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These word artists are breathing new life into poetry

A cohort of new voices is turning poetry into one of the fastest growing categories in publishing today

Anna Burzlaff | 27.09.2019

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“I know, the days are reeling past in such squealing blasts / But stop for breath and you will know it's yours.”

So says poet and spoken word artist Kate Tempest in Hold Your Own from her recent album, The Book of Traps and Lessons. Fraught and frenetic, these are the times we live in. From Brexit to Trump, political and social movements are transforming how we think and act and the days really are ‘reeling past’. But out of this sense of chaos, poetry is having a huge resurgence, and giving us the opportunity to ‘stop for breath’. Tempest is just one of a host of new voices bringing a new radical edge to the artform; injecting it with diversity, playing with its language limitations and, ultimately, introducing poetry’s ability to inspire and uplift to a whole new audience.

Poetry is not often associated with commercial success, yet in this second wave the genre’s potential to lyrically inspire while getting books off the shelf has grown. In the UK, Nielsen Bookscan’s figures reveal poetry sales hit an all-time high of £12.3m in 2018 – nearly double that of 2012. Teenage girls and young women are often identified as the biggest consumers of this new trend.

Easily-digestible, Instagram-ready words of inspiration and self-actualisation from the likes of Rupi Kaur (“Loneliness is a sign you are in desperate need of yourself”) are arguably driving much of the renaissance. Kaur’s first book, Milk & Honey, spent more than 100 consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into more than 35 languages. Yet while Kaur is lauded by some, the Indian-born Canadian poet is derided by others. For some in the literary establishment, the short, Insta-published works by Kaur and contemporaries such as Cleo Wade and Yrsa Daley-Ward represent a bastardisation of the form; a cheap and superficial take on poetry (the writer Soraya Roberts regards Instapoetry as narcissistic and “the poetry of capitalism”). For others, however, this new strain of the form is infinitely more accessible and relatable, removing what has long been seen by many as the lofty snobbery of poetry’s elitism and opening it up to new audiences.

Regardless of which side you’re on, it’s undeniable that social media has ushered greater diversity into the world of poetry. One of the internet’s most lauded qualities is its ability to dismantle gatekeepers: photographers such as Petra Collins and unsigned musicians like Stormzy are just two examples of creatives who have used social media to promote their work independently. The internet offers a platform for anyone, anywhere, which in turn has spawned a remarkable culture of creation, self-publishing and self-branding. Meanwhile, in these frantic times, millennials are searching for meaning. As new-age spirituality continues to rise in popularity, it’s hardly surprising that Kaur’s brief words of insight provide self-discovery and empowerment to those looking for some direction. After all, being told by Kaur “if you were born with/the weakness to fall/you were born with/the strength to rise” can hardly be a bad thing. For more positive affirmations and poetic musings, here’s four more names to add to your radar.

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Jay Bernard

Thirty-one-year-old Jay Bernard’s most recent work, Surge, grapples with a tragic fire in which 13 black teenagers were killed during a birthday party in New Cross, south-east London, in 1981. Bernard links the tragedy to recent moments of devastation, including the Grenfell Tower fire which took place while Bernard was researching for Surge in 2017.

Their work tackles, among other things, the tensions of growing up gender-non-conforming with a female body, how we should memorialise victims of injustice and how to give voice to marginalised peoples. As a recipient of the Ted Hughes Award, a programmer at BFI Flare, and a previous co-editor of Oxford Poetry, Bernard’s star is steadily rising. As Bernard says in their poem ‘Pride’: “I am from here, I am specific to this place, I am haunted by this history but I also haunt it back.”

Abondance Matanda

IMAGE CREDIT: ROCHELLE WHITE

In Abondance Matanda’s poem MARJ she writes: “Mi Neva Did See / Nobody Do It So Slick Like / My Muvva And Her Sistren Yano / Ah My Mudda Dat!” The lines are a rousing celebration of the older women in Matanda’s life, a tribute to the poet’s family and the black British heritage that centres it. The young poet’s words explore what it means to grow up as a black working-class British woman in London. Writing for the likes of gal-dem and a co-founder of Road Gals LDN, a female collective dedicated to documenting women in grime and hip-hop, Matanda is somewhat of a polymath: she is a poet, publisher, writer, curator and events’ organiser.

A far cry from cliche of technology addicted teens, Matanda likes to promote her poetry through self-published zines. One of those, Bare Fucker1es, was launched to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan by a police officer in 2014. Passionately political, Matanda is blazing a trail through the London poetry scene.

Charly Cox

image credit i lauren maccabee/papier

Charly Cox wants to get things out in the open. The poet’s debut collection, She Must Be Mad, delved deep into issues of mental health, self-excavation, and female desire. The bestselling poetry book of 2018, it divides into four sections: She must be in love; She must be mad; She must be fat; She must be an adult.

Cox has undoubtedly harnessed the potential of social media. Regularly posting her poems to Instagram, Cox has been referred to as social media's answer to former poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Cox’s forthcoming collection, Validate Me, was written entirely on her phone. Aptly the book tackles the role of digital technology. Grappling with social media’s impact on our sense of identity, a line from the collection reads: “Fascinate me as I fabricate me / Castigate me as I congratulate me / Salivate as I let you navigate me.”

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Cox’s poetry resonates with women, particularly, many of whom have come forward to share their sense of comfort with the poet after reading her collection. With work that’s both confessional and relatable, she’s successfully been cemented as a leading figure in the Instapoetry arena.

Anthony Anaxagorou

Anthony Anaxagorou was turned off poetry in his younger years. Despite avidly writing and performing since childhood, negative feedback had left a mark. Having resigned himself to a nine-to-five existence, in 2008 fate intervened when Anaxagorou found himself unemployed after being made redundant from a small tech firm. It was at that point that it dawned on him: that poetry was the one thing that made him truly happy.

Fate did him well. Anaxagorou’s searing words on national identity, race and class have seen him propelled to new heights. As founder of Out-Spoken, a monthly live poetry night established in 2012, which has since evolved to include a publishing arm and workshop programmes, Anaxagorou is committed to shining a light on other BAME writers.

His own work often grapples with feelings of outsiderness; as a British-born Cypriot poet, Anaxagorou has often felt unseen by the establishment. In A Line of Simple Inquiry, he writes: “The famous public autopsy / At a dinner party, art gallery, gymnasium or local bakery / Five words light as a baby’s finger / But where really? / The taxonomy of difference.” His words disavow the political rhetoric that targets immigrants and immigrant-descended populations as well as offering some hope for a way forward.

HERO IMAGE:  ROSIE MATHESON


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BURO.’s hip-lit poetry nights in London to bookmark now.

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