Who is Panya the Poet and what does she do?
I am a writer, primarily, and an archivist. I mainly write poetry although I have written some children’s stories and I’m toying with a novel. I also run Nottingham Black Archive and as part of that, a Black Writers Network. It’s all about raising awareness, helping with professional development and showcasing local black talent through a range of different initiatives. Read a Black Author for example which happens in October and where people are invited to read together in Slab Square. I organised a poetry weekender for Windrush 70 featuring Kei Miller then looking do a Festival next year – not just poetry but MC’s, grime and singers because we’re network of all kinds of writers. I want to showcase the talent, because that’s just not happening.
I like to play and experiment and do things like Soetry, where I work with singer songwriter ABII. We’ve developed that, performed that in Nottingham and are looking to develop that further, and take it nationally. I like to collaborate with different artists as well, which I do. I collaborated with Keith Piper who studied here in the eighties at the Nottingham Trent University. He’s from Birmingham and now lives in London and a Professor of Fine Art at Middlesex University. He had an exhibition at both the Contemporary and the Art Exchange, and I worked with him, and my poem was featured in one of his shows so I do like working with visual artists as well.
You’re also the patron of UNESCO in literature. What does that involve?
Anything they ask me to do which I love to do. Being one of the judges that selected Nottingham’s Young Poet Laureate for example. Georgina Wilding came through that process and she’s been a fantastic advocate for us. I’ve also recently judged the Young Creative awards and put time into the Black Writers Network. Basically representing the city whenever I’m asked, advocating on behalf of literature and doing my bit to make this city a, a literature rich environment. Just being enthused by literature.
You did a variety of sessions at this year’s poetry festival. What were the highlights for you?
Definitely the launch of the anthology of black writing, When We Speak, in Nottingham because that’s been a long time coming. In the sixties, there were some writers here who were part of the Caribbean Artists’ Movement, which was a national organisation There was a regional body here as well, evidence is sparse but I’m researching that and it’s clear that we had some influence. Then in the eighties, there was a group called the Chronicle of Minority Arts, or CHROMA with people like Martin Glynn and Pitman Browne, Christine Bell and others. They produced an anthology of writing and then nothing happened in terms of publication. We have a number of writers who produce individual pieces, self-published pieces, but in terms of a collective of writers coming together and producing an anthology, nothing since the eighties, and I don’t know of anything that happened before that, even though we had the Caribbean Artists’ Movement. So, this anthology (When We Speak) which was launched at the New Art Exchange as part of the Nottingham Poetry Festival, is only the second of its kind. It was a year-long project, working, to get the funding- hard enough in itself- working with the writers individually and through a number of writing and editing workshops to get the writing ready for publication. It was full-on but absolutely worthwhile. So for me, that was the biggest, the biggest achievement for the festival.
I’ve been told that what you’ve described in terms of such writing groups struggling to keep going is also mirrored elsewhere. Is it purely a funding issue?
Yes. I put in a lot of the time for free. The poetry weekend I organised where Kei Miller came up is the same. Not many people can, or want to do that. In terms of sustainability, it’s difficult because I won’t be able to continue these kinds of things. People do it out of the goodness of their hearts but that isn’t sustainable. What we need is a model, an organisation concerned with developing black and minority ethnic writing; because I don’t think the mainstream organisations have that reach. Then there’s the issue of communities having the confidence for a whole host of reasons to create their own models.
You raised this in a session at the East Midlands Writers Conference didn’t you?
Yes and some of the responses felt a little bit defensive. One response was. if you start catering for one need, then you need to cater for all, and then where are you. But that suggests that we’re going to build a society where we don’t support people because there may be too many issues to support. That is the battle, that people don’t actually see that there’s an issue. I know there’s an issue because I am a black writer and I’ve worked hard for over thirty years, with minimal support. I’m here because of my doggedness, not because any institution that felt that they could nurture the potential that they see.
I understand the argument that, if you are meant to be a writer you will soldier through and you have to put the work in, but a lot of people are deterred from taking writing as a profession because they’re not taken seriously or they’re not given the support. In any creative area, although people might have the potential and the talent, they might not have the resilience to battle all the way through, and they just need a little bit of support to build up that resilience. It’s that conservative attitude; pull up your boot straps. And what I say to that is, Well, some people haven’t got straps on their boots, and actually, some people haven’t got boots. You know, that get on your bike thing. Haven’t got a bike to get on, mate. So where do we go from there?
