Review: The Golden Shovel Anthology (Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 2017)

Where would we be without Gwendolyn Brooks? This is the question at the heart of this generous collection of poems celebrating one of the 20th Century’s towering poets as well as the capacity for poets to influence each other. The anthology is based on a poetic form, invented by Terrance Hayes, in which the terminal word in each line is taken from Gwendolyn Brooks’s classic ‘we real cool’. The anthology extends this formal constraint to include all of Brooks’s work. The poems are, therefore, divided based on the Brooks poem to which each poet in the anthology chose to respond. This demonstrates which of Brooks’s poems strike a particular chord with fellow poets. The notion, popularised by T.S. Eliot, that ‘mature poets steal’ is brought into sharp focus by this editorial approach, showing us how one poet’s literary corpus can give shape and direction to the work of so many others. 

This review focuses on a number of poems as a way in to what is a broad and capacious selection. It has to be said, a gathering of poets as various as this one is a singular achievement, worthy of celebration in itself. It is appropriate that a book honouring Brooks should be thus; her work has always travelled exceptionally well given its focus on the lesser-seen, seldom celebrated, corners of life. It is also apt that the poems collected in The Golden Shovel Anthology vary in their form to such a thrilling extent:

Again the

day begins, only

no one wants its sanity

or its blinding clarity. Daylight is

not what we came all this way for. A

pinch of salt, a drop of schnapps in our cup

of tears, the ticket to the life to come, a short life of

long nights & absent dawns & a little mercy in the tea. 

(‘The Second Going’ – Philip Levine)

Hole-in-wall is how the uninitiated might describe the Kansas City club where I,

a one-winged flight of drunken tap dancer, become Bird. Ornithology shall

note the lightning-quick riffs I saxophone through the ivory teeth of time to create

(from “‘Ornithology’ For Charlie Parker” – M. Ayodele Heath)  

These are just two of the approaches to ‘Boy Breaking Glass’ from Brooks’ 1968 collection In The Mecca; responses that vary from poems that seem semantically unrelated and those that are homages to the substance of the original — like Clare Pollard’s ‘Boy Breaking Glass, Peckham’ in which the boy of Brooks’s poem travels time and space to wind-up breaking a window in a London protest (perhaps the one in 2011 that came after the death of Mark Duggan). The original Brooks poem speaks to our political moment, Pollard seems to be saying, and in reading the original, in which the boy breaks a window ‘as a cry of art’; a destructive and constructive act, we can see Pollard’s point. Elsewhere, Brooks’ words wander in a number of directions: the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in one poem; a poet looking to the future and the last year of their life in another. This variety illustrates the possibilities of formal limitations making this a book about poetic form, and Brooks’ engagement with it, as well as a celebration of her status as a literary forbear.

Another of the triumphs of the anthology is that it brings together well-known British and American poets and those at the start of their careers. This, too, is a fitting tribute to Brooks who was such a champion of other poets. In response to ‘The Blackstone Rangers’, for example, we have such poems as ‘The Ache’ written by Chelsea Dixon ‘when she was a freshman at Oak Park and River Forest High School’ alongside work from poets without a solo publication to their name, some with a one or two book-strong bibliography, and others with more extensive bodies of work. Within the anthology each poet is accorded the same respect and this makes for a compelling and enjoyable survey of disparate poetic traditions. 

It is this inclusive spirit which means that a poem by a Professor of English with several books to her name, and an influential role as an editor, appears next to work from one of a new generation of poetry superstars:

         What crime could Trayvon stand for?

         Some slender peregrination, youth-

         inscribed, delivered him to woe […] (‘Stand Your Ground’ – Christina Pugh)

         I want to raise a city behind his teeth for all boys of choirs & closets to refuge in

         (‘The 17 Year-Old & The Gay Bar’ – Danez Smith)

This kind of generational mixing places the focus on the manner in which every poem is in conversation with every other poem in the tradition. This, in turn, serves to offer readers of various kinds a way in to Brooks’s work that they might not otherwise receive. The significance of this is that readers are being invited to engage in a collaborative process which is far more dynamic than would be available from a book of odes celebrating Brooks in a more conventional fashion.  

The status of Gwendolyn Brooks as a political figure, and poems as a space for reflecting on socio-economic realities and disparities, is important to this anthology. A good proportion of the poems collected arise out of a political engagement in literature born out of the struggle of trail-blazers like Brooks, a poet to whom much is owed because she withstood such difficulty in order to claim her seat at the table. Brooks was writing at a time when blackness and literary excellence were thought to be mutually exclusive except in exceptional cases. She, like Phillis Wheatley before her, acted as a kind of literary talisman, what the poet-critic Rowan Ricardo Phillips would call an ‘epigraphic’ poet; one who sits before even the first line of the tradition opening a space for what follows. Consider this from the letter sent by the judges of the 1949 Pulitzer Prize in support of Brooks’s Annie Allen:

No other Negro poet has written such poetry of her own race, of her own experiences, subjective and objective, and with no grievance or racial criticism as the purpose of her poetry. It is highly skillful and strong poetry, out of the heart, but rich with racial experience. 

