Sunday Poem – Malika Booker

Good morning all!  I’m writing this from the wonderful establishment of The Wheatley Arms in Ilkley where I’ve been staying for the last two nights.  This weekend has been the first weekend of the Ilkley Literature Festival which is running from the 3rd – 19th October.  As most of you know, because I’ve witttered on about it before, I’m currently Poet in Residence at the Festival.  Someone asked me yesterday what the Poet in Residence’s role was and I said ‘floating about’ which is completely not true, although I have had some time to float about the place.  For example, this morning I got up before breakfast and floated from my hotel and up on to Ilkley Moor.  It didn’t really feel like floating actually because I haven’t ran since last Tuesday and I’d ‘forgotten’ about the copious amount of hills between Ben Rhydding where I’m staying and Ilkley so my gentle run turned into a slog up hill before I even got to the moor.  It was beautiful today – it is sunny in Ilkley, but cold, but a kind of crisp cold without any wind that makes me think of Christmas (only a little, though and definitely not enough to get out Jingle Bells to teach next week).

But I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit and telling you about this morning before I’ve told you about the weekend – so I’ve been in Ilkley since Friday.  I arrived Friday afternoon and went to the box office to have a meeting with Rachel Feldburg, the director of the festival.  Rachel is lovely, and I think, seems to have an air of great serenity, whilst the Festival madness goes on – if anybody has had a look at the programme, you will see what I mean – there are hundreds of events going on, lots of them simultaneously.

I’ve had a fantastic weekend so far – I arrived on Friday and had a chat with Rachel Feldburg, the director and got my timetable from her and a map of Ilkley.  On Friday night I went to a drinks reception and then Andrew Motion was reading from his new novel and from his forthcoming poetry collection.  I really enjoyed the event, despite not usually enjoying hearing extracts from novels – Andrew was very funny and seemed to connect with the whole audience very well.  He had a long queue of people waiting to get their books signed at the end.

Part of my job as  Poet in Residence is to take the poets for a drink – I know, what an onerous task!  Myself, Andrew and Phoebe Power, who is the Apprentice Poet in Residence went to the pub and we had a great time.  I forgot to tell Andrew about the random story of my dad working on a theatre doing the scaffolding and getting talking to the director and telling her about my scaffolding poem which she asked for a copy of she could show it to Andrew Motion who she was having dinner with that night.  Probably best I didn’t as I can’t remember the name of the theatre or the director.

On Saturday I ran an Early Morning Writing Workshop and was really impressed with the quality of the writing that was produced.  It was nice to meet such a good group of writers for the first time as well – I think I knew 3 out of the 12 in the workshop before hand.

After that, I went back to the hotel and worked on a poem I’ve been writing about my old band conductor from Unity Brass Band because I wanted to read it that afternoon.  I wouldn’t normally read such a new poem, but yesterday afternoon I did an event with Phoebe and Haworth Brass Band at the bandstand in Ilkley.  What a brilliantly positioned bandstand by the way – right in the centre of Ilkley and just set back from the main street.  We decided that the band should play a couple of pieces and then Phoebe and I would read one poem each.  Most of mine were my brass teaching poems – I didn’t quite realise how many I had – and Phoebe did a mix of her own work – she read a beautiful poem about harps, and a mix of poems more loosely about music or exploring sound, ranging from Emily Dickinson to Shakespeare.

The event worked really well – although I was worried about how the band would feel being interspersed with poetry, they really enjoyed it, and we had a loyal audience who sat and listened throughout as the sun came out and then got bored and went behind the clouds again.  I rather cheekily asked the band if they had the hymn tune ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ because I wanted to read my poem about Wallace Hartley, who was the band leader on the Titanic.  I knew they’d have it in their red hymn books! According to conflicting reports, this was the last song that they played before the ship sank and it sounded beautiful played by the band.  There are plans afoot to do something similar with Haworth Brass Band and I’d like to try the same format out with a band a bit closer to home if possible.

After the brass band event, Phoebe and I went over to the Playhouse, almost getting lost on the way and managed to catch Ian Duhig who had just read from his new book ‘Digressions’.  I’m hoping I can catch this event elsewhere, as unfortunately I was brass banding whilst he was reading!  The lovely staff of the festival had also got me a birthday cake and a card and even sang happy birthday to me which was really sweet – before I left for the festival I have to admit I was a bit upset about being away on my birthday and not seeing my husband/family or my friends in Barrow.  But as it turned out, I hardly had time to think yesterday and I was really touched by the cake and the card and didn’t mind at all being away from home.

