TOMBOY BOOKCLUB!- ‘Rise Up: The #Merky Story So Far’

Hello everyone! Today’s post is going to be talking about a book I got from Elvis for Christmas; I had wanted to read it for a while but felt unsure, so I am glad that he took the initiative! It is the first release under #Merky Books, ‘Rise Up: The #Merky Story So Far’, about Stormzy’s journey and the work it took to cultivate raw talent into a global force for black excellence. We are all familiar with the music and the man (if you haven’t seen the Grenfell Brit performance, go on Youtube now and change your life), but the style in how the book is written by Jude Yawson, and the perspectives on fame, work and ambition are all welcomingly new.

What I really loved was that even though Rise Up is of course focused on Stormzy, it isn’t just his voice or perspective you hear. The book pulls apart the lie of celebrity, the myth that some exceptional individuals get luckier than the rest, elevated above anonymity into the bright glare of accolade and wealth. Instead, it shows a web of like-minded, hardworking people all motivated in their differing areas of expertise for one goal: Black Excellence. Stormzy doesn’t appear as a monolithic idol isolated from his origins or the hard graft, but as a gracious, humble man who is eager and passionate about what he believes is a duty in God to uplift others using your talents. The virtues of team work, patience and humility in tough grind are core foundations for success throughout. It is like a self-help book, but a lot more sincere. It doesn’t brag about money or parties or womanizing (Stormzy is actually very big on feminism, his mother raised him well), but talks about how to persist when the going seems tough, how to see the brighter side of the bigger picture when work seems futile.

I thought reading Rise Up might make me a bit of an intruder, if that makes sense? It’s funny, because I like Stormzy, the type of music and other artists in similar genres, and was so excited when he announced the #Merky Books- yet for some unclear reason I still felt like I shouldn’t read it. As if me reading the book was another example of white people trying to steal from and gentrify black culture without any understanding of or care for the people who produced it. In reluctance to try and reach out of my own life for fear of getting things wrong, I mistakenly felt the book was meant just for people like Stormzy; young black boys trying to make it in a hostile country, not white girls like me who’ve not been forced to think about, let alone reckon with half the difficulties and setbacks the black community have been forced to. Rise Up is obviously and rightly targeted at black youth, with its message deeply invested in bringing out the best of black British talent not just in music but all industries. My point is, that even though I believed this book wasn’t meant for me, I was wrong!!! You don’t have to be able to identify with all the same experiences as another person in order to be able to listen to what they have to say, apply it to your own life, and try and use the lesson for forces of good. You don’t have to centre yourself and your own understanding of things in order to learn from what another person has to say.

That is the beautiful thing; I truly believe that even if you don’t like Grime music particularly, even if you have never learnt about, or cared enough to notice and listen to the lived experience of black youth in Britain today (if you have previously been apathetic, please start caring and try to do something), this book is universal in its ambition to empower and inspire.

That’s the whole point of Rise Up really, to prove that you should never pigeonhole people in what they should do and be able to say. Stormzy is a MC from the ends who knows how to put on a show, but he is also just as philosophical as any university scholar, as musically talented as the big producers- his capacity isn’t limited to grime or underground scenes, he uses his blackness as a bridge to reach bigger heights. To show that black boys can be successful in business and management as well as music or sport, that he isn’t only an entertainer but an educator.

Art and Music are ways of expressing emotion, ideas and debate as modes of activism, but Stormzy doesn’t take pride in pretending to have all the answers. Stormzy firmly positions himself amongst and connected to people as a web of strength through which we must all listen and help one another. Rise Up is a rallying cry for all of us to be accountable, to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be, to achieve our own excellence and share that strength with others.

My only very minor criticism would be that, because the narrative intermingles so many voices to build a timeline- like a radio chat transcribed- it could sometimes be difficult at the beginning to keep track of who everyone was without constantly flipping to the list of contributors. However, like I say this is only minor as I do believe having the various voices makes for a much more compelling and meaningful read than had it just been Stromzy alone trying to big himself up. Jude Yawson, who collected the separate stories, has done a really good job on holding onto the integrity and personality of the original conversations, all whilst making it gel into a cohesive narrative.

Overall, I would recommend Rise Up to everyone whether you like Stormzy and his music or not!!! It is a beautiful book which celebrates the fulfilment of working hard for what you love and the possibilities created by surrounding yourself with people who strive for similar goals and values. Rise Up is keen on championing and inspiring the next generation of black kings and queens to rise up (as the title says so), and is wholeheartedly invested in self-belief as the key to all success and happiness. If you are looking for a book to empower and uplift, Rise Up is perfect!!!!!! I hope you will give Stormzy a try and assist the journey of black excellence by downloading his music, reading this book and making action informed by listening to others on how to invest in and build better lives for everybody!!!!

