Putting together an anthology is, as the American poet Katrina Vandenberg once said, like making a mixtape. It’s an artefact filled with various resonances. Much like the painstaking process of recording cassettes for one another in the pre-playlist age, editing an anthology is intimate, a gesture towards the reader. And just as you never used to be able to put absolutely every tune you wanted to on tape, 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 I’ve edited, a selection of poems stand together as a gesture to the wider and more expansive community to which these poets belong.
Thinking again about the close-reading and listening I did when putting this book together, I’m struck by how phrases, how whole lines from poems, can stay with you. Sometimes I’d be talking to someone and something they said would chime with a line I’d read, and that poem and the conversation would begin to dance together in my head. Then the poems would begin to dance among themselves; the glistening signet ring in Dean Atta’s poem chiming with the knife in a poem by Dzifa Benson; 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 about those first moments in which girlhood comes under the toxic gaze of men.
It felt important that there should be an anthology of this kind opening up space for Black British poets to express the wide range of their poetry. The last few years have shown us how far we still have to go to challenge anti-Blackness. In publishing, some efforts are being made but these have arguably uplifted only a narrow conception of Blackness: a version of the market recognizes.
In frustration at this state of affairs, I started thinking it was about time for a reissue of the 1998 anthology The Fire People, edited by Lemn Sissay. I read it first 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 reached out to the publisher Canongate, asking if any plans were in motion to bring the book back. In the course of that conversation, I suggested a new companion volume picking up more recent vibrations. More Fiya is this companion. It is an attempt to expand the range of poetic record and to let poems, in their various guises, shape renewed possibilities for being in the world within Blackness. There’s space for commiserating, as in Scalp by Keith Jarrett:
Receding since twenty-four, I think of all the thin-skinned prophets
with thinner hair, how, in other circumstances, I might have been President
And there’s space for laughter, as in Catching Joke by Bridget Minamore, in which the poet meditates on the various forms of harm that might befall Black people in an anti-Black society, before ending with this gesture of survival:
I try to make him laugh
Elsewhere, Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa figures dance as a mode of revolutionary thinking-with-the-body; going as far in one poem as to leave aside words entirely in favor of punctuation marks arranged into a kind of score.
The poems collected in More Fiya are testament to the ingenuity and stamina of Black British poets, and by extension Black British culture. In the face of so many signs that the places we’ve made home don’t always love us back, we persist. We find, in the republic of letters, an enduring and suitably capacious place to be.
Midnight in the Foreign Food Aisle by Warsan Shire
Dear Uncle, is everything you love foreign
or are you foreign to everything you love?
We’re all animals and the body wants what
it wants, trust me, I know. The blonde said
Come in, love, take off your coat, what do
you want to drink?
Love is not haram but after years of fucking
women who are unable to pronounce your name,
you find yourself totally alone, in the foreign food aisle,
beside the turmeric and the saffron,
remembering your mother’s warm, dark hands,
prostrating in front of the 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
knocking / for his wife / and for the familial in his warm
eyes / opened the empty office at dusk / the sky hanging
without a question mark / the brother yawns
When the sister describes this husband / parting her /
braids splashed against floral wallpaper / the trembling
stems / her head pulsing / 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 kinds of violence alleys are primed for / one
tells of a mob back home / who caught the accused /
sliced a thin hole in raw earth / forced consummation /
until he bled
When the husband is asked why / he says / he couldn’t
help it / she led him on / he was drunk / dressed that
way she was asking for it / no one had complained
before / and / this is what men do
When their fathers agreed / this was true / they were of
different eras / these new complaints confused them too /
the brother had nightmares / of men like wolves / their
jaws bloody / devouring the world / he feasting / among
As If by Rachel Long
I miss your hands on me, your mouth. Earlier
I missed you in the honey aisle – we haven’t even
been grocery shopping yet but I want to
be en pointe in the kitchen, open the highest
cupboard, set 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 wasn’t for me, woman of refined taste.
Who am I kidding? I’d buy you a sack of rice
and lug it back on my head. I don’t even hate
admitting this. I’ve forgotten what I once did
before I glowed in search of slippers.
If you don’t like your feet touching the floor,
they don’t have to anymore.