(Henry Seidel Canby to Carl W. Ackerman)

This is what Gwendolyn Brooks was up against. A literary culture which valued poets who did not explicitly express their ‘grievance[s]’. What this passage shows us, though, from this vantage point is that by simply putting her life, or at least the lives she observed, down on paper; affirming her humanity, Gwendolyn Brooks was offering a clear and powerful critique of the status quo.    

While there is much left to do, The Golden Shovel Anthology feels part of this process of renewal, a process that will leave readers the richer for having a range of poetic styles and approaches to choose from in their reading matter. I can only applaud the editors for assembling a project of such vision and import.

Poet Sessions #4 at Library, Covent Garden – March 25th, 2015

For the past two years I’ve been working on a new book of poems. The book is called Kumukanda which roughly translates from Luvale, my father’s mother tongue, as ‘the initiation’ or just ‘initiation’. It’s the name given to the rites a young Luvale boy passes through before he is considered a man. There are a few resources on the Makishi, the festival that marks the end of Kumukanda, online. In putting the book together I wanted to think about the rites that immigrants and exiles pass through in the absence of their native culture.

In my own experience, occupying a number of, seemingly mutually exclusive subjectivities (yes, I have been reading Paul Gilroy, what gave me away?) has given me a hybrid sensibility. This is clearest in my musical taste which spans from Dolly Parton to Wookie without irony or apology (listen to ‘Battle‘ by the latter and ‘Coat of Many Colours‘ by the former and tell me you’re unmoved). The book is a way of mapping this hybrid sensibility in poems that explore racial classification, literary tradition, the trials and errors of love, bereavement and the history of Garage music.

I have been asked to give a special reading at Library Members’ Club in Covent Garden on March 25th and thought it would be a perfect opportunity to read some new poems from the manuscript in public for the first time. On the evening I’ll be reading the full eleven-part version of my long poem ‘calling a spade a spade’ alongside an alternate take of ‘Passing’ a long poem set in Essex in 2000 when UKG was all over the charts and everybody had lyrics.  I might even sneak in some poems from the dedications series in the book which includes: ‘For those who wait till the moment has passed’, ‘For those who mispronounce my name’, and ‘For those orphaned late in life’.

For details of the event, follow the link:


It would be amazing to see you there, if you’re London-based. If not, see you soon. I am in Ireland and, via live-stream, Austin (TX) in April and Sheffield in May.

New music from my forthcoming EP

Some of you might know that, as well as poems, I write songs. As it happens, it was songwriting that got me into poetry. After taking a break from recording songs I’m happy to be back in the studio working on new material. Here’s a track from an EP I’m working on with Rapsz Katai entitled Trial and Error. You can keep up with my musical output by checking out the music page on this site, where I’ll be posting new stuff.

‘It has to appear like a gift’: an interview with Ahren Warner


In his review of The Salt Book of Younger Poets, Dai George noted that the present seems a particularly good time to be a young British poet. George cites, among other things, the active literary culture to which many twenty-something poets are contributing as evidence of this and, if the sheer number of publications dedicated to this generation is anything to go by, one is apt to believe him.

Though there is some overlap between these publications, what is most striking is the variety of poets they contain. Within this surfeit of names, though, a recurrent figure is Ahren Warner: soon to have a second collection published by Bloodaxe, recently appointed as the new Poetry London editor, winner of the Arts Foundation Fellowship and still a few years shy of 30.
Continue reading “‘It has to appear like a gift’: an interview with Ahren Warner”

Meet the Artist @ First Floor Portobello

On Wednesday November 14th I’ll be performing a one-off set with musician and storyteller Christine Cooper at First Floor Portobello in Notting Hill (see event details below). Come along if you can. There will poems new and old with a musical backing and I might even preview a song or two…

‘I’m a travelling man…’ pt. 3

My final, full, day in Abu Dhabi (June 6th) started early with me leading workshops for three school groups. It was great fun to work with students with such a highly developed sensibility for poetry. I particularly enjoyed hearing some poems the students had written in the local Nabati style which is so much a part of Emirati culture that the reality TV show celebrating it has been called ‘one of the most successful Arab television shows ever’ . The evening brought a trip to Saadiyat Island for my performance at Artscape of World Cultures. Manarat Al Saadiyat is a beautiful place and it was wonderful to be able to share the stage with so many talented artists and performers. Here is a picture of the entrance to give you a sense of the place:

‘I’m a travelling man…’ pt. 2

Tuesday was a slightly shorter day with just one engagement: a drama/playwriting workshop at Zayed University.

Zayed University

I had a great time leading this session as we spent the session creating a play from scratch starting with some improv, deciding on a location, deciding on the characters and so on. The play that emerged (a transgressive story concerning an unmarried Yemeni woman attempting to escape a controlling father) was a genuine surprise.Continue reading “‘I’m a travelling man…’ pt. 2”