What kind of poet am I?

Kei Miller - 14 January 2010

I am mostly happy to be introduced as a Jamaican poet. This confuses and even worries some people - not the fact that I am a Jamaican poet but that I am happy to be introduced as one.

You see, poets often dislike labels and they especially dislike those that would seem to appoint them spokespersons for any one group. After all - the Chicano poet or the queer Poet or the feminist poet, if they are worth their salt, will soon realize they have ambitions to write something larger than Chicano poetry or queer poetry or feminist poetry. So goes the logic at least, as if to write any kind of poetry with an adjective in front of it, is to write poetry into a particular ghetto, and poetry, much like people, eventually want to move out of the ghetto and into a nicer neighbourhood. But indeed, sometimes this insistence of ditching the labels really is necessary; in the 1950s and 60s black poets from America would tried to shake off that modifier - black. 'Black poets' only wrote about 'black things'. They simply wanted to be 'poets'. The noun by itself. No adornment. And they wanted to write poetry.

So it surprises some people, this way that I have embraced the label Jamaican, this way that I have never felt hemmed in by my 'Caribbeanness'. Some people even pity me. They think I am selling myself short; but we are, each of us, in this world; and we see this world from particular vantage points; and even more importantly, we speak this world from particular places. I know I speak the world from Jamaica. That is to say, where I dig up language, where I find my rhythms and images, is from that island pinched in between Cuba and Haiti, that island on which I was born and on which I grew up. My voice is rooted there, so much so that when my friends ask me - what is it like living in Britain? I tell them, imagine living in a country where they use the word 'whilst' - a word I have read but have never used because for some reason it does not exist in Jamaican speech. Now that I live in Glasgow, I tell my friends, imagine living in a place where they use the word 'wee'. And I say, how wonderful is it to go about the world and hear how other people use your own language, with different rhythms and sometimes with different words. I know that I sound different as well, and I don't think this is a bad thing - that l use the word 'stupidness' sometimes, that my English is rooted in another soil, in Jamaica, that indeed I am a Jamaican poet.

Perhaps the anxiety that some poets feel about labels is that they feel the labels describe you, the reader, and not them. In other words, they think that to be a feminist poet means they will only be read by feminist readers; to be a black poet means they will only be read by black readers; to be a Jamaican poet means a poet like me would never be read in England or Australia or Canada. But I think the poet is better off worrying about what he has to say, rather than who will be around to hear it.


Hey Kei, good luck with the residence. I'd recommend anyone to listen to your recordings already on the site. I agree with you that "the poet is better off worrying about what he has to say" rather than getting too self-conscious about labels. And perhaps there's a difference between reasons why the academy/institution might choose to label the work of writers, and the act of self-recognition that a poet makes when naming his own work. We 'name' ourselves; others 'label' us. But our own definitions are never fixed. Whatever corner of the globe the poem inhabits, the good stuff crosses over from where it stands and catches the ear of somewhere else. So keep up the good stuff.

Andy, thanks for your dropping by. I really like this notion, that we name ourselves, but other's label us. And it's certainly true what you say about poems and how they speak from their various positions. I often think poems are more eloquent than the people who compose them.

Hi Kei, I've just come to you via your collection 'There Is an Anger ...'. I caught you early one Sunday morning on R4 reading 'What the evangelist should have said'. I loved it for taking me (half-asleep) so vividly into a different world from my own, for its concrete images and simplicity of language (e.g. of many - and not the most significant here, I know - 'rivers so wide they held ships').
Similarly (from 'How we become the pirates') 'And what a thing to mock - the way we shape words differently.' - this seems to me to be your project?? i.e. writing about both what makes us who we are - particular and different - (and being honest and true about this) and being brave (or inspired or challenged) enough to step beyond on to someone else's patch and begin to see (and perhaps tell) the world through different eyes (and mouths) from your own? Or at least allow what others see (and how they tell it) to intrigue, inform, enchant? (Something we all need to be doing, I feel - start in our own place, yes, then step out and away from.)
As for the idea of rivers and crossing over - makes me think of the Buddha, for whom his teachings were simply the raft to get you across, whereupon you could discard them/it as having no further use.
Anyway, thanks and good luck!

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The forming and use of words and phrases to imitate or suggest the sounds they describe.

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