on barriers to engagement

The following is an abridged version of a longer essay by Louisa Adjoa Parker.  The original full length essay was commissioned and published by Magma (links at bottom of page)

I began writing poetry to talk about my experiences of racism as a woman of mixed heritage who has lived in predominantly white areas. Poetry gave me a voice, the freedom to express my unusual experiences. Later, I began writing about other aspects of my identity. I understood what intersectionality was before I heard the word: I knew that overlapping forms of oppression had shaped me and that I had been marked out as ‘different’ in multifarious ways./ It is widely acknowledged that black and minority ethnic (BAME) poets are massively underrepresented in UK poetry.

But what happens when other marginalised identities intersect with ethnicity? Here, I want to explore intersectionality in relation to poetry from a personal perspective, and consider what we can all do to work towards a more inclusive poetry scene.

Intersectionality has become a buzz word recently. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, it stems from feminist theory, and is based on the idea that different forms of oppression overlap – people can experience double, triple or multiple discrimination.

It is widely acknowledged that many of the gatekeepers in literature are white, and male, and that it’s human nature to want to tell stories about people similar to yourself. When it comes to race, various reports over the years have identified that BAME writers are underrepresented. A report carried out in 2018 by poetry reviewer and blogger Dave Coates described British poetry as ‘failing to meet even the most basic measurements of inclusivity.’ The study identified the ‘systemic exclusion’ of critics and poets of colour from British and Irish poetry journals. This in spite of various previous reports and programmes set up to remedy the situation.

Some publishers have one or two black or Asian poets on their lists. Yet one person cannot tell all our stories – we have multiple identities and universal experiences. And, it is important to point out, even programmes aimed at supporting BAME writers can themselves be exclusive. There is a – virtual and real – community of BAME poets, mostly based in London and the North, which I don’t really feel part of. I have been the outsider, even inside spaces designed to be inclusive. Programmes aimed at supporting BAME writers would reach more people if they took an intersectional approach.

I try not to see myself as a victim, and I have been lucky in many ways. But it is important to acknowledge the simple truth: many of us have had a lot more hurdles to jump over than others. Intersectionality needs to be understood, by publishers, editors, event organisers, and poets who themselves are relatively privileged.

So how can poets overcome intersectional barriers to engagement? Of course, as minority poets we can do our best – seek out opportunities, funding, keep going in spite of the challenges, talk about our specific needs, and so on. But the onus really needs to be on the industry as a whole – and the gatekeepers in particular – to work towards creating a truly inclusive poetry scene. Meeting people’s multiple needs doesn’t need to be complicated – understanding they exist in the first place is a start. Acknowledging our personal levels of privilege, and using this as a platform to call out discrimination towards those different to ourselves is also important. If you are genuinely committed to equality and inclusion, you can act as an ally to others. You can seek out others’ stories, and learn.

Reaching out to underrepresented groups needs to be done in a way that is authentic. It needs to be at the heart of your work; diversity is more than a hashtag trending on Twitter.

Poetry needs diverse voices – they help us make sense of the human condition and the richness diversity brings. Poetry needs people who know what it is to struggle – after all, emotion and the generation of empathy for others is what it’s all about. Humans are beautiful whether whole or broken, in all our varied forms.

Louisa Adjoa Parker 2020

The original full essay was first published in Magma 74, The Work Issue can be read here.