Roger Robinson: I wanted to start with a poem.
It is called Won’t You Celebrate With Me by Lucille Clifton:
Rachel: It came from being in writing spaces where, as a black woman, you were absolutely the minority. You are invisible but also hyper visible when they need you to be – the spokesperson or the translator. While doing my MA, it was sad because it was expensive and I’d really wanted to make my mum proud but I felt useless. At the same time, I’d had this whole other poetry life at events such as Burn After Reading and Apples and Snakes, thank God. I was meeting incredible women and we all had very similar stories. Lamenting with each other is healing, but it isn’t enough. So I wanted to create a space where we didn’t have to deal with any of that.
Roger Robinson: There is something amazing about being a black writer when you begin to make yourself visible. It is a power. Writing A Portable Paradise, I remember thinking: “I need to make black people visible in literature because my son needs to know that his stories are worth something. His life is worth something.” So, thank you for running Octavia and making brown and black people visible. I know it is tough but it only takes a few cultural agitators to change the landscape of the world. Young people tell me A Portable Paradise is giving them permission to write. I tell them: “I wrote it for you.” Sorry, I don’t know why I am crying.
Rachel Long: Because it is a lot.
RR: Once they devalue you, they can kill you. And that whole history, from slavery up to George Floyd, has to do withd evaluation, death and capitalism. As writers, we have to show people how invisible they are because they get used to it. And when they make you visible, they can paint you in a light that doesn’t look anything like you and over which you have no control. One of the things I love about winning the TS Eliot prize is that I am so black. I didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, I am the only black in the literary village. This is why I am so excited about your book. You come from communities I come from. You understand the politics of lineage to legacy – all of the people who have come before us and what we are leaving for younger generations.
RL: So many things are only possible because people like you opened doors, windows, cat flaps, even though you felt invisible. Right now, though it is hard work, I feel something is moving. I am hopeful. Were you always hopeful doing this work?
Roger Robinson: I think you can’t be anything but hopeful doing this work.
RR: No matter how much racism I have faced, I have always been encouraged by people from all races and classes. I never thought about things like TS Eliot, it was a whole other world away from me. Often, it is not someone being racist, it is a closed systematic racist loop. This is not the work of individuals, it is the system. A white editor once said to me: “Why would black people want to write poetry? It is a middle-class pursuit bought by middle-class people.” He was thinking like an editor: “My white middle-class audience is not going to buy this.”
RL: I love that this is really being interrogated right now, with #publishingpaidme [where writers revealed racial disparities in book advances] and the Black Writers’ Guild. I am surprised that that comment shocked me, because I have had people come up to me after events and tell me they once had a black boyfriend. OK! Where is my taxi?
RL: For a long time British prizes were not looking at the wealth of black talent that was here.
RR: I think things are changing. White millennials sometimes get things wrong on race, but they are open to a conversation. I come from a school of thought that says: keep these conversations private. You millennials are like: “Hell no! We’ll cancel your ass.” I like it. And it is changing the tone of what you are allowed to get away with. Think of Rupi Kaur. She’s a millennial Indian woman and she has sold 3m poetry books using Instagram. Before she’d even been in Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Warsan Shire had 60,000 Twitter followers. They are not thinking about Faber & Faber, that is not power any more. That is liberating.
RL: I think there is a cult of youth. Bernardine Evaristo talks about this a lot – there is so much spotlight on young writers that it makes people think we are making things happen for ourselves but it makes it seem like there isn’t a lineage. Lots of people are sharing your poem Beware, after the death of George Floyd, because you refer to a knee on the neck. How do you feel about being called a prophet?
RR: Linton Kwesi Johnson now seems prescient for poems he wrote in the 70s and 80s, but that is because racism has never gone away… England would rather import American racism than teach what happens here.