“She is a black statue in a whitewashed wooden chair, a dilapidated board house, sitting still till dusk spreads her silk petticoat across the sagging sky and bats swarm into the evening’s canvas.”
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About Malika Booker
Malika Booker is the author of ‘Breadfruit’ (Flipped Eye Publishing, 2007) and ‘Pepper Seed’ (Peepal Tree Press, 2013), which was longlisted for the 2014 OCM Bocas Prize and shortlisted for the 2014 Seamus Heaney Centre Prize. More recently, she has won the 2019 Cholmondeley Award and the 2020 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem.
The inaugural Poet-in-Residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Booker’s work as a theatre maker and educator shines through in her poetry. She is the co-founder of Malika’s Poetry Kitchen, a writers’ collective which “nurtures the writing, performance and careers of poets by emphasising craft, community and development.”
A master of storytelling, Booker breathes such life into the theme of death. ‘In Memory of Herbert Morris’ is an example of her narrative prowess, with each stanza transporting the reader into a different avenue of the mind of Morris, a seventeen year old Jamaican WWI volunteer who was shot at dawn as punishment for his desertion. His words of defence, - “I am troubled with my head. I cannot stand the sound of the guns” - are expertly weaved into Booker’s poem, and her use of second person perspective demonstrates her keen understanding of her role as poet. Her empathetic, almost maternal verse, becomes the mediator between her readers and Morris, who never got the chance to write his own poem, to find his own path to healing. The inescapable nature of PTSD is conveyed through Booker’s use of repetition and enjambment, no thought being allowed to come to a peaceful end, but always running into the next. Deftly written, with a precise, urgent and unforgiving step, this is the kind of poem you want to keep coming back to.
In ‘Nine Nights’, a poem which earned the 2020 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, Booker offers a reimagining of the biblical story of Lazarus. Nine Nights is a funerary tradition, an extended wake which is practised in the Caribbean, and it is in this context that Booker sets her story. This piece, split into nine parts, begins by examining the experience of mourning and grief. It is interesting to observe how, before Lazarus rises, his mother is centre stage and her emotions are honoured. After Lazarus rises, disrupting the proceedings (a moment humorously explored in the sixth part, titled ‘vexation’) his mother seems to fade into the background, which raises interesting questions about the way death and grief shapes the narratives of our lives and communities. This vibrant and entertaining poem demonstrates Booker’s imaginative dexterity and knack for drama. She is supremely skilled in drawing together her passion for Caribbean culture, her revealing insight into humanity, and her theatrical vision into poetry which both enthrals and provokes. ‘Nine Nights’ invites discussion on what it is to live, love, lose, mourn and die, and what role we all have to play in the rituals that construct our experience.
Booker’s frank and thoughtful voice, which can be enjoyed all the more in her recordings of these poems, is one that will stick with you. She brings to the table an important and discerning perspective, inviting us to examine our humanity with vulnerability, humour and grace.
1st October 2022 at Spiritland Studio, North London. Photographer credit: Siro Mitchell.
Featured in the Archive
Books by Malika Booker
Forward Prize for Best Single Poem for the Little MiraclesPrize website
Cholmondeley Award for Outstanding contribution to poetryPrize website
Shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single poem for Nine NightsPrize website
Longlisted for the OCM Bocas Prize for Pepper SeedPrize website
Shortlisted for Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Pepper SeedPrize website