Out of all the things you do, why is poetry your main focus?
I don’t know why I chose it. I actually started off as a storyteller and worked for many years doing stories in schools. And then, I just gravitated towards poetry. I saw people like Jean Binta Breeze, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mutabaruka; those are the people who I looked up to. As a young girl, they were my role models, I was inspired by them and I wanted to emulate them and so I fell into poetry. But I don’t think poetry is where I will stay. I think I’m really a novelist; I just need the time and the space, to do that. I’ve got the first draft of a novel already that I’m working on. Being an archivist lends itself to all the things that I do, an archivist with an interested in history so the novel is set in the eighties. It’s called the Downfall of Lucifer and the protagonist is an African Caribbean male who came from the Caribbean during that Windrush period and settles here. It’s the same themes of injustice and discrimination and being on the periphery that are in my poetry but expanded a full story of one person’s journey, and how they overcome all those things.
is not such a perfect
and the master Painter
makes a passing
with a cloud
the dark side
all you children
rest easy now
we are born
Moonwise from Spring Cleaning. Jean Binta Breeze. Virago. 1992
How would you describe your writing process?
It varies depending on what I’m writing. Sometimes I’ll see something on the news that I’m incensed with and think, right, I’m going to write a response to this. Or be in the shower then all of a sudden, a phrase comes into your mind and you think, I’m going to continue this on and something builds up. Or it can be completely different. At the moment I’m working on a commission for Left Lion magazine, the writers’ photography project, where they’ve selected ten writers and ten photographers. Then put all the photographers’ names in a bowl, and we as writers, had to pick out a photographer. My photographer is Stephanie Webb. Then we had to randomly pick out a location. I got the Attenborough Nature Reserve and need to write ten related poems. My process for that is to research. What is the reserve? How did it come about? What does it consist of? What does it look like? I’ll visit, look at images, look at its different types of insects, how it’s used by people and from that, begins to pick out things and then create poetry from that.
Black Assassin Saints (1982) by Keith Piper
Sometimes I work from an image like the work that I did with Keith Piper. His artwork, the Black Assassin Saints, was on show at the Contemporary. It was this big canvas piece with text and I looked at what the text was saying, found a way in then created something from looking at that image. Likewise for my response to the Nigerian artist Otobong Nkanga. Her exhibition that was on at the Contemporary perhaps a year ago where the gallery was filled with stones and boulders. So you sit in a space like that, a very sparse room, with just stones and boulders. What do you do with that? How are you inspired by stones and boulders? I was the artist in residence there and when you begin to sit and stay in that space for a long period of time, the stones begin to speak to you. I got poetry from the stones, of all things, stones and how people interacted in a gallery of stones.
If that’s your process then, are there any elements that you struggle with?
I like to treat poetry like songs. I lean towards performance poetry and how it sounds, so I like to treat poetry like songs. If you’re a songwriter, you want to make sure that all your songs sound different. I like the rhythm of my poems to sound different, I don’t want them to all sound the same, so people can tell them apart, not just because of the theme but because of how they sound, how the rhythm of the words sounds as well. Sometimes, that voice, that sound doesn’t come and I have to kind of think I want this to sound different, what, how am I going to frame this?
Is that because the right rhythm just isn’t there in your head?
Yes, so then I have to find something. Thinking about the Attenborough Nature Reserve, I had all the research but couldn’t find the voice to do it in. Then it just came to me that, perhaps the sound for this should be biblical, that kind of rhythm. In the beginning, man made the reserve and the reserve will give it that kind of rhythm. One of the poems is called Although I’m not religious in this sense, The Sermon of Nature is inspired from the Bible, Blessed is the ant, for the ant der der der, Blessed is the etc etc. So that’s the kind of rhythm which sounds different from anything else that I’ve got already.
Taste of a Stone by Otobong Nkanga at Nottingham Contemporary
What if anything, has poetry taught you?
