PN Review Print and Online Poetry Magazine
News and Notes
Digital Access to PN Review
Access the latest issues, plus back issues of PN Review with Exact Editions For PN Review subscribers: access the PN Review digital archive via the Exact Editions app Exactly or the Exact Editions website, you will first need to know your PN Review ID number. read more
Poems Articles Interviews Reports Reviews Contributors
Gratis Ad 1
Monthly Carcanet Books
Next Issue Thomas Kinsella in conversation Jeffrey Wainwright comes to grips with St Chad Hsien Min Toh gives us a Korean perspective Iain Bamforth on Lou and Fritz: Sensible Shoes meets Starstruck Judith Bishop on Love and Self-Understanding in an Algorhythmic Age
Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This article is taken from PN Review 241, Volume 44 Number 5, May - June 2018.

the Fat Black Woman

In Praise of the Fat Black Woman & Volume
Kei Miller
I

THERE IS A POEM from The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion that I almost never read in England. There is something of the volume of that poem which seems out of place – even crude – in the supposed quiet of a British landscape. It is poem xxiii, in which the Rastaman chants most loudly, calling for the fall of Babylon – a proper nyabinghi chant, a summoning of fire and brimstone. The first time I read that poem in public was in Trinidad. I really was in no state to give a reading that night. Thirty hours earlier, I had been in the Middle East – in Northern Iraq, giving poetry workshops in the shadow of bombed-out buildings. I had flown a torturous route – Iraq to Vienna, Vienna to London, then London to Trinidad. My body was confused by all the climate changes – starting from the dry desert, going through the last strains of a European winter, and deposited at last into the tropical heat of the Caribbean. I should have gone straight to sleep, but instead they drove me from the airport to the reading venue. I am not certain now why I chose to read that particular bit of verse; perhaps it was an instinctive knowing that some poems have within them their own energy and need little help from their readers. Still it surprised me how, given voice, the poem was such a different animal from how it sat tamely on the page. It wasn’t the poem’s own volume that surprised me, but how it in turn elicited volume. It seemed to ask for a chorus of chanters and the Caribbean crowd willingly provided this. Lighters were lit up against the night, hands were clapping and someone shouted that most militant Rastafari shout: More Fire!

I knew such a poem would not work the same way in England. It could not. So I have mostly left it alone to do its quieter work on the page. Some sounds are not easily accommodated in a British landscape. Some sounds do not make sense here. A passage from Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day has always stayed with me, and is instructive. It is that moment when Mr Stevens, the butler, is pondering the supposed greatness of Great Britain:

And yet what precisely is this ‘greatness’? Just where, or in what, does it lie? I am quite aware that it would take a far wiser head than mine to answer such a question, but if I were forced to hazard a guess, I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it. In comparison, the sorts of sights offered in such places as Africa and America, though undoubtedly very exciting, would, I am sure, strike the objective viewer as inferior on account of their unseemly demonstrativeness.

Perhaps this is it. Perhaps I do not read the poem because of what I fear will be seen as its ‘unseemly demonstrativeness’. Still, there are days when I think if anyone were to read that poem, and in this landscape, and not only to read it, but to solicit from the timid audience a chant of ‘More Fire’ or ‘Jah! Rastafari!’ it would be the Fat Black Woman. I have loved her for so many years, from the time I met her in Jamaica and she began to tell me many things – about poetry, about theory and about this other country that I would be moving to, and how I might fight for a space within it.

*

My early encounters with England and with Englishness had been through literature. There were, of course, many Englands that I met on the page, for here was a literature so old and so vital that the country stretched itself across time and locations and dialects. From the valiant campaigns of knights to the courtly world of kings, from the balls and dinners of Jane Austen to the bleakness of Charles Dickens, and all the way up to a  post-war country, the complexion of its cities radically changing as its colonial subjects poured in to help rebuild. It was here, on the page, that I met the Fat Black Woman.

