Stick It To The Man (After ‘Groan’ By Alex Levene)

I wrote this poem inspired by ‘Groan‘ by poet Alex Levene, which in itself is inspired by ‘Howl‘ by American poet Allen Ginsberg.

Alex Levene is a Bedford-based writer and poet who I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the stage with at SFP many times (a serious mega talent!).

I first heard ‘Groan’ at Soul Food Poetry Bedford in April this year and have since been writing a response piece to it.

So for six months I’ve been writing and editing this, detailing my own perceptions of creative writing and who my inspirations are.


I saw the greatest minds of my year group  destroyed by sadness – hysterical jaywalkers, burnt brazen, naked, lives laid bare

crawling their way through the social Middle Earths of Twitter and Instagram, looking for a million likes and retweets,

millennial media mongrels lusting for a human connection to the societies of open-air realities and sunlight, through text speak and Urban Dictionary

overdosing on hollow lies still high, sofa-sprawled students smoking in their custom-made sun loungers looking into their Mad Max-esque orange

haze screens, their incandescent tangerine shed-like space, killing each other for cash and capital in a scramble for power like it’s fucking Westeros.

Photographer: Robin Benzrihem on Unsplash

Now begins my song of praise
bless me with your righteous gaze.
I pray you’ll concede that this world’s future
depends on the arts, creativity and poetry.

Poems weren’t always in my peripheral view
but what better way to talk to you
and read in front of all these faces
as poetry transcends colour, creed, sex and races.

I once wanted to be a police officer, a cricketer, you know?
Now I write poems, using rhythm, rhyme, meter and onomatopoeia
striking academia full of fear in their weekend boats
sailing full speed ahead from Lands’ End to John O’Groats.

But I’ll stand tall, like the walls
between poetry and spoken word.
They’re one and the same, haven’t you heard?

Should I compare you to a summer’s day?
The war cry – the poet that slips into words
like Thanos and The Infinity Gauntlet,
the Mad Titan who takes centre stage and flaunts it.

And I write this poem for those who will listen,
who will take heed of my words and their composition,
who will comprehend the poet’s vision.
People hate to hear rhythm and rhyme,
as words can allude, confuse and hypnotise.
Conveyors of myths and magic, incantations
that summon beasts. Tales of Merlin and Mordrid,
the Druids, Arthur, Guinevere, their feasts and fights,
don’t let these poets on the open-mic tonight.

See, there are issues with poetry;
most switch off – it’s lyrical,
the pinnacle of most great songs is poetry.

Photographer: Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Way back in the day,
you’d read up on your Greek and Latin
bashing out odes and elegies
on bits of parchment
written with quills and ink.

But poetry has always been
for the people by the people,
a synergy creating a soulful energy,
sometimes read over the kitchen sink.

And the soul of creativity
has always been inside of us, in the heart,
regardless if that’s
poetry, prose, theatre or dancing in the park;

the poet is more than writing poetry,
it’s a mentality, it’s your mind-set,
life choices, your actions and your voices.

If prose is the bellow poetry is the murmur
in the corner people-watching
taking down each detail –
collecting everyone’s emotions and clout,
bottling it up and then raising it to a shout.

A howl, a growl, a snarl,
raging against the societal machine,
lies unclean, torn seams of childhood innocence.

And I will never cease rhythm’s use,
it’s not might fault. Blame Roald Dahl,
Spike Milligan, and Dr Seuss… and
“Augustus Gloop Augustus Gloop
The great big greedy nincompoop
Augustus Gloop, so big and vile
so greedy, foul, and infantile.”

Okay, I took that, but wasn’t it
Picasso who said, “Good artists borrow,
great artists steal?” – I think,
and these writers moulded my youth.

Poetry catches, snatches, captures, enraptures,
not just the town crier on stage proclaiming his love –
not just hope in the form of a holy white dove
but it’s a state of mind, a passion… it’s a want,
a hunger, a message, sometimes
a polemic attack against systems, governments
and institutions that manipulate and fashion.

