Marvin Thompson reflects on the competing demands of creativity, community and activism in the year of the pandemic.
In Wales, the first COVID-19 lockdown stretched from March to July, 2020. As a secondary school teacher, these months were filled with home learning and uncertainty. As a poet, those long weeks delivered something unexpected: the chance to build new communities.
When I was a child, my mother took pride in reading to me and my brothers. My favourite bedtime stories were about Anansi, which my mother read in Jamaican patois. Anansi is a West African folk hero whose stories travelled to the Caribbean during the transatlantic slave trade. These tales helped me form a playful connection with my heritage. However, as I grew into my teens, my view of the Caribbean changed. In Britain, Jamaica and its sister islands are often exoticised or demonised. They exist as clichés. Unlike my cousins from south London, I did not spend childhood summers in Jamaica. My knowledge of the island came from my parents, who left its shores when they were in their late teens. As such, I bought into many of the negative stereotypes about Jamaica. For example, by my early 20s, I had even convinced myself that, like some dancehall reggae stars, I was homophobic. Meeting friends at university who were gay got rid of that idea. The British media had done a job on me.
Road Trip, my debut poetry collection, was published in March last year by Peepal Tree Press. This was pre- lockdown. One of my lasting memories of that period was attending a reading at Ye Olde Murenger House, a pub in Newport. It was the last time I held my book in front of a face-to-face audience and shared my words. As such, my book has become a marker in my mind, representing the threshold between pre- and post- pandemic life. It also marks the turning point at which I began to feel part of a Caribbean community.
I am humbled to be part of a working pantheon of poets of Caribbean heritage: Claudia Rankine, Kwame Dawes, Malika Booker, Richard Georges. When writing my debut collection, those were the poets who sustained me, who helped me to develop my vision of Marvin Thompson, the poet. They were the writers who gave me the confidence to position my Caribbean heritage at the centre of my artistic endeavours. They helped me to invite Jamaica into my heart.
On the front cover of Road Trip, there are photographs of my Jamaican-born father in his British Army uniform. He served in the Royal Signals regiment during the Aden Emergency (1963–67). The book contains sestinas, a long jazz-blues piece about my dad serving queen and country, and a sonnet sequence about a comedian of Jamaican heritage who ends up hosting the Oscars. He does so in blackface.
At the time of writing, I was unaware that the issue of blackface would have its fifteen minutes in the limelight. However, after George Floyd’s death and the re-emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, a host of White, British comedians discovered belated guilt. They posted social media videos in which they apologised for their blacking up in TV shows that graced our screens during the 1990s and 2000s. Part of me was heartened that my book was finding unexpected resonances as it entered the world. However, I also felt troubled by the lack of apologies from those in power: the script editors, directors and programme commissioners who saw fit to give these shows the green light, and allowed blackface to reclaim its place as part of family entertainment for a British Saturday night.
By June 2020, Britain’s first lockdown was still spreading its dark wings. It was during this time that I was invited by the Outposted Project to write a poem about Brecon, a town in south Wales in the heart of the Brecon Beacons National Park. The project was the brainchild of the artist Susie Hetherington and poet J L M Morton. The idea was to use Ordnance Survey maps as collaborative canvases on which art would be created, focused on the area the map depicted. After one artist finished their work, they would send the map onto the next artist, via snail mail. This was analogue community-building in the digital age.
This was also a time when my only contact with my biological children – children from my first marriage, who don’t live with me anymore – was limited to twice-weekly phone calls. During these calls, I told my children Anansi stories. In these tales, Anansi had adventures with unicorns, mermaids and their Jamaican-born grandmother. Consequently, my initial idea for the Outposted Project was to write an Anansi story set in Brecon. However, my early online research led me to an article by Rosemary Caldicott of the Bristol Radical History Group. In it, I read about the slave trader Captain Thomas Phillips. In 2010, during Black History month, Brecon County Council honoured this man with a blue plaque. My sestina ‘Triptych’ was born.
