Freak (After ‘Nothing Is For Nothing’ By Jill Scott)

I wrote this poem on my own experiences of childhood bullying inspired by the poem ‘Nothing is For Nothing’ by American poet and songwriter Jill Scott.


I had been playing chess longer than time itself,
being whatever piece they wanted me to
whenever they wanted me to be it –
a freak, a chess piece on checkered sheets,
being black, white, bishop, knight,
king or queen, a game unclean.

Check!

Played by my classmates
because of an apparent defect.
I accepted it because
I didn’t want to be alone,
now I’m trying to atone for my sins.
A childhood of wanting be wanted
by those other than my family.
I continued this image of “friends”,
laughs and jokes with them
often at my emotional expense.

Photographer: Jason Leung

Not friends at all,
pretending to fit in,
jibes at my melanin,
their image of a wet dream.
They thought I was
exotic, wild, neurotic, a freak.
Their cricket ball, for six I’d slog.
They told me to
“Go back to the trees I came from.”
I was monkey man, coon, nigger, wog.

And everybody walked around,
whispering about me,
like being able to run fast was synonymous
with members of my caste –
like Britain wasn’t suffocating
under its nostalgia raised at half-mast,
like there was nothing to laugh at other than
this slave running free on their plantation.

But when I was taking wickets and scoring tries
I wasn’t discriminated against, there were no jibes.
I was a gentleman, a man –
it was a sham. It really was, wasn’t I good for the cause?
Seems not, because the schools I went to
were this close to practicing colonial laws.

Intelligent, great cricketer,
good rugby player, head down,
but I was brown. Not good enough.
I was a firing lion,
like Michael Holding or Andy Roberts.
I was calm like Clive Lloyd,
but test me, and Vivian Richards will find you.
Knocking that ball right back twice as fast.

They wanted me to be obedient and docile,
stupid and oblivious. Working twice
as hard than everyone else, like a freak.
There I was selling my soul for acceptance.
Struggling not to be the latest generation
of slaves on my family tree.
Struggling to gain, gain nothing
but vexation, confusion, frustration, illusions.

As there was no love, just leeches
dressed as teachers in instituions that take.
Children of posh privileged people that flake
when life gets too hard,
when they get gruel and lard instead of steak,
when they didn’t get a pony for Christmas,
when they crashed their first car (it was a Jaguar).

Whatever happened to going outside and playing in the park
or dealing Pokemon cards like Pikachu and Charizard?
But all they cared about were horses and porches, Daddy’s cigars.
There was no love from their parents,
just empty condom wrappers where their hearts should have been.
And that’s what takers do, they push the self-esteem out of you.

And now I am the me you see now, the me
that joined Soul Food Poetry and holds onto himself
with both hands and all feet.
The me that must love and be loved in return,
but knows that love and hate is learned.

The me that is passionate, confident
and smart with self-respect.
Taught himself to love himself
because the freak didn’t.
I’m not a freak, I’m a man.

Growing Up Black

I wrote this poem as prequel-sequel to “Grandma’s House” and it’s very loosely based on “The Type” by poet Sarah Kay.


When you grow up in a West Indian household most things turn into a joke, eventually (whether you like it or not).

Growing up Black is me as a child opening the cabinet of glasses to be told no. They’re there for display like a museum exhibition.

It’s going to the cutlery draw to set the table for dinner and be told “not them ones.” They’re mash up. “Take these; them the good ones” – from a big container in the conservatory inside a box inside of another box behind something like it’s the fifth Indiana Jones film.

It’s Grandma telling me to hide when the Jehovah’s Witness come knocking at ridiculous times in the evening.

It’s answering the door to that one relative who turns up when the word on the grapevine is that Grandma’s been cooking – the fried chicken, the saltfish, the oxtail, the curry goat, the rice and peas, – the full shebang!

You had him at saltfish. He’s at the door within an hour. We call him The Tupperware King and he’s as persistent as an IOS update. Not even a lie!

Growing up Black is told tales of my great-grandparents, recited like urban legends. The Windrush Generation

listening to Grandma Cathy tell me about her mother is like hearing about Nanny de Maroon. Grandma Toile she was called –

she was no school. She was no speak English. She spoke French and double Dutch. She spoke a version of English that some understood but she was pure Patois, ready to survive with head, mouth and heart.

Growing up Black was going to watch my grandfather do gigs in his steelband. Tune after tune, whilst the band drink dodgy beers that look like they were made in a popup factory.

Growing up Black is cringing every time the English say Goat Curry. Growing up Black is learning about Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam before you reach your tenth birthday.