“… I’m not trying to be that corny don. I’m not on some presidential shit. I just know that no one is going to help my little brother. You can talk about things, but you have to take action. Man can go on stage and spray a two-bar about the prime minister and get a reaction. But there’s a lot more I can do. It’s a duty…”

TOMBOY BOOKCLUB- ‘ZAMI: A NEW SPELLING OF MY NAME’

HELLO EVERYONE! LONG TIME NO SPEAK!!!! I am truly very sorry that I have been so neglectful tending my little nook of internet, but this year I am trying to be happier, badder, and in control of my self-made destiny (whatever the fuck that means) – hence, I have been a busy bee. Every weekend since the New Year has consisted of me cramming as much littiness and love into 48 hours as is humanly possible. I’ve been to the pub from 6 until 1 am with my cousin, been clubbing in Leeds, rolled many a zoot in Guildford and even managed to fly out and gallivant around the Netherlands. So you can see I haven’t been quiet for nothing, but now it’s time to get this show back on the road! I am starting 2019 (and today is Chinese New Year’s, so it does count!!!! YEAR OF THE PIG, OINK OINK BITCHES) with a bang, and will talk about one of the most beautiful, tender and courageous books I have read in a while. I am happy that I have started this new year with such an inspirational tome to guide me onwards: Zami: A New Spelling of my Name by Audre Lorde will be the jewel in the crown of today.

For anyone who hasn’t been blessed by her presence yet, Audre Lorde is the fat, black, queer poet/lover/essayist/activist/teacher of your dreams. Audre ended up being the poet laureate of New York before her tragic and too early death of Cancer at the young age of 58; in her reign upon earth, she befriended James Baldwin, was admired by Adrienne Rich and anthologized by Langston Hughes. Audre is a big fucking deal, to be frank. But this book is the story before her canonization into modern literature. This book follows her growing up as a young girl, an outsider determined with visions of poetry and survival through love, making her way in a cruel world that at best doesn’t give a fuck, and at worst actively hates her for being a fat, half-blind black girl who loves girls.

Although this book isn’t a feminist theory study guide, it is a fascinating look into the experience of what it is like to live in clashing intersections of identity, and what feminism must do to include these people. The way Audre frames her personal narrative enables her to talk honestly about the loneliness she felt in self-professed, so-called ‘progressive’ circles- and the need, if feminism truly wants to uplift all people, for feminists to encourage more discussion of difference and clashing perspectives. For instance, Audre being a lesbian in hetero-centric black spaces made her feel alienated, but simultaneously her being black in predominantly white queer spaces also made her feel aberrant. Audre lived a life of difference, embracing and cultivating all the separate influences which made up who she became, regardless of whether people approved or not. Audre knew she couldn’t please everybody, and so performed for nobody; Zami is a reckoning of different histories and mythologies- personal and private, uniquely combining to build up one life – of all the people and stories that clashed, merged, and catalysed to create the mystical being that is Audre.

Moving on from the feminist aspect, the way Audre writes her environments gripped me like a kid going to the cinema for the first time. She infuses the streets and markets with sounds and light like you’re a tiny bug flying through the air next to her, drinking in a new way of seeing. Her gentle power manifests in the sustained attention to detail throughout, turning a stoic eye on the most fleeting of moments to craft a world of mundane beauty and vibrancy. One of the most evocative moments for me is when Audre is a child and first gets new glasses (and I don’t just like this part because I too am a four eyed poet child). The world transforms with a new pair of glasses, from a smudged blur of thick shapes and shades, occasionally startled with the glamour of warbling white lights, into an unforeseen language. “Enthralled, I started up at the sudden revelation of each single and particular leaf of green, precisely shaped and laced about with unmixed light.” For Lorde, poetry is a way of seeing, of reorganizing worldly objects into alignment with unworldly emotions and ideas, shaping ‘reality’ into a coherent meaning and art. Just how her glasses helped Lorde to make sense of her place in the world, enabling her to study and appreciate the delicacies of her surroundings, poetry is also a guide towards creating new worlds. Audre didn’t just write poetry, she lived in it too.

I know I am writing a lot, but please bear with! I just AM OBSESSED with this book a lot!!!

Another reason I cherish this book as a bible for survival, is for how precious and important love is. Love, and specifically love for women, whether it be friendship, romance or familial, is a serious and driving force behind Lorde’s activism.  Let me quote: “Any world which did not have a place for me loving women was not a world in which I wanted to live, nor one which I could fight for”. It gave me Goosebumps to read her lines of intimacy, when Audre bares her soul in poetry remembering the love she made real. With different women, in different ways, sometimes believing she could never love again, but always surviving with a heart softer and stronger after suffering.

