By Maame Blue Things fall apart but we keep going. This is not a simplistic…
To Young Too Loud Too Different
by Emily Zobel Marshall
There are two proverbs that summarise the ethos of Malika’s Kitchen poetry collective; the family that eats together, stays together, and together we aspire, together we achieve. The first is an African proverb that places food and the kitchen at the centre of bonding, the second is a slogan emblazoned across billboards on the Guyanese highroads that Malika Booker would read as child as she sat in her father’s car. She feels this slogan in particular ‘imprinted the power of the collective’ deeply into her soul.
To say that this poetry collection, with its bright, contemporary cover and eye-catching title, is unique is an understatement. It has been born in such spirit of collaboration, unity and mutual support that it presents to the reader not only a collection of thrilling, arm-hair-standing-on-end poems, but also a blueprint for how we can live better lives and thrive as a collective.
Malika’s Kitchen poetry collective was born in Guyanese British poet Malika Booker’s kitchen in 2001 in a flat in Brixton. Its core founders were British Trinidadian poet Roger Robinson (who went on to win the 2020 T.S. Eliot prize for A Portable Paradise), and Malika herself. At the time, there were few platforms for poets of colour; white writers and academics dominated both the top poetry prizes and judging panels, so Malika and Roger aimed to create a group of black, brown and working-class poets to mutually support one another to develop, grow and be heard. They wanted to pass on the teachings of their own mentor, Ghanaian poet Kwame Dawes, and held one book very close to their hearts; Poetry for the People: A Revolutionary Bible by June Jordan. Inspired by June, one of their key missions was to ‘rescue the ‘Canon’ from well-deserved disrepute and make it relevant again.’
In 2004 Bernardine Evaristo urged the Arts Council to investigate the lack of diversity in British poetry – after a year of research researchers found that only one percent of poetry published by major UK publishing houses was by Black and Asian poets. Black poetry in particular was considered by the establishment to belong to the ‘spoken word’ genre; it was not ‘page poetry’. Pushing back against these prejudices and constraints, members of Malika’s Kitchen wrote, read, shared, critiqued and developed one another’s work (always insisting that it was the poem, rather than the poet, being critiqued). Members were also encouraged to invite other poets to run sessions, report back on any poetry workshops they had attended or share new books that would benefit the group. The group grew, and when, exhausted, Roger and Malika had to pull back from hosting, others took the reins, in particular poet Jill Abram, who has now successfully run the collective since 2009. Malika’s Kitchen has reshaped the poetry scene in the UK and abroad, allowing diverse voices to share their work and nurture new talent. Members have been successful in securing a host of prestigious poetry awards and branches are thriving in Chicago (founded by poet Peter Khan) and India.
To Young Too Loud Too Different begins with a brilliant overview of the development of Malika’s Kitchen collective by Daniel Kramb. With an omniscient narrative voice, Kramb zooms in and out of the key players in the story, showing the web of events, entanglements and inactions that sparked the movement. In the following section, entitled ‘The Poems’, we are treated a stunning array of poems which push back against being defined by any singular overarching theme. There are reflections on the beauty and damage done to the black body; on hair, on cuticles, on sex and on rape. In Ode to My Cuticles by Dean Atta, the poet writes to his cuticles; he reflects on how they used to be looked after with tender manicures from his mother and wishes ‘a man would stay with me long enough/look at me often enough to notice you’. The whole poem is layered with a sense of abandonment and loss, of looking in on life from the outside, all channelled through the much-overlooked cuticle. It is this kind sharpening of the lens to open up detail that changes our everyday perception in life; surely one of the core values of poetry.
This is a Prayer by Anne Enith Cooper examines the hidden narratives of trauma ‘for children abandoned outside a church or supermarket/ for parents to heal the hurt that made them that way’. Christina Fonthes Rebirth celebrates the Black Girl who picked herself up from a life of abuse:
This is for you, Black Girl
You who turned your scars into poetry
My Headstone Read ‘Beloved Daughter’ by Fikayo Balogun examines the death of a women’s soul after a horrifying rape – a searing poem which stays with you long after reading. My favourite poem has to be Jacob Sam-La Rose For the Young Men Popping Wheelies on Southwark Street in Late Afternoon Traffic. I physically pinned my twelve-year-old son down to read him this poem – he loves perfecting wheelies on his bike, but not poetry – and even he was impressed. This is a celebration of life, of youth and of daring. Watching the young men popping wheelies, the poet reflects; ‘Today you are brazen/quick as a blade/wheels up/ and threading into an HGV’s path/and out again/uproarious, alive/and testing whatever binds us to good sense.’
The poems in this collection, nurtured by Malika’s Kitchen meetings full of good humour, sharp critique and big bowls of snacks, are also uproarious and alive, experimental and thrilling. They smash traditional poetic boundaries and binaries and are a bold in form, structure and theme. They are, as June Jordan advocates, rescuing and reshaping the canon. The book finishes with a piece by Malika Booker entitled ‘Eighteen Steps to Starting Your own Poetry Collective’. These are practical, wise and clear pieces of advice and I promise you, if you love writing and reading poems and are not part of a poetry collective yet, you will be furiously plotting how to begin one.