Race & Poetry & Poetics in the UK


Race & Poetry & Poetics in the UK

Friday 26th-Saturday 27th February 2016 at Senate House Library and 11 Bedford Square, London

Organised by the University of Sussex and Royal Holloway, University of London


Biographies and Abstracts


Hamja Ahsan


‘Surviving Extradition and Isolation: Poetry, Solidarity and War on Terror Prisoner campaigns’


The Free Talha Ahsan campaign was a leading national campaign against US extradition, solitary confinement, torture and detention without trial under the War on Terror. The presentation will look at how, led by poetry and Arabic translation produced in solitary confinement and group isolation in Supermax death row prison and High security prisons such HMP Belmarsh and HMP Long Lartin, Talha Ahsan, a British-born poet who had never set foot in the US prior to extradition, was amongst the longest detained without trial or charge prisoners in British history with Asperger syndrome. His extradition was a controversial case with accusations of racist double standards by leading human rights NGOs, due to Theresa May cancellation of Gary McKinnon’s extradition a few days after.


The presentation will look at how Talha subverted in traditional English forms such as the sestina, sonnet and iambic pentameter, underlining a notion of national belonging and appeal to British citizenship and sovereignty. In addition, the talk will trace a genealogy of prison poetry from earlier generations of political prisoner racialised wars such as Cointelpro on the Black Panthers and Anti-Imperialist movements. A subgenre of prison poetry production in solitary confinement will be explored as a survival tool.


Hamja Ahsan is an activist, multi-media artist and independent curator. He co-founded the annual small-press and activist festival DIY Cultures, running since 2013. In 2008, he set up the Other Asias collective. He was shortlisted for a Liberty Human Rights award for the Free Talha Ahsan campaign on US-UK extradition. His book Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Introvert Militant (Bookworks) is due out in early 2016. He is currently a research consultant on the project ‘Race and Citizenship in the Context of the War on Terror’ led by Dr Nisha Kapoor at the University of York.


Tahla Ahsan


Talha Ahsan’s earliest poems appeared in young poets’ magazine Anarchist Angel. His first adult collection Damascene Portraits (2005) was followed by This be the Answer (2011) published while imprisoned without trial for five years. His last work, Grieving and other poems won a Koestler Trust award for one of the best collections of 2012. He also received the Leopold de Rothschild prize for the eponymous poem. He was extradited the same week to solitary confinement in a US death row prison. He pleaded guilty to charges of material support of terrorism after a plea bargain and was returned to the UK in August 2014. More at FreeTalha.org.


Andrea Brady


Andrea Brady's books of poetry include Vacation of a Lifetime (Salt, 2001), Wildfire: A Verse Essay on Obscurity and Illumination (Krupskaya, 2010), Mutability: scripts for infancy (Seagull, 2012), Cut from the Rushes (Reality Street, 2013) and Dompteuse (Bookthug, 2014). She was born in Philadelphia and is now Professor of Poetry at Queen Mary University of London, where she runs the Centre for Poetry. She has published widely on poetry and poetics, ritual, embodiment, theories of the imagination, women’s writing, and critical theory; she is currently writing a book, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, on poetry and constraint across several historical periods. Scholarly works include English Funerary Elegy in the Seventeenth Century: Laws in Mourning (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). Andrea is director of the Archive of the Now, a digital repository of recordings of poets performing their own work, and co-publisher of Barque Press.


Victoria-Anne Bulley


Victoria-Anne Bulley is a British-born Ghanaian poet and writer based in London. A member of the Barbican Young Poets and Burn After Reading collectives, she has performed at a variety of London locations including TATE Modern and the Royal Academy of Arts, and was longlisted for the role of Young Poet Laureate for London last autumn. Her work explores the limits of knowledge and the body, cultural origins, and a continual search for wholeness. She is a trainee facilitator with the Barbican Junior Poets programme, and is currently working towards the release of her first pamphlet.


Elizabeth-Jane Burnet


Elizabeth-Jane Burnett is a poet, academic and curator. Recent creative publications include oh-zones, Exotic Birds and M (a poem-film with artist Brian Shields). Poetry, criticism and exhibitions often question the relationship between creative practice and activism and have an ecological focus. She is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Newman University, Birmingham.


Elizabeth-Jane Burnett & Sophie Mayer




What is the opposite of a micro-aggression? Can poetry provide/frame/emerge from it? We will work to create a physical and psychic and political space for and of micro-kindness, -tenderness, -intimacy, -gentleness, -solidarity that thinks about safety and risk, aloneness and togetherness. We would like to offer a physical space available throughout the conference, where printed readings and sound recordings confer a shared-but-solo space for contemplation, reflection and introversion that is still critically thoughtful and rigorous. Indicative readings include extracts from Sara Ahmed, Gloria Anzaldúa, Barbara Christian, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, bell hooks, Frida Kahlo, Audre Lorde; and screenings of John Akomfrah and Sandra Alland.


