy and flows as quickly and as urgently as the flight itself. “Run till you no longer see yourself in other men’s eyes. Run past sleep, past darkness visible. Stop when you find a country where they do not know your name.”


This anthology blazes with talent and every work deserves mention, space not permitting, it is an essential read.  


With a cover featuring Chris Ofili’s ‘Afro Jezebel’, the anthology is divided into sections, each poet introduced by their mentors:  Paul Farley, W N Herbert, Stephen Knight, Mimi Khalvati, Pascale Petit, Michael Schmidt, John Stammers, Michael Symmons Roberts, Catherine Smith and George Szirtes.


The mentors’ introduction contextualises the work and provides some interesting stylistic points, although it does read in a slightly patronising tone in places, where the mentor has offered their interpretation of the work to follow this interrupts the flow of the reading, predefining it and taking the joy of the interpretive process away from the reader a little.


In spanning such a wide range of themes, this book dispels the stereotypical view that Black and Asian poetry is a ‘ghettoised’ category focused on resistance and reflecting an experience outside of the mainstream, written for consumption by an exclusively black or Asian audience.  It is a global journey through the Caribbean, Europe, Asia and Africa and represents the fusions between all of these places and Britain. It speaks to the experiences and places that make up our rich global heritage and it is relevant to every poetry reader in Britain, as well as globally.  


This anthology is a proof, if ever it was needed, that the publishing industry has got it wrong. I hope that this anthology is only the first of many more like it.

In the words of Roque Dalton "...poetry like bread is for everyone..my veins don't end in me but in the unanimous blood of those who struggle for life, love, little things, landscape and bread, the poetry for everyone"



Editors: Bernadine Evaristo & Daljit Nagra


Poets: Mir Mahfuz Ali. Rowyda Amn. Malika Booker. Karen McCarthy Woolf. Nick Makoha. Roger Robinson. Denise Saul. Seni Seneviratne. Shazea Quaraishi. Janet Kofi Sekpo


Lisa J. Long lives in Harrogate, England.


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