Dorothea Smartt is a stunning performance artist and poet. She has taught in the United Kingdom, and Bahrain, South Africa, Barbados and the U.S, after beginning her writing life in the Black/feminist co-operatives of the Eighties, and publishing her first work in anthologies. She plunges into a complex and diverse world which embraces Banjul, Barbados and her London base, Brixton. Little wonder, then, that she has been dubbed the “Brit born Bajan International” by her iconic mentor, Kamau Braithwaite, who clearly recognised her strong inner voice, so evident to listener and reader, and validated her blossoming poetic identity. Smartt turns out to be both the site-specific child of her South London upbringing, and a chorus member of the vocal Caribbean Diaspora, laying claim to more distant, shared identities, which speak in different voices and draw on historic memory and myth. The unique characteristics of these voices are wrought out of archaeological evidence, the private language of family and a vivid imagination. Smartt’s unifying gift is her unfailing musical ear, which ensures strong thematic material is expressed in an appropriate tone and key, with powerful rhythmic effects, well judged climaxes and dying or open-ended cadences. She is as meticulous in framing resilient snapshots of her bullied Battersea childhood, as she is in recreating the blighted life of a young enslaved African boy, imagining both his anguish and loneliness before an untimely death and desolate coastal burial.

One of her recurrent subjects, rich in poetic potential, is Black women’s hair, in particular the more specifically (perceived) threatening transformations of her own once familiar dreadlocks into snakes and, ultimately, herself into the petrifying image of Medusa. Such heady metaphors allow Smartt to explore a wide range of aspirations and wrong-headed assumptions, as well as creating a multi-faceted portrait of one particular woman; a more generalised idea of all Black women; and a wider mythical image, where that defining stubborn stuff itself, the Black woman’s Afro hair, is writhing and alive, spitting venom like those serpents which, according to Ovid, adorned as a perpetual punishment the horrified and terrifying Gorgon’s (once) beautiful head. The reptiles are only subdued, as it were, by hair-straightening, and a popular chemical for that is comically called ‘lye’ – a “Fact”, as Smartt records in ‘Five Strands of Hair’ – wherein lie the Black Medusa’s symbolic duality and her terrible dilemma: her ancestral origins, history and identity are tied up in that same hair which now (supposedly) appears to limit and torment her and even threaten the onlooker. In Connecting Medium (2001) the Brit-born Bajan explores socio-political and personal issues in the intertwined themes of distant heritage, home and hair with a firm, often angry, hold on reality, as well as a sympathetic awareness of underlying recurrent hopes and dreams.

These “Diaspora lines” weave people and histories in a “worldwide web” which enables the poet to be a conduit for pictures and narratives from a past forever yielding up stark unsentimental truths. In many poems Smartt the time-traveller crosses cultural boundaries with confident ease, speaking in the appropriate register, polishing diction with her eye and ear alive to its linguistic, musical and moral currency. Her borrowings and invention come together in Samboo’s Grave/Bilal’s Grave (2008), a collection which serves as both memento mori and uncomfortable fable for contemporary Britain and the wider world. A series of poems commissioned to highlight a campaign for a memorial to Lancaster’s involvement in the slave trade, it is a powerful sequence of haunting snapshots which capture an African-Caribbean slave boy’s abject existence after being “kicked from his calabash pot” by his captor and brought back to Lancaster as a gift for the sea captain’s wife. “’Boy’” or “’Samboo’” as he was called, would die not long after his presentation, and religious and racial bigotry prevented those high-minded Lancastrians from admitting him to a Christian cemetery. So in a bleak spot near the mouth of the River Lune he was laid to rest and abandoned to the elements: “Here I lie. A hollow/ Samboo. Filled with your tears/ and regrets.” His grave is marked by a plaque bearing a lengthy poetic epitaph written sixty years later, in 1796, and it is at this bleak memorial that Smartt too lays herself down: “waiting for full earth to speak to me,/ waiting for buried bones to whisper/ as a flow of fears floods through me.” These elegiac, poignant lyrics of loss occasionally give way to more violent emotions as in ‘The 99 Names of the Samboo’, a bold incantation variously naming the ”beloved” and the “damned”, which shocks in its relentless blows and their cumulative effect. Smartt re-names ‘Samboo’ Bilal, inhabits Bilal’s very being, tracing and feeling every heartbreaking pang of his trajectory from Fulani Muslim boy to black novelty in proud “Lancaster life”. Her reclamation of his abandoned figure is an act of familial love, exemplary humanity and timely justice, which welcomes Bilal into a Diasporic mythology and, poetically, gathers him into the artifice of eternity.

Of course, being just a small part of this “worldwide web” does not lessen the significance of Smartt’s South London self, circumscribed by Battersea and Brixton, and nurtured in the proudly kept home of her immigrant parents, arrivals from Barbados in Fifties’ Britain. Her poems about domestic and school life address the private world of childhood with vivid insights, as do those tackling the commonplace slights still suffered in contemporary Britain – ‘Pissed Off’ is hilarious and agonising. And it is in some of these often funny rants and ruminations that she slips into the Caribbean rhythm and sing-song of her first speech, only to tumble headlong back into the ‘sarth Lunnun’ accent acquired during her Battersea youth. Such subtle counterpoint requires precise vocal skills, and as a reader, Smartt is superb in her miniature dramatisations of image and emotion; and though her poems own the printed page as well as she hopes, they do nevertheless live more fully in the mind when performed by their immensely talented creator.

Dorothea Smartt’s Favourite Poetry Sayings:

““…poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives. As they become known to and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas. They become a safe-house for that difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action. “ ” – Audre Lord, ‘Poetry is not a Luxury’

““That poetry is the highest art and the most exacting service devoted to our most serious, and our most imaginative, deployment of verbs and nouns on behalf of whatever and whoever we cherish.” ” – June Jordan, Poetry for the People

Poems by Dorothea Smartt

c.1967 – Sweet potato n’ callaloo - Dorothea Smartt
Bringing it all back Home - Dorothea Smartt
Shake my Future - Dorothea Smartt
Generations Dreaming I - Dorothea Smartt
Black Girl Shuffle - Dorothea Smartt
Connecting Medium II - Dorothea Smartt
Dorothea Smartt in the Poetry Store

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Books by Dorothea Smartt



Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature

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