The Poetry Archive and Obsidian Foundation
Sideways tuned in to view the launch night.
Due to ongoing COVID anxieties, tonight’s evening has to go ahead via Zoom. The words carry perfectly, but one wonders how fun the event would have been in person. Nick Makoha – co-founder of Obsidian and tonight’s host – laments the lack of food, wine, drink and music. However, both Tracey Guiry from The Poetry Archive, and Nick, are grateful to be collaborating together. It’s the culmination of years of hard work – not forgetting it was all helped along by funding from The British Council, whom Nick refers to as “the invisible guest”.
The Poetry Archive, a 25-year-old UK charity, aims at preserving the voices of poets. The web library recognises the importance and impact of intonations, their nuances, as well as their scope and tone. Imagine how it would’ve been to hear Shakespeare, they remark. It is with the intention of documenting 21st Century poetry they look ahead to the next 1,000 years.
The link-up coincides with the launch of The Obsidian Foundation Collection, adding a multitude of modern-day Black poets to an existing library featuring Bernadine Evaristo, Benjamin Zephaniah and Linton Kwesi Johnson. The Obsidian collection recognises the importance and relevance of the stories, social and cultural commentary and ideas that British Black poets bring to the UK’s poetry landscape and beyond.
It’s enlightening to observe this safe space with a handful of modern-day powerhouse poets. Across the evening, they embark on an emotional and cultural journey across their lineage – making stops along their history in the world and evaluating who they are as people today. Also, how they are – literally – made from their ancestors, and moulded into shape by mothers, lovers, London and the rest of the globe.
Raymond Antrobus – one of three Obsidian co-founders – is the first poet, quoting Seamus Heaney (“poetry is the beat of your tribe”). His highlight is ‘And That’, a poem based on a chance meeting with a friend outside a Dalston chicken shop: “Chicken wings / and that. Boss man / salt in them / and that”. His powerful final reading ‘For Tyrone Givans’ stops the audience: “The paper said putting him in jail / without his hearing aids was like / putting him in a hole in the ground”. He rounds up calling for publication of the BSL bill, which would make British Sign Language an official UK language.
Next up, Victoria Adukwei Bulley, soon to have her debut collection ‘Quiet’ out on Faber. Her words are occasionally stark, but her language is laden with meaning: “What did I do today except watch a tall building burn / while the boy who once called it home phones the BBC / says you know at least five hundred people live in there / I didn’t see five hundred people leave” from ‘Death Is Everywhere But Not Here’. She later hits the crowd with the astonishing line, “The white hair I rip from my scalp at the middle parting / turns out to be black at its root”, then the gentle and passionate ‘Ode’: “oh highly dependent, oh addict, oh seeker of beautiful veins, oh collector of DNA”.
Rachel Long – another co-founder of Obsidian – sweeps in my favourite poem of the evening. It’s the astonishing ‘Red Hoover’, detailing meeting a handsome Nigerian actor: “Mum began asking after him / where’s that good-looking Nigerian? Don’t tell me / you’ve ruined it already”. “He was running all over the house. / Upstairs then down, zooming around. / He was running a bath, then letting the water out / only to fill it back up”. She opens up her poetry, inviting the readers to share in every vital, personal detail. She reads purposefully, beautifully.
Then Nick. He dips into his unreleased second poetry collection, pre-empting his first reading as “imagining Basquiat and a black Icarus as (his) contemporaries”. It’s packed with imagery and wordplay: “Paradise and violence are the same road… both gladly accepts loss” and “getting away is what a road is for”.
Finally, the prolific Roger Robinson, whom Nick refers to as “a spear in a necessary war”. He brings his ‘rage on a page’ to Zoom, losing none of his ability for devastating words. ‘Citizen One’ astonishes, a call to arms for modern-day black Britain, who had to suffer the 60s: “teddy-boys, skinheads… thatcher… a cosy council house… now you want to send me home. Oh Woooow!” It’s powerful and necessary. To hear the poets of the evening read their works is to transform them. It reiterates why The Poetry Archive is so important. Words can carry you, stop you, lift you and break you.
Thanks to the Collection, you can relive them again and again.
Obsidian Collection – a collaboration between The Poetry Archive and the Obsidian Foundation – is live now: https://poetryarchive.org/keystones/obsidian-collection/
Feature by Richard Gilbert-Cross