Photographer: Manasavita on Unsplash

For me, my Creative Writing degree was not a choice,
it was a chance for me to express myself and use my voice.

Every writer who has put pen to paper,
or finger to keyboard
was saving their sword for you to wield later.

I discuss race, class, politics and mental health,
children’s literature and capitalist wealth,
and the mysteries of my family tree,
stories of slavery and immigration
as I don’t know how I came to be me.

Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas, or tried to,
like how Stalin banned poetry and the Nazis believed
poetry came from the hands of the Jews.

The weapon that kills the fascists is not the gun or the sword,
it’s the lyrics, the bold art of playing with words from a chessboard.

Protest and politics is where it begins
friends and experiences poeticised in the form of a hymn.

From reggae through to science,
The Isaacs (Newton and Gregory),
you can’t lock them up in the speech penitentiary.

Agard, Zephaniah, Sabrina Benaim, Margaret Atwood
AM Pressman, Neil Hilborn, Olivia Gatwood,
writers who change our perspectives for common good.

Byron, Shelley, Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Larkin
Sylvia Plath, Blake, Grace Nichols, writing mages
it’s the artists’ job to rattle society’s cages.

Sassoon, W.H. Auden and Wilfred Owen,
Alfred Lord Tennyson, the internet and Google search
David Olusoga, Reni Eddo-Lodge and Afua Hirsch.

Photographer: Kinga Cichewicz

Ginsberg, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and Jill Scott
talking about their experiences on the streets
as we learn of The Harlem Renaissance, the 60s and the Beat.

Shakespeare, Derek Walcott, Steve Smith,
Wordsworth, the Bobs (Dylan and Marley),
Naomi Shibab Nye and Thomas Hardy.

I implore you all to read as much as you can,
write your spoken words and stick it to The Man!

Smile

I’ve become synonymous with historical poetry but that’s not all I write about; I do attack different subjects, including mental health.

That’s what this poem is about. Mental health problems can sneak up on the best of us and this poem is a few thoughts on trauma.


People don’t give Black boys enough credit.

Even now at 22 I’m still studying and the last time I studied a positive Black person was when my schoolteacher told us about David Harewood as Othello.

That was ten years ago in 2008, a long time, long enough;

ten is the Capricorn Zodaic sign;

is highest score at a poetry slam;

ten years (plus two) is the difference between my brother and I;

is the difference between boy and man;

was when I first fell in love with the song ‘Son of Man’, in Tarzan.

Photographer: Dean Ward on Unsplash

I was reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower (love it). I was walking home one night and was thinking how White and hetero-normative young adult fiction is.

It might not seem like much, but it’s about seeing yourself reflected and not as someone else’s crutch.

I view reading as breathing and when I read I frown; when I’m in photos I find it hard to smile (on demand). I’m sad, and deep in thought.

I’m always down.

People tell me to smile.

Strangers telling strangers to smile.

Sweet old ladies that mean well saying:

“You’re too young to look this sad. Smile, sweetheart.”

Grandparents saying:

“Be happy. Just feel better.”

Weird, isn’t it? Telling someone you don’t know / those you do to look happy and feel better, treating depression like a headache.

Photographer: Taylor Grote on Unsplash

A smile takes one muscle more than punching someone in the face, that last one is what those who look like me are synonymous with.

Violence. Shedding more blood than tears.

Tantrums over thoughts –

ideas left hanging from a noose, swaying in the wind at the top of Empire State, contemplating jumping from the Golden Gate.

Knives through veins and vital organs, trying to take on something you know is bigger than you could ever vanquish.

Something that has killed plenty before and will kill plenty after; because if there is no attempt you lose the at least you tried speech.

Don’t tell people with depression to smile, because they might still be trying to scrub the trauma, a confession more holy than sin.