It starts with Ginger, the effervescent chubby girl Audre works at a factory with; coarse, direct and giggling in daily life, but who becomes “precious beyond compare” in Audre’s embrace. Lorde’s respect, admiration and devotion to the pleasure of the female body is serious big pussy energy which I and the world needs more of. Specifically, it warmed my soul throughout to read fat and chubby women being written as elegant, as desirable, and unquestionably loveable. The adoring way she describes Ginger as having “skin the colour of well-buttered caramel… (and) gorgeously fat, with an open knowledge about her body’s movement that was delicate and precise”. Today, fat bodies are pathologized into caricatures of negativity and shame- but Audre will have none of it. To read the pride and beauty of fat black lesbians having sex is a life affirming moment, a big fuck you to the powers that be that want us all to ignore or berate each other. This book’s revolution is in the bed sheets- tender and delicate- resonating an energy of love and togetherness that remains when we go out into the streets. I think this is a good quote to show the scope and strength that Audre believed love, WOMEN LOVE, AUTHENTIC SINCERE INCLUSIVE LOVE, could provide us to survive this cruel society: “We had come together like elements erupting into an electric storm. Exchanging energy, sharing charge, brief and drenching. Then we parted, passed, reformed, reshaping ourselves the better for the exchange…”

One of the most enduring loves in all her escapades through our hostile society is Audre’s love for her first best friend, Gennie. Gennie was “the first person (she) was conscious of loving”– reading the deep, sincere and unspeakable amounts of devotion in these words made my heart flush a hundred shades of wow. Gennie and Audre would toast marshmallows on pencils lounging on Gennie’s mother’s sofa, smoke cigarettes and craft various outfits for exploring the city, transforming each other into different characters. “Bandits, Gypsies, Foreigners of all degree, Witches, Whores and Mexican princesses”. The freedom and fun the girls relish in, exploring New York’s avenues and side-streets with candour still engrossed in their own private fantasies made me want to sing with happiness. But, it is this enchanting warmth that makes the pairs’ ending even more brutal and devastating than it already is. Without giving too much away, Gennie is lost to Audre, and it is enough to make the grim reaper weep. I couldn’t believe what I was reading when their lives started to unravel on the page, and I haven’t cried at a book like I did reading about Gennie in a long time. But, it isn’t the sadness that shines out the most. It is what Gennie taught Audre in their togetherness. That love doesn’t have to be obedience, or fear or a tradition. Love makes you feel like you can do anything, that you deserve everything, too. When love is built and then stolen, it is possibly the most devastating thing that can happen to a person. But the fact that this doesn’t necessarily have to destroy us, that we can learn from what we have lost to create new versions of the same emotion, is the hallelujah and amen of life Audre is trying to get us to sing… “how hard it was to explain to anyone who didn’t already know it that soft and tough had to be one and the same for either to work at all”.

I wish I could summarize how much this book means to me and all it can teach in a neat little explanation, but that is futile. Instead, I will leave you (at last) with a quote as per usual. But, if you think I have missed anything important in talking about this book and Audre, if there are any other Audre stans out there please join me!!!! I hope this post hasn’t been too long, but it is good to be back xoxoxo

“In a paradoxical sense, once I accepted my position as different from the larger society as well as from any sub-society- black or gay- I felt I didn’t have to try so hard. To be accepted. To look femme. To be straight. To look straight. To be proper. To look ‘nice’. To be liked. To be approved. What I didn’t realize was how much harder I had to try merely to stay alive, or rather, to stay human. How much stronger a person I became in that trying.”

TOMBOY BOOKCLUB!!!! Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire!

Hello everyone! With the recent descent of Trump and his white supremacist cronies in the US mid-terms ( may they sink ever lower) and the higgeldy-piggeldy MESS that is Brexit, Windrush and Grenfell swamping the UK with arguments over who is or is not allowed protection under ‘great’ Britannia’, it seems appropriate to talk about this book now. Today’s post is all about Akala’s first novel Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire’- I know he has also released graphic novels- i REALLY wanna read them- but I mean in terms of non-fiction hardbacks.

Natives is clever, to say the least. It boasts pages and pages of educational anti-colonial, anti-racist facts and footnotes, and you can tell that it has been a passion long in the making, articulately put together to tackle some great issues of race and class for not only Great Britain, but the entire history of the world: Apartheid and segregation, education and prison systems, white supremacy and imperial history are amongst some of the topics Akala touches upon. His aim with this book is to analyse the way race and class both intersect and feed off each other in conflict with the white state and upper classes, and how these historically institutionalised concepts affect a singular life in the making.

Akala uses the story of his own life to examine the workings of history and politics around him, and how these forces have shaped who he has become. Some people may feel he is boasting by constantly asserting his own past and achievements into the narrative of global history, but I disagree. All the auto-biography included is relevant to the intellectual arguments he makes, his own experiences generating courses of study to analyse the fates of so many working class black boys in the country. Life shown in contrast against the statistical hardship of so many others (not that Akala himself has never known these struggles himself) only makes his achievements more commendable, and indirectly highlights the need to implement what Akala’s book is trying to equip us with and inspire: the knowledge and urgency to ensure that more such rigorous insights can be written by more people who know first hand the effects of state racism and violence onto a child’s future.