Grace Nichols’s 1982 collection – the Fat Black Woman’s Poems – is, ironically, a slim collection, and Grace Nichols a slim woman. And yet, I had always imagined the Fat Black Woman as her own author. It is in fact Nichols who encourages us to do this in the very title of the collection – that possessive which grants the character authorship. The Fat Black Woman will not only be written about but will share in the writing of herself. The Fat Black Woman defies our expectations; she rejects the stereotypes that have been thrown at her like ill-fitting hand-me-downs that she should still be grateful to wear. She is not some big breasted, head-rag wearing mammy figure. She is no Aunt Jemima flipping pancakes for the pickaninnies. Such roles would deny her her sexuality or a certain sophistication. At best, such roles allow her a kind of folksy wisdom, but never intellect or theoretical complexity. The Fat Black Woman, however, glories in her sexuality, the pleasure of her own soft centre, and also she relishes her mind – the sheer playfulness of her thoughts, and how she is able to bring strange and sometimes dissonant ideas into a productive relationship with each other.

Despite her strong sense of self and her humorous outlook, it is not always easy for the Fat Black Woman. She knows herself, but England hardly knows her at all. Sometimes she attempts to speak to the world, but her sounds do not always make sense in the cold landscape. Oftentimes she is shooshed, or not heard, or miraculously, not seen.

The Fat Black Woman lives in a world whose ‘Everyman’ – that suspicious hero who has since migrated from literature to Hollywood and so still stands today as the standard bearer of ‘the universal story’ – is almost always slim, white and male. In class, my students often tell me that they would like to write a ‘universal story’ and I think they have the advantage to do this because they are white, and from England, and almost any story they write with characters who look like them will be considered universal. But Grace Nichols’s character and co-author, triply othered – fat and black and female – stands as Everyman’s antithesis. She is a person whose stories are only ever specific to her – a person whose stories will only ever be ‘black’ stories, or ‘woman’ stories. The Fat Black Woman is systematically denied the broader representative powers which she sometimes yearns for. In one of her poems she watches the Miss World pageant, hopeful and despondent at the same time:

Tonight the fat black woman
is all agaze
Will some Miss (Plump at least
If not fat and black) uphold her name

The fat black woman awaits in vain
Slim after slim aspirant appears
Baring her treasures in hopeful despair

The poem is poignant precisely for the way it holds the two contrasting emotions in close proximity – the hope, and the despair. Rather than negate, they accentuate each other. The Fat Black Woman cannot help but hope that she could live in a world – in an England – that accommodates her, but isn’t so naïve to think it would ever happen. In watching the Miss World Pageant, the Fat Black Woman once again encounters a world of aesthetics that cannot see beauty in her own body.

In ‘The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies’ Andrea Shaw writes:

Fatness and blackness have come to share a remarkably similar and complex relationship with the female body: both characteristics require degrees of erasure in order to render women viable entities by Western Aesthetic standards. Beauty pageants attest to this erasure: the more a contestant’s body conforms to the cultural ideal of slenderness and the better a contestant can ‘perform’ whiteness both physiologically and behaviourally, the more improved her chances at success.

The Grace Nichols poem that I keep returning to is ‘Tropical Death’. In it, the Fat Black Woman expresses perhaps a morbid nostalgia for the funereal rituals of the Caribbean. She desires to be the author not just of poems, but of her own death, or at least the rituals that will inevitably surround her dying. There are sounds that often attend death in the Caribbean – loud sounds – and to her own ears, these sounds are beautiful. These beautiful and loud sounds, however, do not make sense in England. The restrained and quiet landscape cannot make sense of such volume:

The fat black woman want
A brilliant tropical death
Not a cold sojourn
In some North Europe far / forlorn

The fat black woman want
some heat / hibiscus at her feet
blue sea dress
to wrap her neat

The fat black woman want
some bawl
no quiet jerk tear wiping
a polite hearse withdrawal

The fat black woman want
All her dead rights
First night
Third night
Nine night
All the sleepless droning
Red eyed wake nights

In the heart
of her mother’s sweetrest
in the shade
of the sunleaf’s cool bless
in the bloom
of her people’s bloodrest

the fat black woman want
a brilliant tropical death yes.