Scrubbed with boiling water – tap water, bottled water, holy water, it all flows under the bridge. A boat sailing to the slaughter.

Photographer: Aaron Blanco Tejedoro on Unsplash

Don’t tell Black boys to smile. Compliment, maybe – don’t demand.

Allow the contrast to funnel through, and if he does want to force a smirk, he will do it of his own volition, not at the behest of you –

with someone he can feel vulnerable with,

not some plastic grinned,

fish-eyed nice guy (or girl)

who finds the frown as scope to blame the victim.

He might have a good reason to be sad;

could be overcoming grief;

could still be in shock after a recent event

or he simply needs a good reason to smile.

It is not your mouth and they’re not your lips.

Not yours to find solace in

when the windows crash and shatter from the storm outside.

When your cardiac muscle crashes around your moneybox

like seeds in dry soil refusing to grow without moisture or sunshine.

And if you really want a sad boy to smile,

a Black boy to smile,

a grieving man to force a grin,

to wither in sin despite the depression they’re in –

talk to him until  you’re hit by

the blunt force instrument of mental health,

until to them it smells like flowers and not a graveyard,

until they re-open historic wounds to find roses and not a corpse.

Photographer: Nikita Tikhomirov on Unsplash

I am not yours to tell to smile;

if you keep saying “smile”, no one will ever want to.

And if you get too close,

you might get bitten and the victim will smile red.

Privilege

I wrote this poem inspired from my schooldays and my reflections on that now as an adult, and its related connotations.

Also, this poem talks about how discrimination can happen between privately-educated / state-educated people of the same ethnicity.

This poem was deeply-inspired by ‘Privilege’ by Lacey Roop. She’s a slam poet and author poetry collection And Then Came the Flood


At fourteen, I was educated with the children of the rich and entitled.

At lunch I sat with them – children who lived in big houses.

Honestly, I disliked most of them. I didn’t want to be one of them.

My mom was a teacher, my father worked in IT.

The parents of these children were lawyers and businesspeople.

In other words, they sold lies for a living; however, like my colleagues, I never knew the meaning of without or hungry.

Some of the friends I made at school were people who had never encountered people of colour before – other than those they saw on television.

I grew up around people who had names like Seonai and Winston and Darius and Precious and Paris and Isaiah.

And they grew up with people who had names like Mary-Kate, Anna-Grace, Elizabeth-Anne, Tom-Harry and John-Paul.

Photographer: Matt Lamers

By today’s standards, they’d be known as progressive white folks who had more money than they knew what to do with.

They were the offspring of people who felt uncomfortable around someone like me, a child – whose last name wasn’t Jones or Smith, whose skin tone was a shade too dark, too dug up earth for their white picket fence.

One time, I was invited to a party. Drugs and underage girls littered it like confetti. The houses of lawyers and CEOs and surgeons, people who had inherited everything they owned.

When other Black people here how I talk, they question who I am. They question my ethnicity and identity.

Just because when I spill the heart contents of my chest, they ask if I am really Black. Because I talk too well for this colour.

As if my blood is not infested with the same slave plantation mud as theirs. I do not hate my skin but I’m often ashamed of those who share the same melanin as me.

Judging me on my RP and how I was raised, not what I say or how I behave. I hear people say, “If you know better than do better.”

This is why I can’t gawk from the side lines when I see Black people putting each other down. When I see colourism dividing us by our different shades of brown.

Black Privilege is feeling the bitterness of other people who look like me. This private school childhood is being the token Black.

It’s knowing my mouth is more bulletproof than Charlottesville which is why I use this mouth loud, even in the face of that bitterness.

To keep certain ears attuned to “You know better so be better.” For my eyes to be whitewashed and imperialised. Black privilege is a fiction, a fantasy.

It’s the assumptions people make because they hear my softly-spoken syntax – this relaxed tone of voice. This privilege-sounding tongue-tied man subverting stereotypes.