It’s being introduced to N.W.A and Public Enemy at thirteen. It’s being told about your lack of privilege by your mom, that you ain’t like your white friends; you have to work twice as hard for half as much.

Photographer: Olivier Collet

It’s being followed around the supermarket by security seconds after walking in. It’s being at Grandma’s House and finding anything but butter or margarine in that container.

It’s having aunties and uncles and grandparents who buy everything big. And I don’t mean big, I mean flipping enormous! Two-kilogram bottles of ketchup. It’s being at weddings and funerals and there being the token Caribbean buffet. Sweet Christmas!

It’s being told that there’s no pepper in the saltfish fritters until it’s lodged in your throat. Grandma’s joke at everyone’s expense.

It’s walking into the living room met with mustard gas, and by that I mean fog that burns. Not hot sauce from Tesco, I’m talking sauce fresh from our homeland, the small islands – the Caribbean, the West Indies and the Dutch Antilles.

Yellow liquid gunge, filled with bits and pieces. Someone has home-grown the Grim Reaper and put him into a plastic water bottle, labelled Hot Sauce in black marker pen. It should be called Put This On Your Food If You Don’t Want To Live Sauce. 

Photographer: Ali Yahya

It’s watching my grandfather and his friends slap dominoes on the table. Bloodclart!! followed by laughs and gulps of Wray, Appleton and what I like to call Cerberus, named for that dog that guards the gates of the Underworld. One sip of Rivers Rum is enough to knock a person out for a fortnight.

Growing up Black is being told you’re a great cricketer. You’re like a Michael Holding or Clive Lloyd. And those pioneers became my idols – Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall, Colin Croft, Viv Richards, Gary Sobers. Top top players of the game at the highest level.

It’s testing what your white friends say to their parents to your parents. It’s safe to say I lived… just about.

Growing up Black is living on a fault line between identities, it’s telling your family about the first time you were called nigger whilst ticking British on the application form. They will understand.

It’s being looked at oddly when you show your passport at customs abroad. Where are you from? No, really, where are you from? Making you feel you like you don’t belong.

From Slavery to Windrush; from the Nationality Act to Brexit; from curry goat and rice in a butter container to a hostile immigration policy,

growing up Black is family and community. It’s dinner round the table. It’s history and politics and West Indian superstitions.

It’s kakaje, sleep dust. It’s a childhood and upbringing in Dutch pots and crisp n dry. It’s immigration in plastic. It’s a family that spans thousands of miles and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

Demerara

I wrote this poem inspired by the many times my mother and grandmother have sent me to the supermarket on trivial errands.

Moreover, it’s also inspired by a documentary series called Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners by British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga.

However, it’s the seemingly trivialities that one sees on a supermarket run that turn out to be not so trivial. Everything has story, especially brands, and we often take things like this for granted.

My poem takes its name from the region Demerera , previously a Dutch colony in what became British Guyana, and then simply Guyana. But what most people know it for is the famous brand of sugar that comes from there.


When I came across Demerara,
my journey was cut short.

I weighed the packet in my palm
and thought about the blood of the yesteryear –

juice reserved for the Guyanese.
The shoppers around me minded their own,

one foot in the river of cane,
the other in the bank of Barclays and Lloyds –

a nationwide story. Rumour was, the pickers
had one and a half legs… like Kunte Kinte I suppose

just another a day at Tesco.

Photographer: Peter Bond

We take so much for granted
I said, watching the flag kill the wind.

The Brits said God Save the Queen,
taking a minute’s silence for the dead.

I declare war on their allegiance.
The Armistice forgets the colonised

and I’ll be damned if I keep this to myself.
So I put it in a poem, as you do.

I find Liz and Vic guilty of forgetting
their progeny’s childhood –

granules in their tennis shoes,
blood on their shirt…

a lazer to history, branding the pages
with a  poker like Samuel Johnson.

Photographer: Jack Finnigan

The man standing next to me puts
a Granny Smith in his trolley,

along with a box of PG Tips,
did they steal that too?

I see whips in the grains,
a tale in nine parts.

Demerara looks at me,
staring me down like a cat.

I look up to see bunting,
in rows and rows like plantations,

a loud arrogance to
those who know where to look,

like reciting the poem “Mandalay”
on the beaches of Burma.

Each time I look up, the flags stand taller,
floating into a Technicolor sunrise.

Photographer: Krishnam Moosaddee

I hold Demerara
in the cathedral of her youth,

where they belt God Save The Queen,
where they sing Britain! Britain!

They were calling her name.

What’s Up, Trouble?