It reminded me of another book about race I read earlier this year, ‘Brit(ish)‘ by Afua Hirsch, in which she also recounts the difficulties of forming an identity as a mixed race child in the UK whilst unearthing and lambasting historical racism. However, I will say that though using the same method of analysis of auto-biography these two authors’ early lives could not be any more different. With Hirsch growing up confused, but ultimately sheltered in her posh Wimbledon neighbourhood, whereas Akala’s past is definitely not privileged in any sense of the word as we would expect in the UK; yet he has a surer sense of his identity with close ties to others from the Caribbean and to young boys in similar shoes as his own. Hirsch’s book is also amazing!!!!! It shows a different environment to Akala’s, which actually enforces the point which Akala is trying to make: it doesn’t matter how high up the ladder of capitalist achievement a black person can go or is born into, they will still be ‘Othered’, still be stereotyped somehow.

This definitely isn’t a book you can rush through, it’s one you have to think over before going to the next page; maybe that’s just me, but there’s so many facts and ideas about so many topics that it would seem negligent to simply graze over them without properly trying to understand the point at hand. This is a perfect book to start learning about key concepts and issues underpinning race in Great Britain- but Akala also uses his mixed Jamaican heritage and travels across the globe to give nuanced opinions about how race and class operate differently and arbitrarily for each country depending on it’s history and geography. I think his most powerful writing comes from critiques of the UK education and Prison systems, where argument is always founded on fact and long-meditated analysis fed by numerous theorists (who he references in the back- great for people looking for further reading once they’ve finished this book!).

The lens isn’t just focused on the effect of racism and classism on black and brown people though, Akala also turns arguments back on whiteness itself. Deconstructing what is the ‘default’ identity for governments and culture to build around, and showing its true nature: not ‘default’ at all, but a highly constructed, conceptualised and insidious weapon of Capitalism to pit man against man (or woman)  despite their similar material circumstances. This is a scathing attack, and a brilliant one. As the title may suggest, it isn’t the thugs or hooligans who we should be most worried about (still, fuck the bigoted scum bags) but the ‘powers that be’,  that create the ideas and conditions in which racism can grow unchecked. From teachers defending the KKK as America’s crime fighting vigilantes (the part where he talks about his teacher arguing that the KKK stopped crime by killing black people is horrendous, but when out against the backdrop drawn from history sadly not that surprising), Nelson Mandela as an upholder rather than complete destroyer of apartheid in South Africa, to the police who end up asking him for advice on how to tackle ‘black crime’ (his critique of ‘the idea of ‘black-on’black’ crime is unquestionably good) after trying to arrest him- no authority figure is safe from Akala’s most effective weapon: his brain.

To conclude, I am going to quote a section of the book where Akala is highlighting the double edged sword that is white supremacy; at once giving it’s wielders a sense of superiority, yet completely negating any sense of individual strength of mind they could have by centring superiority on the assumed, and false, inferiority of others.

If you care about ending inequality, this book is for you xoxoxoxoxoxox

“…The long and short of it is that the master makes himself a slave to his slave by needing that domination to define him… We talk about white privilege but we rarely talk about the white burden, the burden of being tethered to a false identity, a parasitic self-definition that can only define itself in relation to blacks’ or others’ inferiority…”

TOMBOY BOOKCLUB-The Daylight Gate!!!

HAPPY HALLOWEEN MY WITCHES AND BITCHES, MY GHOULS AND GIRLS!!!! Welcome to today’s Tomboy book club on this SPOOKY OOKY KOOKY SLAM DUKEY HALLOWEEN!!!

The book I’ve chosen today seems appropriate in its evil doings and filthy ways: its full of witches digging up graves and fucking Satan, but we’ll get to more of that later. I’d never heard of Jeanette Winterson’s ‘The Daylight Gate‘ before I was crouching down hurting my knees at the bottom shelf of a charity shop bookcase with grandma looming over me (rifling through the DVD’s trying to find more films with her fave actor she loves to gush over- sorry for spoiling the secret, Chrissy), when I saw the name of beloved Jeanette and instantly reached for the spine.

The book is based off the true history (don’t worry, it still has the magical flare and fictional spell that Jeanette has made perfection) of the Lancashire Pendle Witch Trials in 1612- the home county of Winterson, too. Using details from the first ever witch trial in England to be documented, a narrative grown around the bones cast aside by history- like a reincarnation of spells- to flesh out a deliciously sordid and luscious tale of love, hatred, superstition and injustice.