When Fiona Sampson quotes this poem in her book ‘After the Lyric’, she redacts the two stanzas that stand out to me, the third and fourth, from ‘The fat black woman want / some bawl’ to ‘All the sleepless droning / red eyed wake nights’. It was here that I began to think of more than what Andrea Shaw calls the Fat Black Woman’s disobedient and unruly political body – but also her aesthetics, her poetics. The Fat Black Woman, already triply othered, is in fact a site of multiple alterities. It is not just her weight, her race and her gender that sets her apart from everyman but also her sense of what is beautiful – her desire for volume – and her ability to read complexity, sophistication and perfectly pitched tastefulness within that volume. The Fat Black Woman would like to hear a good old-fashioned bawl – a screaming out – and then to be lulled by those sleepless droning red-eyed wake nights. But all of this is unavailable to her in the politeness of Britain.

I must be fair to Samson. In ‘After The Lyric’ she is not anthologising Nichols but writing about her critically; she can only reference parts of the poem. Still, it is interesting to me that it is these particular lines – this call for volume – that is inadvertently muted.

The Fat Black Woman when weighed beside and against the slim white everyman, embodies not only disobedience and unruliness but a necessary corrective, a sort of counter-aesthetic, a necessary rejection of the ways we have tended to valorise restraint and subtlety as markers of poetic excellence. The Fat Black Woman privileges excess – though even this word ‘excess’ might be problematic for the Fat Black Woman. It suggests, perhaps, that a committee somewhere decided on what would be considered sufficient quantity. But who was on this committee? When and where did they meet? How did they make their decisions? Which cultures, which counter ideas of beauty and wit, which alternative exercises of intelligence are (purposely or inadvertently) excluded from its small remit?

II

The Fat Black Woman has pushed me into difficult waters – waters that I am ill equipped to swim in. Here in the present ocean of this essay are massive philosophical ideas about aesthetics and the appreciation of art – ideas that have carried on from Aristotle to Hegel to Kant, back and forth questions of whether beauty is inherent or socially constructed, on whether aesthetics as a discipline belongs to the sciences or to philosophy? What does it mean to be a human in search of beauty? What does it mean to work as an artist involved in the construction of beauty?

I choose to paddle in a slightly smaller pond. My concern here is poetry, and its critical reception, especially here in England. I want to challenge that old and unrelenting aesthetic that has tried (whether knowingly or not) to set limits on the volume at which good poetry can be pitched.

This is a debate that has always split me with surprising neatness. On the one hand, the critic in me accepts that ideas of beauty, cultures of aesthetics are socially constructed. I am wholly persuaded by Simon Gikandi’s argument that the Western culture of aesthetics was profoundly affected by the institution of slavery. ‘Slavery and taste,’ he writes ‘came to be intimately connected even when they were structurally constructed as radical opposites.’ He is therefore interested in the ‘introjection of slavery into the realm of manners, civility, sense and sensibility’. Ideals that we still hold in such esteem today – ideas of restraint and subtlety and quiet, were in fact counterpoints to the perception of the enslaved black body. It was bodies such as the Fat Black Woman’s, and bodies such as my own, and a perception of the cultures from which these bodies had been stolen that became useful opposites with which to define and construct a new modernity. To be civilised, to be mannered, to be a person of good taste was to be as different from the Fat Black Woman as possible.

The critic in me is saddened by the profound damage and erasures that these ideas of civility and beauty have done to us – the fact of black women who might never see themselves as beautiful, or the fact that the boyishly handsome dancehall artist from Jamaica, Beenie Man, can sing with such pride ‘Mi black and mi ugly, a Africa mi come from’. Or the fact that Caribbean people who want sometimes to bawl, must try to contain themselves, or else feel uncivilised and uncouth to give in to that counter aesthetic.

