Malika Booker; International Anthony Burgess Foundation, 8 October 2017.

If you didn’t make the Malika Booker event last night, you missed a truly magical theatre production of the imagination; full of the wilderness, the natural world, animals masquerading as political figures, Lazarus rising for ‘more fire’ (!), and women letting ‘citrus oils into the wind’…

Malika Booker’s first collection, or ‘little treasure’ as she says, Pepper Seed was published by Peepal Tree in 2013. Many works have followed, with her poem ‘Nine Nights’ being shortlisted for the 2017 Best Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. She forms a vital part of the contemporary British and Caribbean UK writing scene.

Malika Booker’s new commission, funded by The Royal Literary Fund engages with political public speech acts, where the speech or text is enjambed, and used to form couplets – the first line from the original text, the second woven in as a poetic response. A key concern for Malika was the implementation of the natural, as a means of getting into the poetic/ pastoral. She also poured humour into the mix to absolve much of the bitterness at just the right times, which was wholly necessary in such potentially dense and desensitised topics as contemporary politics: she brought the politics, de-masked it, and journeyed us though how she picked her own tools and images to anchor the poems and channel the politics through.

She took us into a market of fantastical and imaginative ‘provision’, like the mother and the ‘grandmother’ in her poem ‘Brixton Market’: the room was her mixing pot, and we were all ready and waiting at her table to eat, as she picked her images ‘one by one’ from out her ‘trolley’, her animals, the language, forming a place from which to experiment with the question: ‘can you really have a poetic intervention with political speech?’

It was evident in conversation with John McAuliffe that Malika had grappled with the challenge of her commission at times, though it didn’t show in the work, nor were her responses ‘flat’ like many of the public speech acts of political figures that she had discussed. Instead, Malika came with a Pandora’s box of creatures and wild things, channelling the political speeches of the likes of Nigel Farage through the image of the chest-puffing capor frog, or Teresa May as the belligerently-tender butting-goat.

In Farage’s piece we had ‘flies snatched by fork tongues’, in Hillary Clinton’s there were ‘vultures’ and ‘fawns’, there was fleshing out and bleaching bones and wild-as-forest-women letting ‘citrus oils into the wind’. May’s speech was formulated through the image of the butting-goat, framed by intimate human connections such as divorce, hinging on May’s reference to never having felt comfortable in particular political relationships, which marks Malika’s meticulous interest in language and anthropology.

When she reads, she interjects poems with asides, providing back-story, definition of particular Caribbean words or concepts and insights into the thought processes behind the final pieces. Talking to Malika afterwards, she spoke of how she often gauges this technique on the crowd, taking into account the need for rapport building, general understanding of particular concepts or lexis, and so on. In this way Malika seems always to be on the path of anthropological and linguistic discovery and awareness, and displays a generosity and attentiveness to this both in her reading and writing style.

Having grown up in London, of Guyanese and Grenadian decent, Malika’s discourse draws from and shifts between cultures, dialects, language constraints and ideas, inevitably crossing paths with politics. In her earlier works, Malika (despite her saying she’s not a political poet) poses political questions through her delicate interrogation of linguistic construct, syntactically, grammatically and semantically, via the introduction of the Caribbean accent, formal layout and the like.

Surprisingly, I did not leave the event thinking of politics, as we know it – but of how language has the potential to draw the humanness in, and out of us, in such spectacular fashion as Malika Booker demonstrates. I left largely with a theatre of animals and wondrous language in mind, and the closeness of her words to the human experience. When a poem or poet manages override the ordure of our current and very real political circumstances, and instead create space for us to question the basis on which they lie and the means by which they are manifested, then something worthy has been achieved.

The Manchester Literature Festival continues until October 22 in venues across Manchester. This piece also appears at Chapter & Verse, the Manchester Literature Festival blog.

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