Alice Nutter is the main character in the novel (it is really easy and addictive to get through though, I managed to get through it in 2 days and it would be great for a long journey!), a suspiciously aloof woman who has the audacity to live and control her own wealth without the direction of a husband’s hand. This book is full of contradictions and paradoxes, and whilst sometimes it can be a bit confusing trying to balance all the time, I think the way Winterson has created her characters to be so multiple and contradictory just adds further to mystery of the plot and hexes murmured. Alice is at once old and young, a mature woman with the face of a younger self; she is rich and supposedly got there by learning to be a merchant cloth dye trader- but how, and who taught her? Then there’s Old Demdike, the pustule ridden hag locked away in Lancaster Castle facing death, seemingly devoid of all tenderness and romance, but who actually has a past much more wild than I thought could pan out.

The male characters in this book on the whole are dicks- they are the powers that be spreading the atmosphere of fear and hatred which sent so many to death for simply choosing to live a little wilder. This book is set during the reign of King James, who is famous for writing ‘Daemonologie‘- an extensive study of witchcraft, and the ‘Dark Prince’ for whom they sell their souls. And also famous for being the target of the failed gunpowder plot, when Guy Fawkes and his lot wanted to blow up Parliament- it’s a pity they failed. But the book makes very stark the simultaneous persecution of Catholics and alleged Witches espoused under King James, making one wonder if its really witches who were the targets, or if witchcraft was merely a scapegoat for Catholics to be pinned with (“Witchery Popery, Popery Witchery“) as a justification to make those in power feel less guilty?

Using the rich men in charge to harass and essentially bully old homeless women and their families puts starkly in the foreground how class and gender were a big role in why people were really executed. It sort of makes the book more scary, as it’s not the witches who are the monsters- desperately trying any vile thing they can concoct to try to save their grandmother. The true Satan-spawn are the emotionless, and money-minded authorities- not giving a toss who they kill or why, so long as it advances their careers. They do say the real monsters aren’t the ones hiding under your bed…

Though I will give a warning to the faint hearted, this is a gristly book. Within the first ten pages a woman is raped (the book also features paedophilia and incest- but that is way to horrifying to go into here), and Winterson does not stop these relentless punches against ones morality. There are beatings, grave-diggings, torturings and orgies. Some of my highlights include when a head is severed from its rotting corpse, has a tongue ripped out of a boys mouth stitched inside its toothless jaw, is boiled in a pot and left on the side to speak. Or there’s the time teeth fall from the sky into Alice’s lap, or the time there’s a party for Satan and he literally starts shagging someone in the middle of the room with everyone watching- or the time a door knocker turns into human flesh… this book is weird, but a good weird I think. Not that I endorse any of the above acts, but the gore and fantastical gruesomeness is  one of the reasons I love Winterson, she writes the most far-fetched things, but always manages to make it seem plausible in a way we dream of.

Winterson also always manages to put my favourite part of any story in amongst this bleakness: love. That may be the most devilishly strange thing after all, that love could survive in such a place. But it does, and whilst weird, the love stories conjured in this book are wild and soaring.

I won’t write anymore, most of you either want to go trick’o’treating or partying with one of those awful plastic clown masks- I hate those. But I hope you give this frightful tale a go, and it says that it was in production to be made a film so maybe there is a film too?!? Anyways, I hope you have a lovely Halloween and don’t piss off any ghosts or anything XOXOXO

“…’Do I believe in witches? He did not like that question. The question that followed he liked less: If Alice is a witch, how can I love her? He would love her if she were a wolf that tore out his heart. And he wondered what that said about love…”

 

Tomboy Bookclub!!!- Telling Tales!!!

I first heard of Chaucer from my mum. When she studied one of her favourite parts of literature were the mysterious and boisterous lyrics from the dark ages; whether it be Old Norse Vikings or the Green Knight and Sir Gawain in Arthurian lands. I had never read any old medieval literature myself until university, but I must admit I was dreading it. I thought it would be gobbedly gook; too hard to read with ease, old, musty and gruesomely boring. But I was wrong, marvellously so. Perhaps it’s because I had a teacher who really, really loved what she taught, but reading Chaucer’s Canterbury tales really did grip me. They were profound, bawdy, hilarious and sad- sometimes all at once. I found myself seeing so many parallels between the dung heaped and bejewelled carnage of middle England, against the fibre-optic entangled and petrol dowsed world of today. Who knew that a good fart gag would be funny for people who lived hundreds of years ago the same as it is now?

This brings me to today’s Tomboy recommendation… a 21st century reworking of the world famous Canterbury Tales: ‘Telling Tales’ by Patience Agbabi. It is ambitious, riotous and enchanting in what it seeks to do. Taking Chaucer’s tried and tested lyrics, and exploding them outwards to give old stories new life in a variety of forms, from sonnet sequences to long skinny poems ricocheting their rhymes page after page.