Sometimes the critic in me feels that this whole business of aesthetics has been so deeply hurtful that we should do away with it completely, if only to stop those ripples that have never stopped spreading since the stone of chattel slavery was dropped into the waters of our collective humanity.

But how could I ever do away with aesthetics – the whole beautiful shebang of it, however distasteful its undersides? I am not only a critic; I am primarily a writer – a poet and a novelist. I am someone whose daily work tries to create beauty rather than dismantle the flawed systems by which we appreciate such beauty. Some days – I do not mind admitting this – I think of myself as an ambitious writer. I would like the book I write today to be better than the book I wrote yesterday. With such ambition comes the necessary acceptance of goal posts. What do I mark as good, and what then is better? I also teach Creative Writing, and if I am to tell a student that this poem or this passage doesn’t work, or that this sentence is muddled or clunky, or that this line could be better, then once again I must accept and buy into a culture of taste, perhaps even the very culture of taste that my critical self would like to rebel against.

I live therefore in a deeply conflicted state, recognising that I have been able to flourish artistically within a system that was constructed to exclude me, and my body, and the sounds that come out of black mouths. It is a system that continues to exclude several of my peers whose poems might be deemed too loud or too aggressive. I make a compromise. It is not ideal. It could never be ideal. Perhaps at heart, I am an incrementalist. I try to write poems that gradually turn up the volume. I want to adjust my readers’ ears, slowly, slowly, to a world of sound and beauty that they had not been capable of hearing before.

It is work that must be done. Of critical importance here is our profound impoverishment because of the vast continents of poetry that we have either dismissed too casually or never heard at all because it came to us like ultrasound – pitched at volumes so loud the English ear was unable to hear them. Of critical importance here is the critical language which we continue to use in reviewing discourse, words we offer up in our assessment of whether a poem or a collection is good or bad, words that pretend to be neutral but are burdened with so much history – words that I have hinted at before like subtle, quiet, restrained, elegant. These are words that have been attached to my own work but which I suggest act as a sort of dog whistle criticism. The majority of people might not hear what is happening beneath such accolades, not even those who genuinely meant to compliment me, but to some extent I am being praised for the extent to which I am black, but not too black – the ways in which I have pitched blackness at an appropriate volume. Of critical importance here, as our cities and writing cultures become so much more diverse and cross-pollinated, is the extent to which such an outdated sense of taste unfairly disadvantages both black and white poets who don’t perform beauty or intelligence in expected ways, and on the other unfairly privileges both white and black poets who know how conform to these norms.

III

I will probably be fairly accused of indulging in an overly Romantic and folksy essentialising of what it means to be from the Caribbean and to write the Caribbean, but sometimes I think every Caribbean poet is really a Fat Black Woman – or at least we all have Fat Black Woman tendencies. Even Walcott did – he who was so often seen as the most English of us, the Caribbean poet most comfortable to embrace Western tradition. ‘I feel no shame in having endured the colonial experience,’ he once wrote. ‘It was cruel, but it created our literature.’ Over and over Walcott has articulated similar thoughts – counting himself not just as any inheritor but a royal inheritor into the tradition of English language poetry. ‘The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination; it is the property of the language itself. I have never felt inhibited in trying to write as well as the greatest English poets.’ But that tradition could seem so quiet, that the Fat Black Woman did not rush into it. Walcott was aware of her absence, even as he accused her unfairly of not writing as well as she could. ‘I yearn for the company of better Caribbean poetry, quite frankly. I feel a little lonely.’

