This month we're celebrating Black and Asian British poetry and in particular, the works of Caleb Femi, Moniza Alvi and Mary Jean Chan. Here's a link to an activity sheet. Discover our resources below and join us for a live poetry discussion! We're very excited!
Welcome to the Oxplore Book Club!
Mary Jean Chan
London-based poet Mary Jean Chan is originally from Hong Kong. She has studied a range of subjects including political science, international development, English literature, and creative writing. Her first poetry publication was the pamphlet A Hurry of English (2018). Her debut poetry collection, titled Flèche was published by Faber and Faber in 2019. The collection won the Costa Book Award for Poetry in 2019 and was shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize, the John Pollard Foundation International Poetry Prize, the Jhalak Prize, and the Seamus Heaney Centre First Collection Poetry Prize. Her poetry is marked by themes of love, loss, cultural difference, sexuality, and the challenges of maintaining different kinds of familial relationships. Chan’s Chinese cultural inheritance and her relationship with her parents and partner influence much of her work, such as in the poem 'Field Notes on a Family Meal'. A passion for language, and a perceptive awareness of the range of different ways in which English is spoken and written, is expressed in her poetry. For example, the title of her debut collection, Flèche, plays on the multiple meanings of the word such as the fact that it is an aggressive offensive fencing technique. The skilful art of fencing is used as an extended metaphor in Chan’s work for the complex balancing act in maintaining different parts of your identity as an individual, a member of a wider community and your cultural identity. Notably, she draws “on the idea that [there is a] conflictual yet intimate relationship… between two fencers, who are each other’s opponent, yet you are also in relational combat. You have to watch each other and read each other’s movements and respond accordingly.”
The poems we'll be focusing on:
Caleb Femi was named the first Young People’s Laureate for London in 2016. This role has subsequently been held by the poets Momtaza Mehri (2018), Theresa Lola (2019), and Cecilia Knapp (2020). After finishing a degree in English literature at Queen Mary, University of London and a teacher training course at King’s College London, he briefly taught at a secondary school. Femi is not only a poet but also a photographer and filmmaker. His debut collection Poor (2020) contains his own photographs arranged alongside the text of the poems. These pictures, as he explained in a Guardian interview, were necessary because they hold a responsibility: he “wanted to police [control] the imagination of readers whose attitude to urban black youth is shaped and coloured by news photography.” His poems and other multimedia work express how class, gender and race shaped his experience growing up in London’s North Peckham estate. While the housing estate he grew up in stands out as a backdrop to his debut collection, he is frequently drawn to how a lack of access to safe and healthy infrastructural designs limits the quality of life for much of London’s urban poor. This concern features strongly in his poetry. His work also shows how stereotypes are linked to continued race-based inequality and anti-Black violence in urban spaces. He has achieved many successes for his hard-hitting poetry and performances. He won the Roundhouse Poetry Slam in 2015, and has been an invited speaker at high-profile events at the Tate Modern, the South Bank Centre, and TEDx. His unique performances, which combine different media content, challenge and extend the boundaries of this type of poetry in the time of the internet and social media.
The poems we'll be focusing on:
Moniza Alvi was born in Lahore, Pakistan but accompanied her family to England when she was barely a few months old. She first started seriously publishing poetry in 1991, after her work appeared in the collection Peacock Luggage (with Peter Daniels). Her first collection, The Country at My Shoulder was published in 1993. Alvi went on to produce eight more collections of poetry, the most recent of which Blackbird, Bye Bye was published in 2018. Her poetry is informed by her Pakistani ancestry and her interests in music, art, and culture. She frequently draws on the rich works of artists and musicians such as Joan Miro, Mozart and Marc Chagall, to shape her own writing. Famous poems she has written directly inspired by art and culture include, 'I would Like to Be a Dot in a Painting by Miro' from Split World (2008) and ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’ from Souls (2002). She has won many prestigious poetry awards over the last two decades. She has been shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize twice. She received the Poetry Business Prize in 1991, the Whitbread Poetry Award in 1993, and the Cholmondeley Award in 2002. As the titles of many of her poetry collections reveal, the themes of ‘splitting’, migration, nostalgia (a longing to return to a past time), and self-discovery, run through her work.
The poems we'll be focusing on:
What is performance poetry?
Oxford student and poet, Hannah Ledlie shares what performance poetry means to her. She also gives her take on a long-standing debate in poetry known as 'stage versus page'.
The journey to finding yourself
Through their poetry, Moniza Alvi, Caleb Femi, and Mary Jean Chan share their experiences of growing up in Britain. While they each draw from different cultural heritages—Pakistani, Nigerian, and Chinese respectively—their poetry speaks of the variety of identities that make up the UK. They each skillfully present how difficult it is to think of belonging and identity in just one way.
The Sari by Moniza Alvia
Alvi’s poem, 'The Sari' demonstrates the uncertainty of identity that has marked her own personal experience. Namely, growing up in a part of England, which “didn’t seem very multi-cultural in the nineteen fifties and sixties". (source)
In this poem, she fantasises about what it might have been like to be raised in Pakistan. Something that stands out is the contrast (juxtaposition) between the number of different people in the Pakistani context and the sole English grandmother who takes a telescope to gaze “across continents” (i.e. Europe and Asia). The distance between the two continents is showcased here as a difference of community. The sense of being surrounded by a community of close ones seems emphasised in the Pakistani context. However, this sense is challenged in the next stanza where a connection is established between Lahore, Hyderabad, “across the Arabian Sea,” and seemingly also to Britain from where her English grandmother peers.