The power of words. How one word can be interpreted. The meaning behind, inside and around each word. It’s taught me patience. It’s taught me to be critical. It’s taught me to accept criticism which I think is one of the biggest downfall of some writers, that they believe everything they write is gold dust, and it’s not. The biggest thing I think you should be looking for, as a writer, is for someone you trust, and someone you respect, to give you some real good critical feedback on your work. I teach creative writing and you do have to be careful how you frame feedback, and sometimes, when you frame it, suggesting ways that people might want to improve their work, but people can still be very defensive about that. I love poetry, to the extent that I actually put in the time to develop other poets for free, because I think this is something that everybody should be able to share and enjoy as well. Yeah, it’s taught me, it’s taught me to be happy as an artist and that there’s more to life than chasing the big buck.
Do you think that the internet or technology have made a difference to poetry?
I do and I don’t. You’ve got some of the old stalwarts like John Agard, who was pre internet, and Jean Binta Breeze who was pre internet, and I don’t even think Jean is on Facebook but she’s still well-known, still well respected and still works, and so, so does John Agard. So I think if, you know, if you had a very good reputation, then you can still survive this internet era. I think one of the things that it has done is that it can make you into a poetry star when you haven’t actually put the work in. There’s people like Linton, John, Jean, et cetera, who have worked hard at their profession to become the writers that they are, and then you’ve got some Johnny-Come-Lately who’s got a big following on Facebook, gets all of the kudos and all of the publishing deals, but hasn’t actually worked hard at the craft.
Some of the young poets coming up now who’ve got that internet following can charge fees that people like Linton and Jean and John don’t and you think, how can that be. But we’ll see about the longevity of these artists. Then – I’m probably going to get myself in trouble here – one of the things that I absolutely dislike is people reading poetry off mobile phones. A lot of people do it so I know I’m on my own here but I think you’re doing your audience a disservice, because you’re so centred around this phone with its small screen and looking at your work that you’re not engaging with the audience that you should be. I would like to see performers go the next step and print that work out on to paper. Not necessarily perform completely from memory, but print it on paper to show us that you’ve actually prepared. Not just get up on stage and then they say, hang on a minute; I’m just going to find my poem.
You’ve mentioned Jean Binta Breeze and John Agard and Linton. Who are your other favourite poets?
Oh, loads. Kei Miller, Roger Robinson. Jacob Sam-La Rose, Carole Ann Duffy. My taste is quite eclectic, to be fair. I went to a book launch last night, and it was Rory Waterman and Zayneb Allak, performing, and I bought both their collections as well. So my taste is quite broad. Yeah. Kayo Chingonyi, he’s just won the Dylan Thomas award so I’m looking forward to reading his collection as well. Inua Ellams, just, Warsan Shire. Just loads. Malika Booker, Khadijah Ibrahim. I’ll read, I read lots of poetry all the time. Jean and Linton were the ones that got me on the track, James Berry, they were the ones that I saw first that looked like me and sounded like me. You’re at school and you do the Wordsworth, the Chaucer, the Shakespeare and all of that, but that seemed so distant from who I am. You do your Plath and your Larkin and I do like Larkin, but all that seemed quite distant. Then I saw somebody like Jean Binta Breeze who sounded and looked like me. That’s what you need, that gets you, piques your interest, piqued my interest. That’s what you need, and then you read widely.
What was either the last poem or piece of art that you came across that inspired you?
Kei Miller wrote a poem called The Blood Cloths, It has two meanings and can be a Jamaican swear word, as well. That poem is just so visual, for me. I was just like, who is this man, we need him in Nottingham now.
The ingenuity of women
Who, when cornered, fished out
The cloths of their menstruation…’
The Blood Cloths, Kei Miller from The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion. Carcenet, Manchester. 2014.
In terms of art, I went to London a couple of weeks ago for the Guest Projects and some of our local artists, Michael Forbes and Nadine Chaudhary were showing work that along with Barbara Walker, and it was fantastic to see the art work. To be in that space with and all the black artists that you might ever want to be rubbing shoulders with, Vanley Burke, who’s been documenting, through photography, the black community in Birmingham since the sixties, Hurvin Anderson who was nominated for the Turner Prize, Yinka Shonibare who is massive despite rarely being featured on TV. I felt like I was in heaven. I probably made a right fool of myself as well (laughs). I was asking, do you want to collaborate with a poet? I think you should be collaborating with a poet, and I got lots of cards, like send me your work, let’s see how it goes. We’ll see what happens.