Too much has been made about the supposed lines drawn between the two great Caribbean poets, Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite. We like to imagine them constantly side-eyeing each other. But this much is fair, that Brathwaite has been the poet-critic much more invested in challenging the very culture of taste and aesthetics that favoured poets such as Walcott. Whereas Walcott writes, ‘My life must not be made public / until I’ve learned to suffer in accurate iambics’, Brathwaite famously writes:

What is even more important as we develop this business of emergent language in the Caribbean, is the actual rhythm and the syllables, the very software, in a way, of the language. What English has given us as a model for poetry, and to a lesser extent prose (but poetry is the basic tool here), is the pentameter… But the pentameter carries with it a certain kind of experience, which is not the experience of the hurricane. The hurricane does not roar in pentameters. And that’s the problem: how do you get a rhythm which approximates the natural experience, the environmental experience?

We should pay attention to that word – ‘roar’ – its invocation of volume, and the clear suggestion that such volume is necessarily compromised or reduced if and when it tries to fit itself into another aesthetic culture.

But you see, even Walcott wrote poetry that roared with a beauty and a floridness that did not sit easily within English sensibilities. And it cost him – for even a poet as lauded and celebrated as he was, was occasionally sidelined by the English need to police volume.

In 2014 I became the first writer of colour to win the Forward Prize and much of the subsequent press made a fuss about this supposed accomplishment. I wasn’t sure that I thought of it as an accomplishment. I thought about the black-American comedian Chris Rock, who has questioned the notion of ‘black progress’. To believe in ‘black progress’ is to believe that black bodies were deserving of the discrimination and the segregation that they had faced before. To believe in the progress of the victimised is to believe that only now have they advanced to the point of deserving greater inclusion. For Chris Rock, to call even Obama’s rise to the White House as evidence of black progress would be to accept the fallacy that no black man before, and certainly no fat black woman, had ever been worthy of the presidency. What we so often call ‘black progress’ according to Rock is simply white people acting less crazy. Or better still, it is white progress.

I felt very much the same in relation to the Forward Prize. I was not the first person of colour who deserved to win it. At the very least that distinction belonged to Walcott. In 2010, as his illustrious career was drawing to its close, it was widely assumed that the two friends and Nobel laureates, Derek Walcott and Seamus Heaney, would be going head to head for the prize. In the end – to much surprise – Walcott wasn’t even shortlisted. Other people were not surprised at all. The chief judge of the Forward Prizes that year was Ruth Padel, Walcott’s rival for the Oxford Professorship in Poetry. A year before, Padel had engaged in a messy and highly public smear campaign against Walcott. Still, it wasn’t Padel who was the most outspoken of the judges. It was the poet Hugo Williams who provided the most telling statement:

Walcott seems to have dropped off; this was not his best thing. I read his first book when I was 18. I thought it a bit florid, and I’ve stayed with that.

Walcott was outed for having Fat Black Woman ways. Walcott himself, while happy to embrace a Western aesthetic has commented on this kind of excess, this rapture, this volume, that so often creeps into Caribbean poetry. He writes:

For tourists, the sunshine cannot be serious. Winter adds depth and darkness to life as well as to literature, and in the unending summer of the tropics not even poverty or poetry seems capable of being profound because the nature around it is so exultant, so resolutely ecstatic, like its music.

In 2010, his usually concealed Fat Black Womanness had worked against him. And if, as I suggest, such English condescension could be used against a poet with the clout of Walcott, how much more must it have been used, and used effectively, against poets whose names I would not even know to mention now – poets who have been successfully silenced, dismissed, unpraised. And this is what is at stake here.

It might interest you to know that Hugo Williams had similarly cutting remarks for the other Nobel laureate, Heaney, who did make it onto the short list. ‘It’s a brave effort,’ said the judge. ‘It’s not his finest hour but nevertheless he’s there.’

Hardly a ringing endorsement. Yet, it was not enough to keep Heaney off the shortlist, and it was not enough to prevent him from winning eventually. Walcott would go on that year to win the T.S. Eliot prize, and in four years I would go on to win the Forward Prize from a shortlist in which most bookies were predicting the winner would be none other than Hugo Williams himself. Is it petty and mean-spirited of me to admit this – that my victory over Hugo Williams that night, made me feel – to put it plainly – smug?