I’ve broken ranks here. As well as poetry and journalism, I do write other stories as well. Inspired by the short story “No Results Found” by Nicholas Montemarano, this is “What’s Up, Trouble?”


General opinion suggests you should not look to grief counselling until at least six months after the deceased’s death. You should let the dust settle. I lasted six days. The dust hadn’t settled.

Auntie Luisa was barely in the ground before I started taking steps. I can still hear her voice. “What’s up, Trouble?” she’d say. She was always the artist. Even the way she walked was that of a practiced actress, elegant and tall. Always the performer and storyteller and when she told those anecdotes from her childhood, she would always have a voice for every member of our family.

No matter how hard things look, people say it’s better to read about grief and talk to your family than to rush into counselling. Not for me though. I rushed in. Counsellors seem to know a little about lots of things.

Ask Natasha about: “books with terminal illness or losing someone.” Natasha says: “A Monster Calls, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Me Before You, Still Alice, Thirteen Reasons Why, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, My Sister’s Keeper.” All those books are just interpretations though, aren’t they? People say everyone reacts to loss differently. Perhaps it’s best to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a story about a boy called Charlie in an American high school who is lonely and depressed after the death of his aunt (like me). Fitting, isn’t it?

Ask Natasha about: “dead aunties in popular culture.” Ask Natasha about: “grief over dead aunties.” Ask Natasha about: “grief over best friends.” Maybe it’s best to leave her alone with things like this. She can help in all numbers of ways but she didn’t know Auntie Luisa like I did.

Maybe I should look at photographs of Auntie Luisa with my mom and Uncle Dean from their childhood. I know Grandma has them somewhere. Maybe look at photos from Dean’s 40th. Maybe look at photos from her wedding to Uncle Morten who she nicknamed “The Viking” because he happened to be from Denmark.

Should I ask Natasha the questions my younger cousins ask? Should I ask her my brother’s questions? “What happened to Auntie Luisa? What was her illness? How did she die? Will I die?” I could write a poem made up of their questions and my observations and fictionalise the answers. Maybe I should read some Sylvia Plath. ‘Widow’ and ‘Insomniac’ and ‘Mirror’ – the words consume their victims like fire on oil. However, I might learn something new from poetry and imagery and the connotations that poetry brings after you lose the ones you love.

I remember how Auntie Luisa was the one to turn to when I finally had the courage to talk about the school bullies – their own version of discipline – the the racism, the abuse and psychological torment. And all those memories were resurrected when I watched Goodbye Christopher Robin. On our many trips together, you were Nanny and I was Billy Moon. And whilst my parents bickered, you were there. You knew that I wanted someone to think I was important, that someone cared about me and you were that person until the day you died. I won’t ever forget.

If I were to read this ten years from today, it will certainly trigger off the memories of spending many a weekend in Colindale, with you, dying, in your North London flat. We’d go to the Tate or we’d stay in and watch The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (back-to-back) or meet your “friend” Morten at the New Chandos after he had finished work. I’d have an Ocean Spray cranberry juice and you’d have a Martini Rosso on ice.

When you both came to Northampton, we’d go for walks. We’d play in the woods. We’d go to Delapre Park and Salcey Forest. It would often rain and that’s when we’d run back to the car laughing.

I always imagined that one day you’d collapse right in front of me but you never did. You always played a role. You were the fun auntie and I can understand why you did that – a kid who grew up before his time. You were forever the performer pretending you weren’t sick, even in front of me, whilst you smiled and laughed. Quite like chess, you were playing a game within a game. You were the queen. You went here, there and everywhere. I was jealous: Denmark, Spain, Japan and most recently, going to live with Morten in America.

Woody Allen once said something about life’s absurdness in one of his films: “life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.” I took that as him saying live everyday like it’s your last because it could be and that’s life’s great joke isn’t it? One minute you’re a pawn one square from the end of the board, ready for your coronation, and in the next, that very same pawn, (your last pawn) has been outmanoeuvred. And in the next moment, you’re moves away from being checkmated and you don’t even see it coming.

It’s a famous fact that Auntie Luisa was vain. She told me so herself; ‘one day I said “auntie” and she replied “don’t call me that. It makes me sound old.”’ And when she got sick she felt even older. I felt older as well – at twelve years old subjected to mortality’s dread. I have been twenty-two for the last ten years. Ask Natasha: “what happens to a person’s body between being diagnosed with Scleroderma and death?”