After the cake and the singing I went for a quick walk up on the moor with Phoebe and then we went to a poetry and music event with Alison Locke which was quite hypnotic – very calming and then straight to a showcase event of the Ilkley Young Writers who were full of enthusiasm, energy and confidence.  They answered questions from the audience with real consideration and maturity – I was really impressed with them.

So that brings us to today – I’ve been for a run, had a lovely breakfast and checked out of the hotel, only to plonk myself down in the corner and set up my computer to write this.  After I’ve finished this blog, I’m going to do some work on my ‘Close Reading’ event and hopefully my first schools workshop which will be on Thursday morning.  If I can get all that done I’ll be really happy!  I’m running a workshop 2-4.30pm based around the work of some of the poets appearing at the festival and I’m really looking forward to a poetry event tonight ‘New Writing from Zimbabwe’.

If you are anywhere near Ilkley, please have a look at the programme and come along for some of the open mic events at the festival.  I think there are three altogether and it would be great to meet some of you in real life.

The programme can be found here

So today’s Sunday Poem is by Malika Booker and is from her first collection ‘Pepper Seed’.  My friend Jill Abram who kindly puts me up when I come to London gave me Malika’s book when it first came out as a gift and it was added to my reading pile and I’m ashamed to say I only got round to reading it about a month ago.  I really enjoyed the whole book and had one of those moments which is why I created this blog in the first place – I wanted not only to write to Malika and tell her how much I’d enjoyed the poems, but I also wanted to tell other people as well.  I have met Malika a couple of times in real life and we are Facebook friends so it was relatively easy to get hold of her.  Anyway, I gushed at Malika and she graciously said I could post one of her poems here.

The poem I’ve chosen is called ‘Erasure’ which I interpret as being about an abortion.  I found it incredibly moving – although I’ve not directly had this experience, the poem is so powerful I don’t think that matters.  Those striking first words ‘This is no elegy’ cast a shadow over the whole poem because of course, the poem does become an elegy, even though it denies that it is one, which fits with the subject of the poem, the ‘erasing’ of a child, which seems more accurate, and more chilling than the usual langauge we use.  The whole poem is filled with these negatives – ‘There was no grief’ and ‘No guilt resides in my house’ but it is almost like seeing the negative of a photograph because the poem to me seems full of guilt and grief – unbearably so.

Halfway down the poem, it suddenly branches out into women’s history and then into biblical stories.  This last half moves up another gear – heartbreaking again with its relentless shouldering of responsibility and refusal to sidestep truth with the line ‘But this was no holy decision’.  I also think this poem says something important about grief, about the different types of grief, about how grief can rise up years later and be completely unexpected.

If you would like to find out more information about Malika Booker you can go to her website here. 

If you would like to order Pepper Seed, it is published by the wonderful Peepal Tree Press and not only will you be buying a fantastic book, you will be supporting a wonderful independent press.

Thanks to Malika for letting me post this wonderful poem.


Erasure – Malika Booker

This is no elegy; no one can write elegies
for such as you.  There are no scuff marks here
for your erasure.  No etches on a strong barked tree.

There was no grief.  You are my silence.
Why do you choose to rise now like shifting sand
blown by a slight breeze?

You were my simple crime against humanity,
and, like a criminal, I claim no regrets.
I buried you too deep to call you a name;

you are my trail of invisible lines
like the stretch marks that did not have time to form.
No guilt resides in my house.

I did what we women have always done.
I froze the tears into a block of ice
buried so deep that the guilt is a cold in me,

a thing that will not melt.
What can I say to you who never breathed, you callous dust?
I can talk of sacrifices, broken lives.

I can talk of Abraham almost slashing Isaac’s life.
But this was no holy decision.
I cannot tell you why I said no to you.

I am a white dress all ash and grey.
You unspeakable requiem, do not rise now.
Do not ask me the worth.

Who can measure the weight of ambition
against what could have been?

1 comment on “Sunday Poem – Malika Booker

  1. Here’s poem that reminds me yet again that there are poems that must be written (and read) because they are too hard, too difficult, not to be said (and heard). I was thinking that as I listened to Clare Shaw reading at The Albert Poets, last Thursday, and again this morning. There are poems that entertain or delight or impress, and then there are poems that matter. I would like to write one of those, one day. In the meantime, thanks for those who do.

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