It’s the judgements we take without thinking. I was stop and searched by police for simply blinking… wrong place wrong time.

Having privilege is never having to think or talk about it. I’m always thinking and talking about it.

And if we all have voices to use, why on Earth should we stay silent?

Genocide

So I wrote this poem in response to when I was scouting for venues for Soul Food Poetry Northampton; certain places got edgy when I explained that some of the acts that we get read poetry about things like current affairs, politics, war, mental health and so on.

You can’t censor poetry, I don’t think we should censor people’s topics to make it more comfortable. However, we do ask for acts to be creative in how they omit swear words (as there’s sometimes children in the audience).

Art comes in different forms: poetry, prose, theatre, film, photography etc. When an artist’s work isn’t designed to offend, to censor it because certain people disagree with it / feel uncomfortable with it is wrong (to me).

Me performing at Soul Food Poetry Amsterdam
Photographer: Jadzia Kurzak

Surely, if they can commemorate bloody, messy conflicts, poets can talk about politics, war, mental health and other such things in their performances?

These are the same places where come November 11, are decorated with bits of bunting donning the Union Jack flag celebrating the end of World War One, as well as remembering those who have died in other conflicts too (harsh topics indeed).

You can’t have different rules for different people. My poem ‘Genocide’ is inspired from ‘What’s Genocide?’ by Carlos Andrés Gómez.


The pub managers told me we couldn’t perform poetry with profanity,
they said poetry has to be nice, digestible and pleasant,
they said you can’t read poetry that dealt with difficult subjects.

So I ask them:

“Raise your hands if you have heard of The Armistice?”

In congruence, they raised their hands
like mustard gas climbing out of a trench,
like raised bayonets at the Somme or Passchendaele.

“Okay, hands down. Now raise your hand
if you have heard of the Armenian Genocide.”

Vacant expressions blended with a curious ignorance,
like the quivering quiet at Gallipoli,
like throats coloured rotten with gangrene,
voices halfway murmuring,
like lone soldiers whispering from behind barbed wire.
Took place between 1914 and 1917,
massacred at the hands of The Ottoman Empire.

So, what is genocide?

 

They wouldn’t let me perform again
if I read these pieces,
poems that tell stories
of The Other during the World Wars,
works that raise bayonet
against Churchill and Kitchener.
Pieces of a real world war,
not just Europe as I was taught
in the hollow corridors of my schooldays.

I can’t teach grown-ass people
in the audience that the history we know
is part of a wider story
and that it’s okay to admit
the history we learn as children
is very one-sided,
that the nostalgic pride for
Britain’s past is often misguided.

How many glorified films
have we had about Winston Churchill?
A lot, yet he was instrumental
with Dunkirk and the Battle for Britain,
as he stands in Trafalgar Square staring
from the £5-note; though he
advocated for chemical weapons on
Iraqi tribes and called Africans “savages,”
talking about black and brown people
in the language of eugenics and averages.

So, what is genocide?

 

Your statues talk about Nelson’s victories,
but don’t talk about his endorsement of slavery.

World History books omit Medgar Evers and Emmett Till.
They don’t even mention King Leopold and the Congo,
titling it “Politics in the 20th Century”
calling them immigrants-settlers,
rather than land-grabbers and colonisers.

Like Cecil Rhodes, those De Beers
blood diamond mines; imperialists
and their measuring tapes
stealing tribes’ ancestral lands
in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia
laying the foundations for Apartheid
in the southern nations of Africa.

You wonder why Black and Asian children want
to hide in lighter skin with blue and green contact lenses,
history books made them ashamed of their melanin,
forced to build walls, barriers and concrete defences.

So what is genocide?

 

Genocide is Morant Bay, Jamaica.
When the children of slaves
rose up in anger against the British…
A courthouse destroyed. Places were looted,
some were executed; it was a riot
in a place that no longer mattered
in the eyes of the empire.

