The Manchester Literature Festival Blog
Review: Filigree and Terrance Hayes
Centre for New Writing student Thomas Lee finds different types of power in an evening of poetry.
Dorothea Smartt steps onstage in the stark white Corinthian hatbox of the Manchester Central Library. The music of Johnny Nash and the O’Jays dies away, leaving only the faint strains of a violinist busking outside in St. Peter’s Square. Nobody has told him that we’re here to listen to poetry.
Smartt is a poet in her own right, but tonight she is our dashing MC (her words, not mine). Her role is to introduce the ‘new emerging voices of black Britain’, collected in Peepal Press’s Filigree anthology and represented here by Momtaza Mehri, Victoria Adukwei Bulley, and Rachel Long.
Sitting in the front row of the audience is the American poet Terrance Hayes, wearing all black except for a pair of lime green Kermit socks. Later in the evening he will be reading poems from his new collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin.
But first, Filigree. We begin with Momtaza Mehri, a poet who ‘found her way to poetry through a million different side-streets’, after an abandoned medical career. She speaks about her family, who fled a civil war but survived with their sense of humour intact. Hers is poetry wherein castles are ‘built from bottled sighs’, and the runway of a Finnish airport is a ‘bleached altar’ making ‘gangplank promises’ to African émigrés. She writes about the bones of enslaved people found beneath the rubble of the World Trade Centre: the ‘soup of mud and bitumen’; the intersections of history, literally unearthed.
After Mehri comes Victoria Adukwei Bulley, who takes us from terrorism to Grenfell Tower and intersectional feminism. She writes of a hair which ‘changed its follicle mind for a whole centimetre’. I don’t believe I’ve ever cried at poetry before, but Bulley makes me shed a tear during her slow delivery of What Was I But Factory, a heart-rending sonnet addressed to the white women who owned slaves in previous centuries. (‘What was I but forced and fit for purpose? With a purse where a womb might have been. As if vending machine…’). She shares with us a comic ode to mosquitos, written to appease the insects during a writing residency in South America. Her words are beautifully arranged.
Finally, Rachel Long. Her poetry is shorter, stranger, more experimental. She reads a narrative poem which seems perfectly realist until a central character walks up the walls and starts hoovering the ceiling. The impact sneaks up on you, with sudden lancing references to race and slavery: ‘There’s enough of an age-gap here, why did they have to add two-hundred years?’. There are word choices in her work which make you narrow your lips and intake breath. For one of her poems, Night Vigil, my notes say only. ‘Wow’. She writes with strong religious influence: her mother is a devout Christian, and her poetry is a form of escape or rebellion, speaking out against the concept of carnal sin.
These women, Smartt says, are carrying the poetry torch valiantly into the future. They are ‘the tip of the wonderfulness that is Filigree’. The anthology can be ordered online from the 1st of November, but there are no physical copies here for the audience to buy.
“That ain’t good business,” says Terrance Hayes, when the interlude is over. After an introduction by Kayo Chingonyi, Hayes takes the stage. He tells us first of all about his friend and idol Wanda Coleman, the ‘unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles’, who died in 2013. American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin is a tribute to her own style of poetry, the sonnets that she wrote ‘to show that she knew what she was doing’ when she was trying to get a National Endowment of the Arts. Coleman wrote for the same label as Charles Bukowski, but as a black woman, writing about ‘the urban breeders and bleeders’, she was sure that she was going to be forgotten. Hayes is trying to make sure that that doesn’t happen: when people praise him for his poems, he refers them back to her.
He also says of Coleman that she wrote ‘as if Donald Trump was the president’, decades before the 2016 election, with the same drive and sense of urgency that is felt by black poets today. Hayes is trying to get into the same frame of mind. His American Sonnets are addressed to an invisible assassin, a symbolic figure that is not one person but all of white America: Aryans, Betty Crocker, Mayflower maniacs: ‘even the most kindhearted white woman’. The sonnets are not rooted in anger or hatred, because a sonnet needs to be a love poem in order to be classified as a sonnet.
Hayes believes in the power of compassion, rather than contempt. After his reading he explains this to Chingonyi. ‘It takes finesse and intelligence, and certainly love, to fight against the forces that oppress us,’ he says. ‘When the police office has his foot on your neck, you have to ask, “Where did you get those shoes from?” I know you’re trying to kill be, but I refuse to view you as a monster’.
That doesn’t rob his poetry of its power to condemn. He ‘pours a pinch of serious poison’ for historical assassins, he derides Trump for his ‘gangsta narcissisms’. Each of these sonnets combine, in the index, to form one sonnet, built of first-lines: a sonnet which is ‘part prison, part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame’, where his assassin is locked and ‘undergoes a beautiful catharsis’.
But the primary focus of these sonnets is Hayes’ own experiences: he calls them ‘a record of his raptures’. They are not just about Trump, they are about his bad back. They are an ‘existential jambalaya’, with themes such as the contrast between fragility and masculinity: ‘Inside me is a huge black bull balled small enough to fit inside the bead of a nipple ring’. There is a strong sense of play, in his poems. They contain ‘elegant butt-plugs’ and ‘stinking stink bugs’. When asked, Hayes explains that his playfulness comes from optimism. He has a good memory, but a better imagination: and that allows him to imagine a better future, despite what he remembers of the past.