Or ask Natasha about: “feel-good films with terminal illnesses.” I could watch Me Before You with Mom; or Breathe with Grandma; and Forrest Gump with Uncle Dean and Auntie Mary. Forrest Gump is somewhat uplifting – spoiler alert – until the end when Jenny dies. As if YA fiction and coming-of-age films will somehow change my reality. It allows me to hide, to run like Forrest. “Run Forrest, run” Jenny says. But then her heart gave out – much alike how Luisa’s did. She could no longer see. She could no longer hear or speak. She just was. She was no longer in pain though. No more pills, no more mid-street panic attacks or shivering hands from sudden changes in temperature.

I was home alone with Grandma when Morten called. In Auntie Luisa’s solemn silence, he talked with Grandma. Thousands of miles away, her daughter lay punctured with tubes. Covered in blood. Ten years and done. “We can keep her on life support”, Morten says. “The doctors can’t do anything for her. You must give consent to turn the machine off. It’s breathing for her. Do you understand?”, he sobbed. “I’m sorry Cathy… our Lu is gone.”

There were some murmurs. Then the screams came, paralytic and piercing. Grandma clung to me. My mother arrived as I was giving my grandmother words of endearment, seconds after she had consented for her child to be taken off life support. “It’s okay Grandma. It’s okay.”

It was definitely not okay but what else could I say? Your child is dead and there’s nothing you can do about it but I’m forced to lie to you because that’s what people do in times like this – words of endearment in times of grief. You probably won’t be okay ever again.

Tennyson wrote a poem called In “Memoriam A.H.H” in which he talks about the loss of a friend and how people who grieve often struggle to find meaning. If anyone has had similar experiences, I get it.

I’m sorry for jumping around like this between these different events but they are important in showing the different perspectives, as my family are extensions of my own consciousness. Ask Natasha: “how long is the proper time to grieve?” Ask Natasha: “Do human beings have souls?” Ask Natasha: “Is there life after death or do we float through a void for eternity?”

Do we do away with Auntie Luisa’s possessions? You know, like her clothes and hairbrushes and handbags – and her iPhone4, her philosophical teachings or Jane Austen novels. When is the right time? When Granddad wails asleep or is it when Grandma sobs over the kitchen sink?

I think back to the good times in London as a child. And I’d often watch Auntie Luisa sleep, as children often do with their parents. But she wasn’t my parent; at the same time, she played both mother and father to me. She’d lay snuggled under the duvets and all you could see were her long hairs. “Wake up auntie,” I’d say and she’d smile and laugh. However, in one of my dreams recalling these weekends, when I said “wake up”, I wanted her to smile and laugh (like she normally did) but she didn’t. She was only forty-four. She was too young to fall asleep forever, and when she did she reminded me of the dead.


Despite the subject matter here, I really enjoyed writing this. At some point in our lives we will have to bury someone and it’s pieces like this which define soul searching. It’s possible to learn things about yourself in stories of self-analysis and evaluation.  And if you managed to get to the end, well done.

Watershed (After Allen Ginsberg)

This is a poem that I wrote in my head in November and only articulated it onto paper two weeks ago.

I came into contact with “Howl” years ago but I only recently engaged with it personally last January, not long after starting university.

Allen Ginsberg is one of the figures of The Beat Generation, along with Jack Kerouac (On The Road) and Ken Kesey (One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest).

In short, “Howl” is a declaration of personal experiences with religion, sex, drugs and society’s absurdities. Part I is about individual cases.

Part II talks about the  Moloch of society, which represses feelings and forces the victim to declare themselves mad if they do not suppress the said emotions.

Part III is a proclamation of sympathy with Carl Solomon (he’s in an asylum). In that last part, Ginserg is standing in solidarity with his imprisoned friend, extending his hand in friendship. This is an act of emotion in the poem, an idea that society seems to be subjugate.

In this act of rebellion, Ginsberg is embodying an anti-establishment attitude, thus sticking it to The Man, to put it bluntly.

“Watershed” was written as a stark contrast to “Ode to the Millennial Generation” and a modern rewrite of parts one and two of “Howl”. The title comes from that time after 9pm on television when all the darker / morally-ambiguous shows arrive on air.


I

I saw the greatest people of my youth destroyed by society – pure, naked, rancour; hauling themselves through the streets in the midsummer looking for something to do,

music-headed millennials listening to the sounds of Paul Weller and Bob Marley looking for a connection to their parents’ generation,

the people who plodded through poverty and sat up smoking seeing the supernatural silhouettes of spectres floating across canopies of towns and cities in an existential crisis.

Photographer: Stas Svechnikov

These are the millennials who bared their knuckles to Snapchat and Twitter, hash-tagging their way through Wikileaks and Edward Snowden,

who passed through university swimming from the loan shark – dead eyes hallucinating like seeing giant chickens on the streets of Amsterdam,

those who cowered in cubicles making memes with nooses to hide their depression –

today’s kids who advertise their beards and long hair like Gandalf posing on the cover of Vogue.