Within the space, we would like to offer (a) workshop(s) that begin with breath and body to reclaim ourselves in the world, following Audre Lorde's idea of self-care as warfare. We will consider strategies of reading, sampling, breathing, giving thanks, and working with found text from important precursors to amplify their words. As the conference engages and articulates a necessary rage, bears witness to injury and exclusion, and presents the possibility of confrontation, we offer a space to imagine otherwise, to imagine exactly that which is denied by structural oppression: the potential of proceeding in embodied joy.


Clementine Burnley


‘Archives, Decolonization and Poetics’


This presentation looks at knowing, colonial history and value. Who knows what? Once produced, how is knowledge valued? As Mike Hulme (UEA) has said of scientific production: ‘who gets funded, who evaluates quality, who has the ear of policy’?

Contemporary understandings of British/European identity are based on a heavily edited record of ‘reality’ if it’s even possible to say the word without irony. What we know is conditioned by the initial assumptions of the knowledge producer and the context within which that knowledge is produced. In that sense we can treat some types of knowledge as provisional and look at the values, perspectives and political positions embedded in its production.  Memory, racism, citizenship, immigration, and history look different for people with different cultural, social, and political positioning.


The migrated archives are two thousand boxes of files taken from 37 former British colonies at independence. Countless other files were destroyed and dummy files inserted in the records handed over to the newly independent states.  The talk explores a range of topical poetic, artistic responses to the problem of racialised knowledge production and to the notions of identity created in the absence of Black realities from white consciousness.


Clementine Burnley is a poet, writer, mother and activist. Recent publications are: ‘Whom do you wish to include?’ in Daima (Berlin, Germany, edition assemblage, 2014), ‘Lichterfelde Blues’ and ‘Boom’ in Winter Shorts (Berlin, Germany, edition assemblage, 2015). Her poetry has been published by The Feminist Wire, Parabola Magazine, and worten_und_meer. Projects include: Ezibota, an online multimedia home for creatives from the diaspora; Witnessed, publication series by Sharon Dodua Otoo; History and Citizenship, together with the queer intersectional publishing house w_orten & meer, we explore contemporary artistic understandings of colonial history and citizenship through writing workshops in Berlin, Germany.


Kayo Chingonyi


Kayo Chingonyi is a fellow of the Complete Works and the author of two poetry pamphlets, Some Bright Elegance (Salt, 2012) and The Colour of James Brown's Scream (Akashic, 2016). He is Associate Poet at the ICA and Poet-In-Residence at HARC (RHUL) & Counterpoints Arts.


Robert Hampson


Robert Hampson is Professor of Modern Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he teaches on the Poetic Practice pathway of the MA in Creative Writing. During the 1970s he co-edited the poetry magazine Alembic (with Ken Edwards and Peter Barry); he and Peter Barry subsequently co-edited the pioneering critical volume, The New British poetries: The scope of the possible (1994); while he and Ken Edwards have recently co-edited the volume of ‘serious reminiscence’, Clasp: late modernist poetry in London in the 1970s (2016). In 2001, Stride published his Assembled Fugitives, Selected Poems 1973-1998 and, in 2008, Shearsman republished his long poem, Seaport. His collection, reworked disasters (KFS, 2013) was long-listed for the Forward Poetry Prize. He was also involved in co-translating contemporary Bengali poetry with Sibani Raychaudhuri: their translations were published in the TLS and the London Magazine in the 1980s. Some of these were recently published in Kolkata as Birendra Chattopadhyay: Selected Poems (Thema, 2013).


Srishti Krishnamoorthy


‘Exhuming the Migrant Body in Caroline Bergvall’s Drift


Caroline Bergvall’s Drift is an experimental epic available as text and performance that traces a history of maritime exploration and the liminal imaginary. A significant portion weaves around the 10th century Anglo-Saxon source text, ‘The Seafarer’, and is combined with historical and modern records of loss, exile and fate in the ocean. I am interested in Bergvall’s movements through and away from the ‘Left-to-die’ boat, a vessel carrying Libyan migrants in 2011 that was abandoned by Western states, and the ways in which this features as a lens to read the precipitation of white sovereign panic around the precipitation of the present day refugee crisis.