IV

If there is a poem that I do not read for fear of its volume, there is a poet in my lineage who I do not acknowledge enough for the same reason – the Jamaican poet and activist Staceyann Chin. It must have been at around the same time that I had met Walcott and he had told us about poetry not being a democracy. I had recently dropped out of university and with no degree and no career to claim I was embracing the vocation of writer. Several stories had been written and I was only just beginning to feel my way into poetry. I knew the sequence of poems I wanted to write – portraits of Jamaican church women, and I had written perhaps the first three.

And then there came Calabash – the first staging of what would become one of the major international literary festivals. In that first year, its smallest staging, we were huddled under a tent at Jake’s resort. There were whispers before Staceyann took to the stage. Someone near me, obviously a friend, said to another friend – ‘She’s back there – feeling nervous you know. The whole lesbian thing, and reading in Jamaica. She’s just trying to gather her nerves.’ And these two women held hands as if wishing and praying for strength for this poet.

I had never heard of or heard this lesbian Jamaican poet before. I gather most people in the audience hadn’t either. This was the moment when she would scream her way into Jamaica’s popular consciousness. There was a palpable and raw energy that textured the air the moment she walked up to the microphone. She was such a skinny thing – an Afro-Chinese-Jamaican woman rocking an Angela Davis afro. And there was something so nervous and vulnerable and exciting about her, the way she carried with her this energy that would never ebb. How could a woman so small, control the air so magnificently? She read her first poem and the energy grew into something magical and extraordinary. It is not hubris to say she was transforming Jamaica; my little island, which at the time was even more homophobic than it is now, was being held in the palm of her hand and being moved by a performance the likes of which the island had never experienced before. And she was so loud! Her poems were not so much recited as they were screamed – and yet, they always felt perfectly pitched. Nothing was excessive. This was poetry coming at its highest gale force, Brathwaite’s prophesied hurricane of sound, and we were caught in its middle. Like a landscape that had just endured a hurricane, I knew that my poetry would forever carry the imprint of the storm. Useless branches were torn away. Something new was about to flourish. My poetry had been profoundly and forever changed.

Only now – a decade after that storm has passed, have I stopped to think about the nature of the change. Other poets had affected me before – Emily Dickinson, Lorna Goodison and W. S. Merwin – but I had encountered them on the page, relatively muted. The voice that I imagined as theirs was really my own. I encountered Staceyann on stage, in the dizzying decibels of her own volume. Her voice was her own – and this was what she gave to me – a voice, or at least the sense of it, and a range of performative gestures. I have never shouted at the decibels of a Staceyann Chin and yet she affected the volume at which I both read and wrote poems. What changed immediately was my performance; I would never read my own poems in the same way again, with an affected shyness that one was made to believe was the way serious poets read – eyes glued to the page on which we insist our poetry is rooted.

There was this small productive moment in my emergence as a poet that the old and oftentimes false barriers between performance poetry and written poetry did not exist for me. Inevitably, those barriers come back up; the institutions of poetry and our cultures of taste are invested in maintaining them – but there was that productive moment when I was open and receptive to a slam poet affecting my work just as much as the long dead Emily Dickinson. Performance teachers are often brought in to teach poets how to read their own poems – how to let the words rise off the page, but back then I was learning the lesson in reverse. I was beginning to wonder how we put sounds onto the page, how to write the volume I was so affected by.

In the direct aftermath of Staceyann’s performance, her influence was embarrassingly obvious. My flailing hands for instance, and the ways I would walk to a lectern with a batch of papers, glancing only at the first line before tossing it to the wind and reciting the poem instead from memory. These had been her gestures and for a little while they had become mine. I’m not certain when I lost these, but I did. Yet I think there is still something of Staceyann in my voice.

