Nick Makoha talks to Malika Booker, Keith Jarrett and Raymond Antrobus about their inspirations and what keeps them going as poets.
Listen to the audio of their conversations here, or read the transcript.
Nick Makoha: Because this is part of the Obsidian Collection, and we’re hoping that, you know, the recording of these poems will be encouragement for future writers, future black poets, not just from the UK, which we are, just where we’re based, but we’re all, as you’ve heard, we’re all from all over the place. But how did you keep it going? Cause I’ve known all of you least for 10 years, at least, at least. Just a quick one around the room, Malika? How do you keep it going?
Malika Booker: Um, well, I think it’s community. Like, I reach out to Keith and say ‘help me’, you know? For the formative parts of my life I’ve hung out with Roger Robinson, Jacob Sam-La Rose, Karen McCarthy Woolf. There’s a greeting that we used to have, as well. As soon as we saw each other we’d be like ‘What are you reading?’ And I know I pass that on to Raymond and Raymond has taken it like…
Nick Makoha: Oh, he’s got it clear.
Malika Booker: Raymond’s taken it clear!
Nick Makoha: You should have a book club, and I’ll be a part of it. I swear to God, yo.
Malika Booker: When we met, first of all people would say ‘What are you reading, yo have you discovered this poet?’ And we would talk poetry, we would finish poetry events and talk poetry in cafes and in restaurants.
And also being mentored, being taught, and every time seeing those same people. Because in the wider world, everyone’s like ‘What’s that, what are you doing, what’s your real job? What do you really do?’ But actually seeing people who are like, ‘What are you writing? What’s the latest thing you wrote? You know, if I know I’m going to see one of you guys it’s like ‘oh, I’ve got to finish a poem!’ So in the times that I wasn’t writing, or I felt like I wanted to give up. I would just see one of you guys. And then you would say something to me. Or, you know, I’d go to see a poet or sometimes just I write surrounded by my community. I have a bookcase –
Nick Makoha: The bookcase is mad.
Malika Booker: You just pull someone off the bookcase, sometimes when you’re stuck, you know? And actually, sometimes when you can’t write it’s agonising. It’s like a tension in your head. Like, what am I doing? What’s happening? This sense of loss. So I think I use even you guys’ achievements. You know, oh, wow Ray’s got a book out… Oh Wow, Ray’s got a podcast.
Nick Makoha: Yeah that was good. I went to your launch. That was encouraging.
Malika Booker: And so that that kind of like, oh, wow, you know, Nii’s book has just you know…
Nick Makoha: Dropped.
Malika Booker: … this has happened to Nii’s book and then I go, right. Okay. These are my people. I gotta write some more.
Nick Makoha: Or like when Keith became a doctor.
Malika Booker: A doctor, yes, a PhD doctor.
Nick Makoha: You’re now Doctor Who!
Malika Booker: Yeah, that that’s kind of what helped me. I’ll stop there.
Raymond Antrobus: Yeah, that’s a good, that’s a good question and I think you answer differently on different days. But yes, definitely, like being grounded with other poets around me, being mentored. I mean, Malika Booker was literally my first mentor in poetry. I’d say when I was like, really trying to understand what it is that my mission was, I just had some, like, instinct to just write and I, and I’ve had it since I was a kid. You know, that’s something I sometimes feel like having to prove to people, I’m like, you know, this isn’t a trend for me, this is something I know I’m going to be doing for my life.
Nick Makoha: Yes, you have to admit to yourself as well.
Raymond Antrobus: Yeah, you know what I mean, I really realised that, like what Malika just said about you feel it when you are not writing, you’re like, oh, I’m really not my best self unless I’m engaging with poetry, with writing, with language, with something. You know, I was writing about this recently, actually, in my notebook, just about, what is it? Am I missing something now, in the kind of you know, being out there as like a public poet when for so long it was a very private thing? I wouldn’t dare let anyone read what I was writing. It was only for me. And the way, like, this idea of success…someone asked me recently, what is success to you? And I was like, you know, people talk about awards and all that kind of visible manifestation of success, which are very, like kind of conventional and public. But there’s something in it that’s like, nah man, the success for me has to be that, that quiet thing. That thing when you’ve written the thing you know you needed to.
Nick Makoha: That is success, you’re right. The writing of a poem. When you when you write a poem is it’s like scoring a goal, man.
Raymond Antrobus: It’s such a feeling, of flow. And even, like, no-one else has read it yet, it just this private thing that’s just you. And you’re like, you’re good today, writing went well today, you know, I ate well, I wrote well, and I’m living a life chasing that constantly, and I feel that’s a good life.
Nick Makoha: And you have to admit that has more quality than the outward manifestation, that’s the real purchase.
Raymond Antrobus: Yes, completely.
Malika Booker: Because there is nothing more humbling than the page. Because every time you have an idea, you’re starting from scratch, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. And the failures and everything, nobody sees all of that. They just see the one that that came out shining like gold. But there’s all the bronze pieces and the woods!
Nick Makoha: When you didn’t put your running shoes on and your feet are burning.
Malika Booker: Yeah.
Nick Makoha: Okay, Keith, how about you?
Keith Jarrett: I’d say Malika you said it all with ‘community’. And that’s one thing that’s definitely kept me going, just feeling that there are other people who get it. And so it kind of reinforces that inner drive. And also for me, because I write in other forms and because obviously other aspects of my life happen, I also have the understanding that I will be more productive on a kind of first draft level on some days, weeks, months, than at other times. So there are some days where I struggle to write, and there are gonna be other days where it just comes out and I’m like, oh okay, this is good. And understanding that…
Nick Makoha: The fluctuation.
Keith Jarrett: Yeah, that is helpful, because otherwise you can panic you are never going to be able to write a good poem again.
Nick Makoha: When I was a young poet, I struggled. I know coming to Malika when Malika’s Kitchen was in its early infancy and I confided in Malika. I said to her, ‘listen, I’m broken’, because I wasn’t reading, I wasn’t writing enough and I was struggling. And you were right, it’s about community. But also I think what it was what I didn’t realise then, that I realise now, is that this poetry thing, you can’t just turn it off and on. You have to keep at it, even when the outside world is saying something else. So that took me a while to understand. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re getting a commission or not, or there’s a workshop to go to or not or, you know, money’s coming in or not. Do something around the poetry and that means actively reading, writing, or something that is productive, because there are things you can do around poetry that aren’t poetry and you can fool yourself for a long while. But actually, there are foundational things that you can do and part of that is community support, that is engaging with other writers because, you know, no, no team works on its own. No individual has success on their own, you need to have engagement, that’s what I’ve realised.
Raymond Antrobus: That’s true. I mean, yeah, it is, like, everyone in this room right now has at some point given me that carry on. You know, you’ve seen some bad poems of mine man!