Do you see a role for the poet or artist within a care and wellbeing settings?
Definitely. I’m not saying it’s healing, I haven’t got any evidence of that, but some people who are writing poetry are going through a process, maybe of bereavement, of some kind of pain. And the poetry is helping, it’s assisting with them making sense of a situation of an experience of something that they’re actually going through right now. There is a space for that. If you have issues, problems, worries, whatever have you, if you can get those out of your own head and put them on to paper, it might help you being a bit more objective about it. So yes, I think so. I got into poetry initially way back, not just by being inspired by Jean Binta Breeze but through my own personal traumas. It was one way of expressing it. I’ve worked through that now. I’m not saying everybody can, I’m not saying everybody does, but I’ve worked through it to the point now where, it isn’t about my pain, it’s actually about the art. So, it did it for me.
Does music have an influence on your writing?
My musical taste is quite eclectic. Everything from don’t judge me, Dolly Parton, to reggae music, people like Jah Cure and Beres Hammond, to people like Adele. What I like is good music. I don’t care what genre it is, as long as, I mean, and I know the term good music, how do you define that? But it, as long as it’s something that touches my soul, my spirit, I don’t really care what the genre is or who sings it. I like it, country and western, reggae, rock, R&B, soul, you name it. I love music but I can’t play an instrument. I’m from a house where there was always music, siblings played instruments, all of my children were taught to play an instrument as well. I regret that I was never taught to play an instrument. I come from one of those traditional families where the boys in the family were all given musical training but the girls weren’t, because we were going to cook and have babies and tend the house, you see, so we didn’t get that kind of nurturing. But I love going along to live music events and I work with a singer songwriter and bring that into the poetry. Music is therapy as well, it makes you feel good, you listen to music and you, it lifts your spirits and so, yeah, ten out of ten for music. I think, deep down, I wanted to be a singer. But I just don’t think I had that talent. So, and I’m not trying to do a disservice to poetry here but the next best thing I could be was to be a poet, a performance poet and use my voice and rhythms, incorporate some vocal sounds into Soetry, maybe sing, we’ll see.
ABII and Panya: Soetry
You said that you collaborate with other visual artists, do you actually kind of working in any visual format yourself?
No, I don’t. But again, this is something I’m going to be exploring. One of the projects that I’m working on, although I’m trying to get a film maker to donate their time for free, is a crowd sourced poem. I want to take a poem that I’ve written, put it out to people in the Nottingham community for them to pick a line from and record it on their phone with video and send that footage in. The poem is called Living Without Proof. It’s responding to what’s happening in America, where, it’s absolutely ridiculous there now. The police are called so much (i.e. Starbucks / Air BnB/ Golf Course https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/11/us/black-white-police.htm There are some groups of people that can live without being judged in this way and there are some who can just walk around and they are not going to be judged as being too aggressive, being in a gang, The poem highlights the discriminations that people like me experience every day. We just take for granted, because it becomes a part of who we are, but there are some people who don’t experience this, and we shouldn’t take it for granted, and it shouldn’t become part of who we are. I then want the film maker to support me to put all those clips together, to create a crowd source poem. I need to learn some aspects of film making to enable me to do that. I’m constantly trying to always do something a bit different so working with a visual artist on film this year, perhaps start during over the summer.
I’ve heard you perform your airport (about being singled out for a search) poem three times now. it’s a very personal poem that gets more dynamic each time I hear it. How does it feel for you?
I always get stopped. Absolutely always. It’s very annoying. I think that is, again, me just trying to take the power back, it always is about trying to take the power back. What is sad about that is that every time I perform it, there is always somebody who comes up to me and says, that’s happened to me, or I’ve had the experience, so it’s not a one-off thing. I never feel, I never feel brilliant about performing it because I go through that experience again. But I do feel brilliant about performing it well, if you can say that, about putting that issue out there. That I’m pleased with it, and it’s about me taking the power back, that’s the thing. But the fact that the issue has to be out there is never a good feeling. I think there might come, be a day when I don’t perform it, because sometimes, performing it, you go through that experience again, and again, and again, and again, and again. I’m still of a mind that I think people need to hear it. People need to take that journey with me, hear what that is like.