Image credit: Baljit Johal via Pexels.
The sari becomes a motif (reoccurring idea or symbol) of cross-cultural connection. Helped by its flowing and flexible shape, it becomes a metaphor for Alvi’s ever-changing self which finds itself fluttering between different cultures.
Alvi seems to imply in the poem’s final lines, that it’s possible for your identity to be rooted in your body rather than any specific part of the world: “Your body is your country”. Plus, it’s the love and understanding of Alvi’s family—her father, Grandmother etc —that allows her to think about herself both through her family and as an individual.
Caleb Femi’s poetry
The themes of travel and belonging to multiple places at once that we encounter in ‘The Sari’ are repeated in Caleb Femi’s poem, 'A Tale of Modern Britain', commissioned by Heathrow Airport. In a filmed version (see below), Femi performs the poem whilst video footage of people moving through the airport (arriving, departing, and greeting loved ones in intimate moments) plays. These actual journeys symbolised by travellers at the airport provide the substance of Femi’s ideas about how the self is made and unmade by movement. Femi describes the emotional impact of travelling: “You arrive at the end of the horizon/ standing at the tarmac mouth of home/ lighter if you left it all behind – heavier if you brought it all with you”.
The video demonstrates how different multimedia (visuals, music etc) can interact to bring a poetry performance to life. Femi’s poem also offers insightful commentary about the different identities that form “this marketplace of modern British culture.” He even includes some amusing references to a few stereotypes associated with British identity: “We’re not all about tea and crumpets – well some of us are.”
Similar to how the sari becomes a physical object that allows new ways to imagine the self and belonging in Alvi’s poem, the airport terminal performs the same function in Femi’s performance. Femi asks listeners to “Imagine a terminal as a portal to a new version of yourself,” showing how the airport becomes a place not just to mark physical journeys, but also a door to new worlds of the self.
The “runway tarmac of Heathrow airport” reappears in another poem about identity and familial belonging titled 'My Father’s Son' (see video above). The room where Femi waited to get a phone call from his father, who had left Nigeria and flown to London, smells of the airport to Femi. He describes his father’s voice as booming like the thunderstorms that disrupted playtime at school -- demonstrating the power of the voice in Femi’s consciousness at a very young age.
At the end of the poem, Femi imagines seeing himself in puddles and associates his self as an offshoot of his father. Here Femi is formed in his father’s image; or rather, he sees himself as giving shape to the power of his father’s voice.
Mary Jean Chan’s poetry
The theme of family also features in Mary Jean Chan’s work, where she repeatedly imagines her selfhood and identity through her relationship with her parents, particularly her mother. In the poem 'Names', Chan talks about the difficulty of talking about her queer identity and gaining acceptance from family. The challenges of maintaining tense relationships is highlighted further in the poem entitled: 'The mother finds her own wild, lost beginnings deep within the body of her daughter'*. The title of the poem and much of its imagery implies that the relationship between the mother and daughter in the poem shape each other. Their relationship is not always ideal, and often messy and painful.
This poem is highly intertextual as it draws on the work of the theorist and academic Jacqueline Rose and the Chinese-American poet Chen Chen. Chan’s poem is, in many ways, a response to a line from Chen Chen’s poem 'Poplar Street': “Sometimes, parents and children become the most common of strangers. Eventually, a street appears where they can meet again.” Through this line, and the motif of the street, Chan imagines the daughter in the poem reconnecting with her estranged parent through her “acumen for/ language.” Her poem is similar to Femi’s in thinking of the daughter as “born/ into the slip-/stream of your mother’s unconscious.” The image of the slipstream (a current of air behind a quickly moving object) helps to think about the mother as a person who has a lot of power to determine the kind of person the daughter will eventually become. The daughter benefits from the possibilities generated by the mother’s personality and life, but at the same time, can be a stranger to the older generation’s thinking and habits. In this context, the street, like the terminal in Femi’s poem, and the sari in Alvi’s, becomes a symbol of hope. Chan notes: “I wrote/ to find/ the street/ where we/ might meet/ again.”
This brief analysis of these three poets’ work highlights questions about how family relationships and intergenerational similarities and differences can take centre-stage in poetic form. The poets frequently use the imagery of travelling and streets to think about how the journey to understanding yourself is not an easy one. In their poems, they trace how it is frequently marked by difficulties, uncertainty, interruptions and pain, as much as by joy.
*This poem was published with the Academy of American Poets as part of the "Poem-a-Day" series.
C. S. Bhagya is a DPhil candidate in English at Merton College, University of Oxford. She has MA and MPhil degrees in English from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her doctoral dissertation is on “Tropes of Exception: Representations of the Emergency in Indian Writings in English.” Her academic writing has appeared in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Oxford Research in English, Queen’s Political Review, and the open educational resource hub Writers Make Worlds.
Leave a review on the poems...
In this space, we'll be sharing some of your reviews on this month's poems. Alternatively, feel free to send in a creative response such as a poem you've been inspired to write or a recording of you reading a poem. Take a look at our activity sheet for some top tips! You have until the end of April to submit a review or response via this page (email@example.com for any attachments) and be in with a chance to win a prize! We can't wait to hear from you!
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