PPutting together an anthology is, as the American poet Katrina Vandenberg once said, like putting together a mixtape. It is an artifact filled with various resonances. Like the painstaking process of recording cassettes against each other in the pre-playlist era, editing an anthology is intimate, a gesture to the reader. And just like you never used to be able to record absolutely all the tunes you wanted, the same goes for anthologies. The beauty of the form is in the suggestions it makes, the ways it invites further exploration. In More Fiya, the anthology of black British poets that I have edited, a selection of poems are brought together as a gesture to the larger and more expansive community to which these poets belong.
Thinking back on the close reading and listening I did in putting this book together, it amazes me how the sentences, how the whole lines of the poems can stay with you. Sometimes I was talking to someone and something they said sounded like a line I had read, and that poem and the conversation would start dancing together in my head. Then the poems began to dance among themselves; the gleaming signet ring in Dean Atta’s poem chiming with the knife in a Dzifa Benson poem; the fires that burn in poems by Janette Ayachi and Momtaza Mehri; Inua Ellams’s reflection on the consequences of wounded masculinity and Kim Squirrell’s poem on those first moments in which childhood falls under the toxic gaze of men.
It was considered important that there should be such an anthology that would open a space for British black poets to express the wide range of their poetry. Recent years have shown us how far we still have to go to challenge blackness. In publishing, some efforts are being made, but they have arguably only improved a narrow conception of blackness: a version that the market recognizes.
Frustrated by this state of affairs, I began to think it was time for a reissue of the 1998 anthology The Fire People, edited by Lemn Sissay. I first read it in my late teens when I was trying to navigate the overwhelming whiteness of studying for a degree in English Literature. That book was a life raft, a shield, a speaker box on my shoulder. I contacted the publisher Canongate and asked if there were any plans in place to get the book back. In the course of that conversation, I suggested a new companion volume that would capture more recent vibes. More Fiya is this fellow. It is an attempt to expand the range of the poetic register and to let the poems, in their various forms, form renewed possibilities for being in the world within Blackness. There is room for compassion, as in Keith Jarrett’s Scalp:
Going back from twenty-four, I think of all the thin-skinned prophets
with finer hair, how, in other circumstances, he could have been president
And there is room for laughter, as in Bridget Minamore’s Catching Joke, in which the poet reflects on the various forms of harm blacks can suffer in an anti-black society, before ending with this gesture of survival:
I try to make him laugh
Elsewhere, Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa dances with figures as a revolutionary way of thinking with the body; going so far in a poem as to leave out the words altogether in favor of punctuation marks arranged in a kind of sheet music.
The poems collected in More Fiya are testament to the ingenuity and resilience of Black British poets and, by extension, Black British culture. Faced with so many signs that the places we have made home do not always love us, we persist. We find, in the republic of letters, an enduring and suitably spacious place for be.
Midnight in the Foreign Food Aisle by Warsan Shire
Dear uncle, all you love is foreign?
Or are you oblivious to everything you love?
We are all animals and the body wants what
want, believe me, I know. said the blonde
Come in, love, take off your coat, what are you doing?
do you want to drink?
Love is not haram but after years of fucking
women who do not know how to pronounce your name,
you find yourself all alone, in the foreign food aisle,
along with turmeric and saffron,
remembering the warm and dark hands of your mother,
prostrating in front of halal meat, praying in a
language you haven’t used in years.
Of Howling Wolves by Inua Ellams
When the sister says her colleague’s husband came
calling / his wife / and family member in his warm
eyes / opened the empty office at sunset / the sky hanging
no question mark / brother yawns
When the sister describes this husband / separating her /
splashed braids against floral wallpaper / the tremor
stems / his throbbing head / the loosening belt / the
brother is consumed / with an anger he has never known
When he tells his boys / they offer to visit / do the
husband, the types of violence the alleys are prepared for / one
talks about a mob at home / that caught the accused /
cut a thin hole in the raw earth / forced consummation /
until it bled
When the husband is asked why / says / could not
help him / she induced him / he was drunk / dressed like that
as she was asking for it / no one had complained
before/and/this is what men do
When his parents agreed / this was true / they were from
different times / these new complaints also confused them /
the brother had nightmares / of men like wolves / their
bloodied jaws / devouring the world / him feasting / between
As if by Rachel Long
I miss your hands on me, your mouth. Earlier
I missed you in the aisle honey, we haven’t even
I’ve already gone to the supermarket but I want
be a pointe in the kitchen, open the highest
wardrobe, put the things you like inside;
white bread, long life cow’s milk. i even bought
instant coffee and refrained from informing the cashier
that it was not for me, a woman of refined taste.
Who am I kidding? I would buy you a sack of rice
And take it back to my head I don’t even hate
admitting this. I have forgotten what I once did
before shining in search of slippers.
If you don’t like your feet touching the ground,
they no longer have to.