The paper will work around the idea of unreadability and failure of language in Drift. How does the complex collision of registers and tongues become a metonymy of not just the ocean and its resistance to territorial categorisation but also the migrant body in its political incomprehensibility? I read the latter as a collection of traces and enfolded discursive formations, which according to Bergvall, is the forensic mode the text is concerned with. The sea becomes a site of exchange and elision of power as the migrants slip out of competing sovereign claims to legitimacy. The clash between surveillance and invisibility, and voicing, location and un-voicing will be examined, and critical frameworks will include the resistance of Drift to the male explorer of the Nightfishing tradition, its presence as a homonationalist text, and the reading of Bergvall’s poetics within the understanding of a racialised Anthropocene project.


Srishti Krishnamoorthy is a third year doctoral scholar in English at the University of Cambridge. She works on the botanical poetics and sexual politics of contemporary experimental poetry by women, and has research interests in gender and sexuality (including feminisms, queer theory, body studies and psychoanalysis), ecopoetics and postcolonialism.


Aimee Le


‘Eating the Art Piece: Memorisation and Poetry’


This practice-based talk will trace one line of poetic memorisation as it moved from its origins in 19th-century Britain to colonial and independent Trinidad, and then back to the US and the UK in the 21st century. Influenced by the practice, within colonial education, of memorising poetry, postcolonial authors began to memorise their own texts. How might the practice of ‘incorporating’ the text through memorisation interact with racial performativity? What becomes of the two bodies – author and text – once one has eaten the other?


Aimée Lê is co-author, with Fiona Chamness, of Feral Citizens and a founding organizer of Occupy Dartmouth. She was listed as one of Muzzle's ‘30 Writers Under 30’ and has shared the stage with Questlove and Black Thought of The Roots. She is a PhD student in practice-based research at Royal Holloway, University of London.


Sophie Mayer


Sophie Mayer is a writer and activist. She co-edited Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot, Binders Full of Women, and Glitter is a Gender, all with Sarah Crewe.


Peter Middleton


‘Legacies of the Race Science of the 1960s’


Race science has left enduring scars on our discourses around ‘race’, discrimination, ethnicity, identity, and white privilege. We tend to assume that this legacy stems from the 19th and early 20th century, but in fact race science was still widely published in science journals in the 1950s and 1960s, and shaped the thinking of many current politicians and intellectuals. Postwar race science in America took two forms: eugenicist arguments that African Americans were genetically disadvantaged; and a structural functionalist sociology that treated civil rights as manageable by technocratic means. Both forms of race science presupposed that the blackness of African Americans was an identifiable domain of scientific research. American eugenic arguments gave sustenance to similar arguments amongst British intellectuals such as Julian Huxley, Hans Eysenck, and Cyril Darlington. British sociological thinking about ‘race relations’ was always conducted with one eye on America. Although eugenics has lost credibility, and damning critiques of white sociology have displaced the functionalist sociology of ‘race’, legacies of this earlier scientific matrix remain: in the bell curve controversy, in some features of identity politics, and in the tensions between such fields as genetics and radical politics. Traces of racial thinking can be found in some prominent poetry from the 1960s and succeeding decades. My paper sketches this history and suggests how we might learn from it.


Peter Middleton recently published Physics Envy (2015), a study of the interrelations between science and poetry in postwar America which includes a section on Amiri Baraka and race science. He is the author of books and articles on many aspects of contemporary US and UK poetry including performance. He teaches at the University of Southampton.


Sandeep Parmar


Dr Sandeep Parmar is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Liverpool. Her research interests are primarily British and American women’s writing of the early twentieth century, modernism, women’s autobiographical writing, innovative/avant-garde twentieth-century and twenty-first-century poetry in English, women’s writing, feminist literature and the literary archive. Her books include: Reading Mina Loy’s Autobiographies: Myth of the Modern Woman (a critical study of the modernist writer Mina Loy’s literary archive), a scholarly edition of the Collected Poems of Hope Mirrlees, and two books of her own poetry: The Marble Orchard and Eidolon (the latter is a rewriting of the myth of Helen of Troy in modern America). She is currently editing the Collected Poems of Nancy Cunard and writing a biography of the British modernist poet and novelist Hope Mirrlees and editing her out-of-print novels. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Guardian, The Los Angeles Review of Books, the Financial Times and the Times Higher Education. She is also writing a novel, which is partly set during India’s Green Revolution in the 1960s, for which she has received a British Council/Arts Council International Artist’s Development Fund Grant. She is a BBC New Generation Thinker for 2015 and Co-Director of Liverpool’s Centre for New and International Writing.


Hannah Silva


‘Live Writing: Black British Poetry in Performance. A new archive at the British Library.