They’re confused, like fish seeing land for the very first time, along with dreams, drugs and disillusionment. Walking nightmares, alcohol and one night stands that turn into functional relationships

on the blind avenues of a sporadic cloud and thunder in the landscapes of Bangkok and Melbourne, illuminating the rude awakening of real life.

Photographer: SHTTEFAN

Rookie soldiers of the twenty-ones to thirty-fours, responsibility and family life dawns while wine drunkenness catches their eye –

joyriding and jaywalking with no care, sun and moon and nature’s touch in the season of orange in Central Park, as poets and actors preach in the streets,

as feminists protest like Civil Rights activists marching from Selma to Montgomery under the threat of dog’s teeth and tear gas and police chants and horses and riot shields and batons and the legacy of Jim Crow,

and the millennials would yawp and whisper war stories about when they’d been arrested and on which march – the shocks of A & E, jail and combat – whole minds deteriorating in a seven-day layover with prison food, like vomit from concentrate,

those who disappeared into the cracks of Birmingham. Broad Street and New Street, leaving a trail of blood to the Rep Theatre,

watching poverty run riot by the riverside restaurants, as the homeless wander asking for change so they can live another day.

Photographer: Spenser H

The millennials who jump in taxis to go two minutes down a road, those who lay hungry and broke in cafés talking about literature,

and those conversations disappeared into the tattooed trees on the table and into the local narratives and told tales of Northampton, Bedford and Cambridge,

and further still – into the West Country of Devon, Dorset and Somerset, places that investigate newcomers and make you forget city life and its liquid lunches,

inflicting scorch marks on the anticlimactic nature of capitalism in The West – places where police create more black stars than Hollywood,

millennials who broke down in jail cells and wailed like sirens when they just happened to be wearing a hoody in a white neighbourhood –

who were raped by those who preyed on low self-esteem, taken advantage of like the slaves who worked the plantations in Mississippi and Morant Bay.

Photographer: Maciej Ostrowski

But the millennials went on partying through Manchester and Liverpool – a juxtaposition to the legacy of slavery. Myriads of slaves at auctions who stood all day with bloody feet.

My generation who watch Black Mirror and Westworld as Theresa May perfects the art of crashing the NHS,

the young people who read romance novels in Costa whilst plugged into bad music, who sit depressed under their own storm cloud,

who had suicidal thoughts in school and were told to get over it – like depression and anxiety were no different to burning your hand on the grill.

The generation that murmur all night, scribbling incantations on how to be happy in blank verse, who watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower like it was the story of their lives,

who cut their wrists at breakfast, lunch and dinner and were forced to open nostalgia shops when they failed, who hanged themselves in their bedrooms and were forgotten.

Photographer: Jens Thekkeveettil

The people who sang  in Warsaw and retired to their beds… forever to tend their war wounds like it was 1st October 1939 all over again,

who were given daggers for their “ums” and spears for their “likes” and electroshock therapy to cure their anxiety of the tomorrow.

Camden Town and Oxford arguing on how to talk and how to live, tongues wagging from midday to midnight,

and those who dreamt up stories on the bus in long sentences, trapping the metaphors and similes with semicolons and subordinate clauses,

who boobie-trapped the verbs and nouns with dashes and commas in long sentences like Oscar Wilde.

And in the spirit of jazz in New Orleans, saxophone’s cry across the water with the tears of a thousand years of blissful adolescence, and are good to grow one thousand years more.

Photographer: Jens Thekkeveettil

II

What foul creature carved out their souls and imagination?

Society – isolation – independent loneliness and inflation. Young people screaming in their homes. Children caressed by Hollywood divinities.

Poverty sleeping in the parks. Society! Society! The nightmare of society. Loveless in its mutilated Marxism, the brutal judger of broken people.

Society, the unimaginable jail. Society, the black dog walking through the graveyard. Society with its logos of judgement and stunned governments,

whose minds are machinery; whose blood is money; whose fingers are on the nuclear codes; whose torso is a bonfire of the youth; whose souls are stocks and shares.

Society where people sit alone, scared of their own faces. Society with its containment culture and cookie-cutter flats and invisible poverty lines and fake wars –

visions, symbols and miracles down the Thames. Dreams and aspirations gone with a whole truckload of toxic political correctness and fragile masculinity.

A storm. Epiphanies, politics and religions gone as the boat flips. Despair! Years of suicides and crazy crucifixions into a haze of holy yells.