In one of the poems that she loved to read a decade ago, performing it even on BET Def Poetry Jam – the young poet imagines herself in the future – the kind of woman she would like to become. ‘If only out of vanity, I have wondered what kind of woman I will be.’ She writes, ‘I want to be forty years old, and weigh 300 pounds and ride a motorcycle in the wintertime, four hell-raising children and a 110-pound female lover who writes poetry about my life.’

What is so wonderful here is not only that she casts her present self as her future lover but that the self that she transforms into is none other than the Fat Black Woman, this embodiment of so many of Staceyann Chin’s poetics – the impoliteness, the brazenness, the sheer volume of it.

I’m embarrassed now that I have hardly acknowledged the influence of Staceyann Chin who in polite and tasteful literary circles does not stand up well as a suitable influence. In the very next line of the poem ‘If Only Out Of Vanity’, Chin says, ‘I want to be the girl your parents will use as a bad example of a lady’. I don’t know much about that, but she certainly is, for many, the bad example of a poet. She has not gone on to publish a full collection. Her much awaited first book, when it finally did come out and to great success, was in fact a memoir. Though she was touring America, Africa and Asia, packing schools and auditoriums, appearing on slots on the Oprah Winfrey show, the poetry community had still dismissed her. No, they said. This is not poetry. It doesn’t make sense to even try.

In 2014 I had the opportunity to read with Staceyann in Johannesburg. The night was billed as two Jamaican acts on one stage – but in truth, I was her opening act. It was one of those incredibly large stages you would imagine for a rock concert rather than a poetry reading. It opened onto a large football field. My reading did not go particularly well. It seems I had become the kind of poet whose volume does not demand immediate attention. I had become a poet without flailing hands because those hands needed to hold on to the books that I was reading from. I read my poems that night, but the audience never came forward to the stage. They remained in their little groups, congregated around the field. They continued their conversations until I was done. And then it was time for Staceyann Chin. All at once the little groups converged into a crowd. They moved as one to the stage. The old excitement that I myself had experienced years ago at Calabash was there again. She mostly read from the memoir she had written, but even her prose was pitched at the same volume with which she used to read poems. Again she was able to hold the crowd in the swell of her energy. In the end, she did read a few poems – haikus. Honestly, I thought they were terrible poems. I am certain that it isn’t a fault of memory but the poems in Johannesburg were not the ones I had heard in Jamaica. These new poems were lazy, didactic – they lacked images. But to say these things, am I now judging her poetry through the same aesthetic lens that this essay has tried to challenge? Yes, perhaps I am. But I also know that she had given up. She had felt the brunt of rejection from the poetry gatekeepers for so long that these new poems no longer made even the smallest attempt to please them. By the time I met her again in South Africa, it was as if she had accepted that she would never publish a collection, that she was more of an activist than she was an author. It was activism then that required volume. Poetry didn’t. So why write poems to win the approval of those so intent on ignoring her?

That night in Johannesburg, I felt a quality of loss which is a feeling that I need to think about. Remember – this was a night in which my own poetry had failed to spark anything in that crowd while Staceyann drew them all towards her and ignited a kind of fire. Why should I feel any loss, any sadness, any emotion that was textured with a sort of pity? Who was I to pity her?

I write this essay in praise of Staceyann Chin whose voice I insist, echoes inside my own – textures the edges of it.

I write this essay against a critical landscape, a reviewing discourse that still continues to heap accolades and praise onto poets for their restraint and their subtlety and their quietness, not stopping nearly enough to think how such praise can be racially loaded.

I write this essay in praise of the Fat Black Woman, her theories of brilliant bawling, and the beautiful rituals which she speaks up for – first night, third night, ninth night – all the sleepless droning red eyed wakes nights.

I write this essay in praise of volume.

This article is taken from PN Review 241, Volume 44 Number 5, May - June 2018.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
Further Reading: - Kei Miller More Articles by... (1) Report by... (1) Poem by... (1)
Searching, please wait... animated waiting image