But it’s what happened next:

the reason every Jamaican has heard of Morant Bay –
the reason why it makes the locals so vex,
the reason why that history is so fresh,
the militia swarmed in like wasps,
hundreds killed in this brutal act of vengeance.
A penance to show the Jamaicans who was boss.

Chantelle gave her daughter
skin-lightening cream
the day before she starts school.

She exists at the end of a gun,
at the end of neo-colonial rules,
European beauty standards raised at half mast

of a bayonet blade cutting fine lines
into her beautiful brown thighs,
killing the sanctity of childhood innocence…

being told “She’s pretty for a dark-skin girl”
in Africa, in America, in England
this place that place around the world.

So, what is genocide?

 

You really

want to

know what

genocide is?

This,

right here,

is genocide!

Hunting Season

This poem is inspired by some of the characters of my childhood, in addition to Fire Season by James Galvin and ‘One of the Good Ones’ by A. M.  Pressman.


I went to school with children of privilege,
synonymous with the English upper-middle class
and the first time I went to their houses
I stared up at the mounted heads,
bold as brass looking down upon me.

Stags’ heads, boars’ heads,
hollowed out skulls
like the Egyptian from the days
of Tutankhamen, Cleopatra and Nefertiti.

They are the only brown things in the room,
showing me how to be “one of the good ones” –
open-mouthed mounted mammals,
hollow shells shelled with bullets.

I laugh at the homeowners’ jokes
and I can hear the oxymoron in my chest.

I stay silent as they endorse fox hunting.
I stay silent as they insult immigrants.
I stay silent as they recite colonial-era poetry.

I stay silent,
as they tell me how they freed
poor African children last summer,
as if they will try to decolonise me too.

Photographer: Ray Hennessy

I know they voted Tory, as their ancestors did before them.
How long will it be before I become a head on the wall?
How long until my bones sit in the British Museum?
I wonder if I they already view me as one of their trophies.

I grimace every time they talk about their friends’ servants,
people who come from places like South America and Africa.

They go on to talk about Terry and his manservant.
I wince every time they brag about their friends who boast
about the bleeding brown bodies that keep his household upright.

But sometimes at night, I catch
these people staring into the eyes on the wall,
dark orbs of stone you know?

They know what they did;
they can still feel the blood splatter,
like the indelibly etched ink of tattoos.

They tell them they’re sorry,
promising that they’re
“some of the good ones.”

In the days after Brexit;
I thought about them, the Head Collecters.

The days after Brexit; it was open season.
It was hunting season on British streets.

Bits of bunting flapping in the breeze
like bodies over Mississippi and Georgia,
looked like treason was making a comeback,
more comebacks than Nigel Farage
as history starts to repeats itself.

In my smothering dreams,
I walk into my year-nine class…
there’s a hat on my seat with a promise:

Hunting Means Hunting,

it says.

Photographer: Jerry Charlton

They promise
to Make the Woods Great Again,
to put the Great
back in Great Britain.

And it feels like someone
has drawn an X on my chest
with ninety lashes. It’s the same hat
that the children of my youth wear now.

They ask me to meet them halfway,
to reach across the shop aisle,
bypassing sugarcane and soy sauce,
nutmeg and chocolate; tea and coffee;
rice and tobacco; indigo and cotton!

They ask if I care
to walk over corpses
that look like me.

They ask me
to forget the countries
that their ancestors
put on their backs.

They ask me to forget
dead languages
in order to compromise.

At dawn,
I walk through Northampton
to the sound of history’s cries.

I see my not-so-childhood friends,
they know what their parents did.
They feel guilty; they still feel
my brittle bones in their hands,
skull and crossbones raised at half-mast.

Photographer: Rebekah Howell

People say:
“The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice”
But the Head Collectors said:
“The darker the meat the longer the noose.”

They hold my head in their hands and say
“You’re one of the good ones, but it’s hunting season.”