Chaucer wrote for the sound and performance of language. Not many people could read back in day- what a surprise– and Chaucer wrote in English at a time when most ‘upper-class’ writers would have written in French; he was a proto-slam poet rebel me thinks, endorsing a language which normal people could hear and enjoy, instead of keeping all the literature in a language exclusive to nobility. And this attention to pleasing crowds with the tonal beauty of language is a tradition that Agbabi has mastered perfectly. Whether you’re reading in muted breaths on the train, or muttering the words to yourself in bed each poem has a different cadence that not only entertains, but helps reflect the story of the tale she is reworking. The lewd hilarity of the Miller’s Tale comes out with a freshness that nods to the past whilst still being perfect in reflecting how we speak and keep ourselves amused today: ‘Get me a pint of Southwark piss!/ It all took place in a pub like this.

Not only has Agbabi reworked The Canterbury Tales in a whole host of different forms to access different paces of rhyme (not all carry ordered meter, some poems use looser arrangements, fractured and sparse, more tender handlings), she has also given the pilgrims themselves a make-over. No longer are they travelling to pray at Canterbury Cathedral, competing with each other for a meal with their stories. Agbabi has them touring a poetry show, performing their poetries for each other on the way to their final destination. The characters are poets, writers- all unique, and often Kooky. The wife of Bath is now Mrs Alice Ebi Bafa, a Nigerian business woman out for money, men and laughs. The Reeve is no longer Oswald- entrepreneurial landowning sour-puss- but ‘Ozymandia’: ‘expelled from school before she learnt to hate poetry. Taught herself Anglo-Saxon… now lives in Leeds.’

One of my favourite re-tellings is that of Ozymandia Reeves’, ‘Tit for Tat’. In the original (to summarize very briefly), two clerks try to get revenge against a dastardly miller, Sympkin who lets loose the clerks’ horse and steals their grain. Vengeance is had by fucking Sympkin’s daughter and his wife, then stealing back their bread and running away after Sympkin’s wife hits him on the head with a pan (bit mad, but that’s why Chaucer is great). In Agbabi’s version, the clerks are not Cambridge scholars, but Butch Al and Fem Gen- two dykes in need of weed with a pet dog instead of a horse. The poem is told through the view of the dog (named Little Weed) and it is hilarious: ‘me, sniffer dog/ laid off, Bad dog, for sniffing drugs’. Sympkin is Psycho, a dodgy dealer who tries to sell Butch Al and Fem Jen dried lawn as purple haze. Their retaliation is based of Chaucer, and I don’t want to spoil the funniness of the poem, but I shall say this- it’s a tale of two dykes and their dog swindling a dealer with the end result of ‘free food, free dope, free cakes, free love’ (what’s not to get gassed about there?).

Ultimately, I think Chaucer would be proud of Agbabi. She takes universal themes, concerns like farting and death and fidelity and love, that were all as important back then as they are today, but re-energizes them in a way so that it doesn’t matter whether you’ve read the original (though I do recommend). She gives our multi-cultural society today a glimpse of itself through time, showing that we don’t just progress and leave what’s past behind. Humans are humans, we will always be heroic and gross and romantic- and united. I like to imagine Patience and Geoffrey together: a bi-black woman of the 21st century and a middle aged white male scholar from a time where the world was flat, both believing in the power of language to entertain and inspire, to reflect and celebrate the chaos we will always live in.

Chaucer Tales, track by track, here’s the remix
from below-the-belt base to the topnotch;
I wont stop all the clocks with a stopwatch
when the tales overrun, run offensive,
or run clean out of steam, they’re authentic
cos we’re keeping it real, reminisce this:
Chaucer Tales were an unfinished business…”

TOMBOY BOOK-CLUB!!!- ‘Please Mind the Gap’

At work recently, I have taken up a lunchtime habit. To walk outside towards St Paul’s Cathedral, plonk myself down on a bench either by the roses still hanging onto their plump colours or next to pidgins scratting around thinning grasses for crumbs or seeds, and I read. Also, I like to treat myself to some MacDonalds (but only on Fridays, so I don’t become enslaved to their global corporation of capitalist exploitation of animals, and also so I don’t become an actual potato) whilst I peruse the pages of my book of choice, exploring a whole other world contained, yet beyond the concrete noise of London. This week has been a delight, words mingling their power with the delights of tomato ketchup. I have been reading Sophie Sparham’s ‘Please Mind The Gap’.

I have actually met Sophie irl, and she is lovely. A bespectacled punk with red lips surrounding a smile, unmistakable with dreadlocks the colour of chilli peppers that hang down past her waist. She performed in Peterborough for a FreakSpeak poetry night in honour of Pride, and her poetry made me laugh and wipe away tears in equal measures that night. My slightly drunken appreciation fixed on her as she commanded the stage with a down-to-earth confidence that was not shy exactly, but was not too boisterous or forced. I spoke to her in the bathroom after she had read, we were both washing our hands. I told her how wonderful I thought her poetry was, and she thanked me with laughter and smiles, wished me luck when I said I also wrote then we went on our ways to watch the rest of the night’s wordsmiths.  Sophie is from up north in Derby, and her thick accent wasn’t difficult to listen though, it made the poems even more heartfelt and unique, evoking the places and people with whom her mind wrangled with to write these AMAZING poems.

