What is the role of the artist in moments of historic, social, or political importance? Is there a responsibility to act as social commentator, interpreter, record-keeper?
We asked, Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa, Neelam Saredia-Brayley, Kirsty Taylor, JulianKnxx, and Shaun Hill, the five spoken word artists on our Poetry in Performance Programme supported by Jerwood Arts, how they view the role of the poet in such times…
Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa
A man once told me ‘I don’t understand the point of poetry. I don’t need to know about the chip in a woman’s tooth, or how wide her smile is.’ My response: ‘If it wasn’t for poetry would you have noticed the flexibility of a woman’s smile or how she can effortlessly parade a battle scar with her teeth?’ I believe this is part of my responsibility as a poet, to excavate the nuance that changes a statistic into a person and transform a memory into a gospel.
Right now, times are strenuous and challenging. The obligation to protect myself coupled with the need to condemn the atrocities and somehow uplift my community has been a strange challenge. My skin feels heavier than normal and I am not sure how much milk I can drink to keep my bones strong enough to hold everything. Every time I try to take a break there is another disruption, but this is what life is – chaos: sometimes divine, sometimes ugly as hell. Silence and speaking are equally as important in poetry, just like stillness and movement in dance, so I am learning to be smarter about where I expend my energy.
I made a manifesto to hold myself accountable, I have made it available on my website feel free to read it here.
As a poet, I feel it’s my responsibility to help provide a platform for untold stories, especially from POC and marginalised voices. And it’s my role to re-frame painful narratives to reclaim power.
My first show, ‘Queer Brown Skin’, is about women of colour standing together, and the journey of healing after traumatic racism and sexual assault. I feel I’m speaking to women universally – it’s unsettling that most women have experienced forms of sexual harassment, been intruded on or forced upon.
I’m still not all the way there yet.
It makes me angry to think how common my experiences are – a fact made clearer by the #metoo movement. By writing this show, I change the narrative – the story isn’t just about me; it lies parallel, running alongside my life, where I can put some distance and a lot of hope.
Too often, theatre exploring trauma begins with women in despair, features unnecessarily drawn-out, graphic scenes, and ends in either murder or suicide. This fetishization of violence overpowers good storytelling, erasing any hope for survivors like me.
I want to change that.
I want to see stories where survivors go on journeys filled with self-love and healing, reclaiming bodies and teaching ourselves to walk confidently again.
Let’s show that survivors are not alone.
Let’s start telling better stories.
We are often brought up believing that certain things are not for people like us
walking in the countryside
because we don’t sound like them or look like them or sit like them or know the names of trees or have walking shoes or big coats and people shush you and you don’t know what to do or say after you’ve seen your first ever show that isn’t a panto and yer belly is on fire and yer heart is punching holes in yer trackie and yer eyes are wide O P E N and my god you can finally FEEL something
but your lips, my lips, both lips stay shut
in case you say something stupid
because nobody taught you the right way to say it
in the right voice to use with them long words
them posh words
or because nobody even asked you
so adulthood is spent re-learning to say IT as IT is. As you see IT. As you feel IT. Because IT is okay.
I see my responsibility, as a poet, an educator, a lover of the youth, is to reassure and encourage. To create space and connections where people recognise their stories in places that now feel like they belong, even if it didn’t when they walked in. Where 45 year old scouse men with wet eyes in pubs can lean on shoulders telling tales of childhood after poetry nights. Where 13 year old girls who can’t read or write in English get up in assemblies and tell friends about the life they have lived. Where teenagers only come to school on Wednesdays for poetry club because they don’t have to worry about spelling or swearing to tell their truths.
Art is a language, and you speak hoping someone else understands and connects with it. I hope that the same way that I speak to and reflect the people in my community will be the same way my art speaks and represents them. At the same time, I would like to interrogate myself and the craft. Especially when we live in a time where environmental racism and biological inequality is a key issue for Black communities and those of us living in the margins. My aim is to create works that shed light on some of our untold stories and represent the underclass, the diaspora and the marginalised. I appreciate living at the edges of the spaces I occupy.
Being the ‘other’ or someone that’s not part of majority culture, often means that opinions on who I am or who I should be are imposed upon me. But one thing I’ve come to understand is the people at the edges have a superpower and an advantage over the people in the middle of the frame. You know the saying ‘you can’t see the image if you are inside the frame.’ Well, no one can ever see the full picture but as an artist that lives at the edges, I have the opportunity to push the boundaries, push the edges, push the language, push the stigmas and push the stories that we tell. We can apply what we know from majority culture and at the same time add something new and different because we occupy a small corner in this frame or box that inevitably poke holes to view the possibilities for us.
God knows we need new Black narratives that speak to a COVID-19 and biological inequality. A London Data Study shows that ‘it is the conditions and environments BAME communities are forced to engage with that is the health risk. In other words, BAME communities are more at risk to COVID due to the environments they are forced to live in due to racism and inequality.’ It makes me think of a world in which dignity and a celebratory spirit are brought to all people and they can have agency over their health and live in a supportive ecosystem or communities. My next project explores the idea of the subaltern; thinking about the realities of the current world and imagining the possibilities beyond what we see.
we touch wounds until
a new world is possible
all I can do is nurture
who I am here:
thin strip of time
the size of this line—
the role of an artist is to nurture a future.
to hold her suffering and say: here. I’m alive.
to lean toward survival in an act of wild faith.
to be the living proof that people do change.
to help create space for us to feel, think—
vigilant to the pressures of a false present:
fast laps of a trick maze power laid before us;
pathways with dead ends meant to wear us out.
if we’re gonna do this we cannot compromise
our vision: lineage of love; cupped-flame-relay
passing-down-of-the-word; continuum of all
things that ever did and will live. we will
smuggle our salvation where surveillance
cannot see. leave them the husk of these pages
and say: these poems are in me, are me.
Find out more about the above artists and the Jerwood Arts | Apples and Snakes Poetry in Performance programme, supported by Jerwood Arts, here.