Tuesday, May 4, 2010

It Was Already Political: a manifesto extract

It was November 2006 and I knew was going to be on stage that night. Already it was political: I took the tiny newspaper cut-out Tarzan had stuck to the fridge and left screaming baby Boy in his arms. I wore stretched maternity pants and a fast beating heart. I knew I’d come home with some kind of trophy, but never realised I was carrying it before the taxi even arrived.

The Writers Centre was in the grounds of a former mental asylum. I was late to register, but somebody took pity on me. It was already political. Before I arrived or spoke a word, before anyone knew I would be taking the mic, before anyone told me to write poetry about everyday life, before I had a chance to use my ninety seconds to say fuck you in a hundred different ways to a hundred different already-thinking-they-were-listening-to me people who needed to hear it a hundred different times and would carry it away in their hearts without maybe even realising. Before I left the house, it was political. That night a young brown woman left her child to stand up in a room full of mostly white, perhaps even mostly hostile, people. It was political. There was a vomit stain on my shoulder. I didn’t notice it till afterward.

Give me two minutes and a room full of people and I am going to give you a poem about what – the way Ophelia may or may not have felt about Hamlet? I am gonna hand you broken hearted vitriol with some anecdote thrown in about washing the dishes. How else will you emphathise. After all, that is what women both live and write. That I am here in the first place might not be so convenient but here I am - do you or do you not want me to sing?

I am always being told to be smarter about the way I write. God knows, I have plenty of suburban anecdotes that could probably win me a prize. My parents planted two silky oak saplings behind their house in this country shortly after they arrived. One fell on the house – it was over fifteen years later then and the tree was ten metres taller than when it was planted. We were away on holiday at the time, the whole family. The tree waited until our backs were turned and just decided on devastation. That should have been a warning. The walls, quite literally, were falling in. My mother sent me a postcard when the other tree went. It strangely withered for no apparent reason the day the ink was dry on their legal documents. I like letters, but that tree postcard was the shortest note I have ever received. Write about dying trees, it ended.

Writing silky oaks would have been political. I could already hear people saying this woman has an interesting story. Where in the hell did she come from and how is she even doing this. She has a chance to really speak. And she is going to write about what – trees?

It is already political, before I even speak.

So think about it. What is it you really have a problem with.

At that first slam I read a poem about female circumcision and came home with a shiny gold trophy and an envelope worth many books. I made money the first night I said fuck you, a young brown woman in a room full of strangers, talking honestly for ninety seconds.

A woman in a headscarf came up to me afterwards. She put her hand on my arm and said ‘Thankyou’. I had never heard that kind of thankyou before.

It was quiet when I opened the door to the second floor flat in our red-brick Kensington apartment. Boy was asleep chewing his bottom lip. Tarzan stared at my shiny spoils incredulously, looked at his watch and said ‘You made short work of that then. Do they even know what hit them?’

I went straight to the fridge. ‘No’, I said, ‘I don’t think they have any idea.’

Believe me, it was poetry.


  1. All writing exists in a political context as you have pointed out. Even the decision to write apolitically is a political decision. The tree story at the centre of this piece is perfect. Have you been coming under some pressure to write to please the academics and editors who control the major journals and gov't funding? There was a time when I would have fired off an encouraging comment to keep the blaze burning. Now I will just say,"The Writers Centre was in the grounds of a former mental asylum." and that is hardly surprising. This is a brilliant piece of writing in itself. On its own it justifies your position, no manifesto required.

  2. That's what I'm talking about! "Do they even know what hit them?" It's 4 years later, do they know yet? Awesome writing, and I suppose I can take from it that when everything around us, that is supposed to stand strong, be it an oak, a wall, a parent, start to fall then it is up to us to stand up in the face of it all.

  3. This is incredible. The charge and urgent flow gave me goosebumps. I'd love to hear you read it.

  4. Thankyou so much for your feedback guys. I wrote this section at 3 in the morning the day I posted it and have no idea where it came from. Guess it was always there.

    Paul - not really increasing pressure, just the same old same old: 'We would love to publish your work but are concerned about the dialect/politics in this piece'...etc etc. Thought it was time I directly addressed the issue in print. Though whether anyone will publish the manifesto itself remains to be seen.

  5. What a wonderful, visceral piece of positive provocation. I think that brown women will always have people attempting to curb our words and rage but it only serves to make the need greater. They never have any idea and I think that's a large part of the issue. Keep creating.

  6. This is great - and that's from someone who's not so incredibly fond of your overtly political pieces :)

  7. I believe you, and I dig you. This was a very impassionate post and I commend you for it. Many thanks.

    Greetings from London.

  8. Don't listen to them. That's the trouble with compromise, Maxine, it's a very slippery slope. Create your own audience, it's what you are best at, the best in the country.