Sophie’s poetry is the best ‘fuck you’ for days when you feel shit upon by the universe. Her work focuses on political and social issues- especially women’s issues, depression and LGBTQ+ rights. Her poems are about the mental impacts material suffering perpetuates on the mind. How anti-gay sentiments seep into the pavements of her childhood, how the rush and crush of ceaseless production wilts the heart to a hollow calculator of survival, unless we try to let the beauty in. I love her work, because the topics she talks about are serious and difficult to grasp, yet the way she phrases her work is so fluid and delightful to read I almost feel guilty sometimes for paying more attention to the control she has over rhyme and rhythm than on the crippling suffering she is trying to address and heal. It’s not only me who thinks her poetry is bomb either, in the edition I have, Benjamin Zephaniah, a poetry great, has written a foreword where he states: “I was very impressed with this fearless, compelling performer, who is unafraid to seek out the truth and comment on issues that others might shy away from“.

Her work flies above the country, and sets its visions to lands even further out to sea when imagining the unity fighting oppression demands. Her work spans the universal disappointments and difficulties of trying to be honest and happy in a world that cares more for profit and shallow popularity. But alongside these searing commentaries that I am sure Ginsberg would approve of, she also talks about her own life and memories with an intimacy that allows her point to be sharp without becoming too concerned with the details of life that she could include that would make the poems less lyrical, but more rich in specific moments. I’m not saying here that her poetry lacks imagery, it most certainly does not- but her talent and power truly does rest in the structures she can build out of rhyme and rhythm, the true gift of a poet whose work is most alive when read aloud. And, considering she tours her poetry with punk bands and at festivals, I hope many more people will be able to hear her songs, her battle cries for the release of old pain to help make concrete changes.

After first seeing Sophie perform, I expected reading her works would be the same visceral concoction of song and sadness and soul. I was not disappointed. This book is for anyone who cares, and who wants a book to pull out in fleeting moments stolen from the machine, as well as to curl up with for longer in reflection. Its style flows easily, but the issues Sparham writes about will make you want to slow down and think before rushing onto the next delicious rhyme. Her poetry will bring you eye to eye with the most confounding and saddening of injustice- social and personal- before bringing you back up to hope again and be strong against what potentially lurks behind each stranger; a smile or scorn. Her work makes clear the inevitability of our suffering, how unwittingly and silently it is committed by and against each other. But on the flip-side and more importantly, how we are all able to help each other overcome these problems we’ve made for ourselves. The words affirm that strength is not to be measured by the mainstream standards of clout or wealth or popularity: “Success means the paths we chose chose to explore/ not how high we climb”.

So, in this blog-post I want to include the first poem I heard Sophie read aloud, and the first in ‘Please Mind The Gap’. It is beautiful, and I will be damned if it doesn’t make you feel even one degree warmer inside after maybe wiping away a tear or two. Thank you for being such a wonderful and kind person Sophie, and I hope more and more people get the life-enhancing pleasure of reading and hearing your poetry!!!!

Introductory Gathering

Oh come all ye faithless, joyless and defeated
Come all ye washed out, ye chewed up and ye beaten
I want every loser,
As far as these eyes can see
To climb out of your corners and sit next to me.

Oh come all ye rejects, ye homeless, break out from your margins
Come all ye lost, troubled and drive no hard bargains
You’ll soon find that there’s no leader in this hoard
Worship yourselves
Christ, you fucking lords!

We are gathered here today to witness revolution
The coming together of our demons
As we learn the meaning of evolution
Our song birds will scream from the branches of burning trees
Not be left in their cages to sing peacefully

But they will create lawful reasons why we cannot rise together
They’ll tear us and they’ll beat us amidst this stormy weather
However, there are no exit signs here so I urge you, please don’t run
You’ll never leave this bus stop, if you’re waiting for the sun

And I don’t have faith in a god,
But I know everyone needs something to believe in
And you can build your own angels if you feel you really need them
But I would rather bow to your monsters
Put them on the committee intake
Our problems shouldn’t rule us
But it’s important to learn from our mistakes

And have you ever felt lost?
Are you lonely?
Are you the talk of the town for not buying the butchers baloney?
And are you hurt?
And are you hated?
Are you tired and wired, feeling wrong and exasperated?

Well, I’ll be your comfort in this darkened shade of blue
I don’t have faith in a god,
But I believe in you and you and you

And have you been wronged?
Are you conflicted?
By this bullshit we’re living in as long as we don’t get evicted?
And are you as tired of this everyday slog?
Did they use you and abuse you until there were no parts left to
flog?