‘he squeezes the 82 dreads…..
Squeezes like he’s milking a cow
Nothing but Samson’s strength rests here,.’
Airport from Some Things
During the discussion at the Bridge Translation event with the Dalit Poet, Kalyani Thakur, you said that you felt it had made you think about becoming more strident in poems. Could you say more?
Yeah. I sat there and I kind of reflected on my work and what I noticed, was that I can paint a picture of a person being discriminated against, like Airport, or One of a Kind or Blackbird, but I very rarely fully talk about taking back control. The only poem where there was any sign of the person who is being oppressed actually taking control back is They and Them, because, at the end of They and Them, Them is coming back but they don’t do anything about it, they’re still there. In my work, I’ve never given, up to date, the disenfranchised person the power to fight back or get the upper hand against the person who’s oppressing them, which is very interesting, for me. Perhaps that means that there’s some kind of brainwashing thing going off that I didn’t realise. Why am I not writing poetry where people are uprising and are rebelling against the system, rebelling against the status quo? Why am I just painting this picture of this is the harm and the damage that’s being done, but, no one’s really, no one’s challenging that power?
Out of the ruins of a doorless haunt,
Crawling, cockroach like
On two bent, bloody legs…
They and Them from Some Things
In some versions of Kalyani’s poem (The Headstrong Society) the oppressed person grabs the reins and is going to do the steering now. That’s power. That’s taking control. That’s taking control of your situation and your destiny and your hand, and I thought that that was quite a powerful image to paint. Not just an image of, okay, so I’ve been strip-searched and now I go away. In that scenario, I leave behind the shame, but I take with me the words. So the power is in, I’ve got the words and I can tell this story. But I want some more tangible power than that. My airport poem ends on a positive note but I want more than that. So, I, that’s something that I’m going to try and work on in my writing, I haven’t got there yet. For it to be, the, be a stronger outcome for the person who’s being oppressed.
Do you have any recurrent obsessions in your work?
Birds. Yeah, I’ve got my humming bird. I’ve got all sorts of birds. I don’t know what’s going on there because it’s not as if, I mean, I don’t dislike birds, but I don’t like them that much either. You know, they’re not anything, a bird is a bird. But birds keep cropping up. I don’t know why this is. I don’t know what that means and I don’t think about them consciously, maybe subconsciously, it’s definitely there. I have blackbird and I have my owl, I have humming birds and I have eagles and, I even have a sparrow hawk in one poem, so yeah, birds feature quite a bit. I don’t dream about birds. I don’t know if it’s the throwback from Alfred Hitchcock days as a child, watching The Birds. [laughter] But I don’t have a bird as a pet. I don’t particularly like them or dislike them, I mean, a bird is a bird is a bird. But birds are things that keep coming up. So yeah, so if there’s anybody who, when this goes out, who can psychoanalyse me and tell me what that means or what it says about me [laughter] I’d be interested in hearing.
‘Blackbird keeps distance from Magpie, all seasons.
Magpie descends in nines and tens, skimming hedges
Ripping flesh from bone…’
Birds of a Feather from Some Things
What advice would you give to somebody just starting to write?
Love your art. I’m lucky that I can actually make a living from my art, but, I think I’m able to do that because I love my art. That comes across when I perform, that comes across in terms of how hard I work at crafting my writing. I have a story to tell, I’m reading Octavia Butler at the moment, and she said she started to write science fiction because she didn’t see the books, there were no books out there that she wanted to read, or that had her story in it, and so that’s why she started to write, it’s the same thing. My voice was not represented, my voice needs to be heard, I have something to say, I want to say it. If I am able to make a living from that, then great. I’m nowhere near being as good as I could be, I’m constantly pushing myself, all the time, I want to be really good as a writer. I want to know my craft really well. If you are good at what you do, then people will acknowledge that, perhaps. You know, I say perhaps, because it’s not always a fair world. But, Kayo Chingonyi has just been award the Dylan Thomas award, and I remember him coming to Nottingham years ago when he was very young, well and he’s worked, probably, three years working on his collection. And that’s paid off, for him. I’m not saying that it’s not nice to get recognition for what you do, but that shouldn’t be the goal. You need to be doing your art for love and not for fame, not for money. If that comes, then that’s great. But do it for the love of it, be good at your art, then everything else falls into place.