Over the last two years I have been conducting interviews with black British poets on the craft of poetry in performance. These interviews form a new archive at the British Library. This talk presents extracts from performances by poets including Salena Godden and Lemn Sissay, alongside interview clips, in order to consider how the lens ‘live writing’ enables us to discuss the complexities and sophistication of poetry in performance. The poets I have interviewed demonstrate the impossibility of categorizing or tracing simple lineages: from Caribbean calypso to surrealism, hip-hop to Chaucer, their influences are diverse. Unlike ‘breakbeat poets’, ‘performance poetry’, ‘spoken word’ or even ‘avant-garde’, all of which are problematic ways of framing (excluding) black British poetry in performance, ‘live writing’ is a lens and not a category, it does not try to encompass poets who share influences, heritages or performance styles, but enables us to consider how meanings are written in the moment of performance. The apparent opposition contained in the term ‘live writing’ enables us to see the writing of poetry as something live, and live performance of poetry as writing.


Hannah Silva is a poet, playwright and performer known for her innovative explorations of form, voice and language in performance. She is an AHRC Collaborative Partnership Award holder in Black British Poetry in Performance with the British Library and Stirling University. She has shown her work internationally including at the Tokyo Design Centre, Krikri International Festival of Polyphony in Belgium, Flip Festival, Brazil, Literature Live, Mumbai, and throughout the UK. Her debut poetry collect Forms of Protest was published by Penned in the Margins in 2013. She is Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London and Associate Artist with Penned in the Margins and Mouthy Poets.


Mark Mace Smith


Mark is a poet, painter and photographer. He studied philosophy and politics at the University of Central Lancashire and was awarded the Scott Trust Bursuary from the Guardian to study journalism. He has won the Commonword Superheros of Slam and the Glastonbury Festival Slam and has been inducted into the British Library Sound Archive. He was BBC MediaCity writer in residence from 2011 to 2015 when he quit, live on air, via a poem. He was born in London and now lives in Mallorca and Manchester. Genius is Common


“...Never shy of challenging his audience or himself, Mark's poetry is political, passionate and powerful. With undeniable stage presence, his mastery of exuberant and subtle theatrics mixed with his well woven language is totally engaging. Seeing his name attached to an event is a mark of quality and skilful, heartfelt writing.” Dominic Berry


Samuel Solomon


Samuel Solomon is Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Sexual Dissidence and Lecturer in English at the University of Sussex. His current critical book project, Poetry and Social Reproduction: Lyric Pedagogy and Marxist-Feminism, reads twentieth-century and contemporary British poetry through the lens of social reproduction. He is also co-translator from Yiddish of The Acrobat: Selected Poems of Celia Dropkin.


Dorothy Wang


Dorothy Wang is the author of Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford University Press, 2014), which was the basis for the first conference on race and creative writing held in the United States. In March of 2015, she curated an online symposium ‘Race and the Poetic Avant-Garde’ in Boston Review that included essays by David Marriott and Lyn Hejinian, among others. Both this symposium and her book – which won Honorable Mention in the first annual Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism sponsored by the Poetry Foundation – helped to spark intense debates on race and poetry in the United States. She has also published essays on the Anglo-American poet Bhanu Kapil and the Asian Australian fiction writers Brian Castro and Simone Lazaroo. Her chapter on Asian American poetry recently appeared in The Cambridge History of Asian American Literature (2015). She teaches at Williams College in Massachusetts.


Cathy Weedon


Cathy Weedon was born in Stoke-on-Trent and moved to Luton in the 70s. She recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Bedfordshire. In previous years she has created thematic visual poetry.  Her recent book is ‘1-50’ (Blart Books 2015). She has read at the Blue Bus and in 2015 she contributed to SJ Fowler’s Mahu exhibition at the Hardy Tree Gallery.


Karen McCarthy Woolf


Born in London to an English mother and Jamaican father Karen McCarthy Woolf is the recipient of a Glenna Luschei Prarie Schooner Prize and a doctoral scholarship at Royal Holloway, University of London where she is researching new ways of writing about nature, the city and the sacred in the face of climate change. In 2015 she was poet in residence at the National Maritime Museum responding to an exhibit on migration. Her book An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet, 2014) was nominated for both the Fenton Aldeburgh and Forward best first collection prize and selected as a Guardian/Observer Book of the Year.


Michael Zand


Michael Mehrdad Zand Ahanchian is a writer, editor and researcher. He was born in Iran, but has spent most of his life in the UK, where he has taught poetry and creative writing in London, Oxford and Reading. His collections include Kval (Arthur Shilling, 2009) and Lion: The Iran Poems (Shearsman, 2010), The Wire and Other Poems (Shearsman, 2012), Little Rubies (Three Rivers, 2013) and The Messier Objects (Shearsman, 2015). He was included in the Best Poetry of 2011 anthology (Salt, 2011) and won the Roehampton Poetry Performance Prize in 2008.