Well bring what’s left to this table
And lets put together what we’ve got
Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not able
Your’e capable of a lot
Because blessed are the wicked, the weird and the truly despised
For allowing us to see the world through other people’s eyes

 

 

 

 

 

TOMBOY BOOK CLUB!: Hera Lindsay Bird

Today’s post is about one of my fave modern poets, Hera Lindsay Bird. She is a New Zealander poet whose work I first came across a few years ago online. Hera (such a lovely name) is a riotous mess of caring too much and not at all, of dreaming in fluffy pastel unicorn clouds all drenched with an acrid whiff of scepticism and wit. She is a lot to handle, but anything else just wouldn’t be the same.

Some may think she is arrogant, Bird did name her first book after herself using a picture of herself for the cover. But I think this hyper-exposure of her self in poetry is also a mockery of the cult of narcissism/ egotism that fuels how we interact with the world today. IDK about you, but a lot of what is ‘cool’ now seems to be based not on substance, but on who is saying it and how. You don’t actually have to believe in what you say you do, so long as there’s plenty of followers to like and retweet the version of yourself you most want to sell. Hera’s poetry blends an awareness of self necessary for sincere emotional bonding with a biting sneer towards the supremacy of the individual; simultaneously pointing to the fact that the 21st century obsession with personality and celebrity is ridiculous, yet somehow sentimental. We all want to be somebody, we just don’t know who we already are and that other people also exist.

Her poems blend the cuddly with the cruel. In one sentence she will proclaim unceasing vulnerability and then proceed to douse it in gas and set softness alight. Profane and profound, Hera uses images in her poetry to undermine any concepts of emotions being unsullied by the world around us. She even uses her front and back covers to undermine the seriousness of having a book published by one of the worlds biggest publishers (Penguin). She places praise from Carol Ann Duffy and her friend Ashleigh Young’s mum side by side, blurring the boundaries between what counts as ‘making it’. She points fun towards the darker sides of us it is often tempting to turn into elevated grandeurs of suffering. Her love bleeds, but not roses. Hera’s love bleeds a realness entangled with the similarities and depths of sadness which taint each day. As she herself says in the blurb, the poetry is “heroically and compulsively stupid………….. whipping you once again into medieval sunlight”.

Her poems aren’t that political, though I’m sure her contemporaneity ties written words to material circumstance in ways that I am currently missing. Her work points towards more general woes of our time: the often shocking extents to which we make our emotions available for public consumption, turning love either into a funeral wake or a freak show. the concept of loneliness which plagues and hounds so many of us in each acts we attempt to do with gusto each day. And, like any poet, she talks of love. But never love like you could find the Romantic lot wafting praises about in a gondola (though she does have a poem about romance being dead and Keats fucking her from behind…). Hers is a love that stumbles, stutters and spits itself out towards the beloved in lines ricocheting between honest vulnerability, and hiding softness through prosaic sentences littered with imagery from calculators for hippies and windows 95, to deer splattered with red paint to save animal activists time in the long run. By evasion, often we unwittingly reveal where our attentions really lie.

I highly recommend Hera Lindsay Bird’s poetry for anyone who is romantic and questions themselves for it every day. Who think celebrity is stupid yet still pout at themselves in a lonely mirror. Who feel deeply, but can only communicate the divine infinity of cosmic faith via emojis and text talk. Her work is young, wild and unlike anything I’ve read by any one else! I want to try think of something as cool and witty as she would say to end this post, but I can’t aha. I shall leave you with the poem that I first read of hers and I’ve already mentioned. A marination of bitterness and hope. Softness and sarcasm- I hope you enjoy xoxoxoxoxoxoxo

Keats is Dead so Fuck me From Behind

Keats is dead so fuck me from behind
Slowly and with carnal purpose
Some black midwinter afternoon
While all the children are walking home from school
Peel my stockings down with your teeth
Coleridge is dead and Auden too
Of laughing in an overcoat
Shelley died at sea and his heart wouldn’t burn
& Wordsworth……………………………………………..
They never found his body
His widow mad with grief, hammering nails into an empty meadow
Byron, Whitman, our dog crushed by the garage door
Finger me slowly
In the snowscape of your childhood
Our dead floating just below the surface of the earth
Bend me over like a substitute teacher
& pump me full of shivering arrows
O emotional vulnerability
Bosnian folk-song, birds in the chimney
Tell me what you love when you think I’m not listening
Wallace Stevens’s mother is calling him in for dinner
But he’s not coming, he’s dead too, he died sixty years ago
And nobody cared at his funeral
Life is real
And the days burn off like leopard print
Nobody, not even the dead can tell me what to do
Eat my pussy from behind
Bill Manhire’s not getting any younger