I say sestina. I made a mistake when composing my first stanza, writing seven (not six) lines. As such, my poem grew into an unruly sea creature. This monster was partly tamed with help from friends. Jenny Mitchell (a fellow poet of Jamaican heritage) read one of the early drafts and pointed me in the direction of Derek Walcott’s ‘The Sea is History’. The biblical imagery in Walcott’s poem pushed me to intensify the Christian imagery in my sestina – and the inspiration soon went deeper than that. Imagining humans on a slave ship, Walcott writes: ‘Then there were the packed cries, / the shit, the moaning’. This influenced my own lines: ‘the sky’s blue / is swirling to black and sailors are pushing us away from the sea’s mouth / back down to the Hannibal’s belly and our stench, our slave piss.’ Furthermore, the sociologist Derek Oakley steered me in the direction of Marcus Garvey, Walter Rodney and Frantz Fanon. Quotes from these Caribbean philosophers acted as glue binding together the poem’s three sections. In every sense, ‘Triptych’ was a collaborative work. A community effort.
‘Triptych’ was not written as a direct response to the death of George Floyd. However, when an audio version of my poem was published online on Saturday 6 June, 2020 – less than a fortnight after that tragedy – I felt a sense of community with those taking part in Black Lives Matter protests. For the first time since the anti- Apartheid marches of the 1980s, I witnessed people across the world rallying against injustices that Black people have faced for centuries.
The day after my poem was published, the statue of Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol. I remember following the news on Twitter; I couldn’t stop smiling at the symbolism. The following Monday evening, Brecon’s slaver’s plaque was ripped from the wall in Captain’s Walk and thrown into a nearby river. None of these events were triggered by my poem. However, when my children are older, they will know that when Black Lives Matter came calling, I spoke.
I think that something about the humanity of ‘Triptych’ has helped it to forge a sort of community of its own. The Brecon and Radnor Express newspaper have interviewed me about it. There have been invitations to read it at Zoom events, and bloggers have posted it on their sites. When the Welsh poet, playwright and novelist Owen Sheers invited me to read ‘Triptych’ during the Brecon Black Lives Matter march, I was thrilled, even though Wales’s five-mile travel restriction at the time meant I had to decline. Even more remarkable was the fact that two wonderful Welsh-language poets, clare e potter and Grug Muse, translated ‘Triptych’ into Welsh and recorded themselves reading their versions. These were White people showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter through their actions. Wonderful!
I am one of the few Black British poets living in Wales who has currently published a full-length collection of poems. This saddens me. When I heard that the dual- heritage poet Alex Wharton (born in Wales with roots in St. Kitts and Nevis) was publishing a volume of children’s poetry, I attempted a cartwheel. His poems are musical, playful and heartfelt. Maybe if I had met him months earlier, I would have written my Anansi verse-tale after all.
Alex is part of a Twitter group that I started for Welsh poets of colour and friends. The impetus was my application for an online master class at Tŷ Newydd. I was certain I would be selected, and therefore assumed I was doing everyone else a favour in offering to read their applications. If I had asked Anansi, he would have told me all about hubris and best-laid plans. My application was unsuccessful. However, it was a real joy to see other poets I had encouraged gain a place on the course. From that point on, the group took on a life and a momentum of its own. By sharing opportunities for writers of colour that have been posted online, the members have forged a digital community. Wales is the home of my dual-heritage children, so I have a stake in it being a welcoming nation that celebrates difference – a stake, moreover, in helping its literary culture to become more inclusive, and to thrive.
Recently, when one of my friends called me an activist, I wondered if it was true. I am no Paul Bogle, no Welsh Chartist, but more and more I wonder if activism is an activity rather than a label to live up to. To take just one example, I am a member of the eco- poetry community, Poets for the Planet. For as long as I’m committed to this role and working to fulfil our aims, then I am active – so why not go the next step and call it what it is? I am an activist. Interviewing Ian Humphreys for Poets for the Planet taught me so much about the writing process, as we explored the queer themes of his work and how they related to a wider ecological consciousness.
For all my work with community activism, I can be solipsistic, introverted. A loner. My partner and all my children (stepchildren and birth children) bemoan the fact. This is the curse of the writer. We often spend too much time in our heads. That is when my family, my household community, pulls me out of myself and back into the world of parkland rugby and Aldi. In this world, there are stories, though the best ones are still about my mother’s childhood adventures in Jamaica – adventures she shared with Anansi.
Marvin Thompson’s debut poetry collection, Road Trip (Peepal Tree, 2020), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation. In June 2020, the Poetry Society selected Road Trip as one of five Black Lives Matter Inspiration books.