Your first collection, and I can’t believe that you’ve not had one before, is published in June. how did that come about?
It’s just out and is called Some Things with Burning Eye books. I’m pleased about it, but also nervous as well, as it’s getting closer. Burning Eye were looking for collections from performance poets. I sent some work in and they said, Yeah, we’d love to have you. And that’s it, it was as easy as that, really. [laughter] And now I think, Oh, should I have waited? But I think that, maybe this is a normal feeling, you know. I’m nervous because where I am now and where I was then is two completely different places. So, I think, perhaps I could have produced something better, now, than I did then, although what I produced then was the best that I could at that time. Yeah, I’m very critical of myself. So. We’ll see. I’ll probably hide away for a while [laughter]. I don’t know about gigs because I haven’t even planned a launch event. I don’t know. I suppose I should do all of that. I will eventually. Yeah. [laughs] The book is available for pre-order on Amazon. I’m planning my Festival for next year and When We Speak, the anthology of black writing in Nottingham, which I edited, is available from Five Leaves book store, if people want to buy that, support the network in that way as well.
What about longer term plans?
I want to work more with visual artists, out of the city. Nottingham’s can feel a little bit small in some ways, it’s good but can be very incestuous. You just have to look at some of the things that are programmed, how they are programmed and the people that are programmed There are other things happening in other places that it would be good to be part of so I’m going to be exploring that. I doubt if I’d move because I actually like my home, unless I found somewhere equally nice, but I like my home here. But I think I would definitely be working more out of the city. I’m off to India for a residency in January so that’ll be another out of the city experience through City of Literature and New Art Exchange. I’ll be going to the British Library for the Jaipur Literature Festival. There’ll be work that comes off that that will be international so that’ll be a step out of the city as and there’s loads going off in London that I want to be part of.
If you’re lovely home was burning to the ground, everybody was safe, kids, pets, even spiders, and you had time to rescue one book or piece of art that you had, or possession, what would it be, and why?
Despite everything that I’ve said about people on their mobile phones, and all of that, if it was one possession, it would have to be my i-pad. [laughs] It would. It has all my work on. This is what I create poetry on and there’s new work brewing on there and I’m not sure if I could replicate that. So, it would have to be my i-pad. I’ve got too many books that I love, I could always get those books again. But the work that I’m crafting right now on the I-pad, that would just be disastrous, it really would. [laughs]. Then I have what’s called a Globe of Freedom. In 2007, I co-ordinated a project for Nottingham Castle museum and gallery, and I worked in partnership with the Wedgwood museum, and we produced a limited number made in Wedgwood’s black jasper. That was my project baby, I won an award for that. One of these globes is in the Castle museum and I have one. So it’s bespoke, one-off piece that, that would be under my arm as I’m running out the door. Yes, that will become a heirloom, that will, in passing that down the line, to the eldest and the eldest and the eldest for years to come. Yeah.
Some Things by Panya Banjoko published by Burning Eye Press is available in Five Leaves, Long Row, Nottingham and via Amazon.
When We Speak, Edited by Panya Banjoko is published by Nottingham Black Archive and is available from Five Leaves Books or if you must, Amazon.
Panya is leading a Writing East Midlands course early next year. http://www.writingschooleastmidlands.co.uk/product/critical-approach-to-poetry-writing-with-panya-banjoko/
Trevor Wright is the Co-Director of the Derby Poetry Festival and author of Outsider Heart published by Nottingham’s Big White Shed in 2016. https://www.bigwhiteshed.co.uk/project-outsider-heart (also available from Five Leaves and from Scarthin Books in Cromford) His next collection, Salt Flow is due to be published in October 2018.
Thanks to Clare Stewart Transcription Services. Clare can be contacted via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org