In celebration of Black History Month, Sussex Student Union organised a number of interesting talks and events across October. One of these exciting opportunities was a chance to listen and discuss Grace Nichols’ poetry directly with the writer herself, which took place on 10 October at the ACCA.
Nichols opened the event by stating that she doesn’t normally give straight talks, as her events usually include her sharing items of her own poetry, followed by a discussion from the audience. She adopted a unique approach to the event, sharing her inspirations and feelings behind her poetry, reading some of her poetry and opening up the floor to discussion. This varied approach to the event was extremely engaging, with the audience being able to learn more about her work, as well as hear her perform her poetry.
The performance of poetry itself is an incredibly complex and intriguing topic, as when we read poetry, we impose our own expectations of rhythm and tone onto it. Hearing Nichols read her own work in the way she intended it to be spoken was particularly exciting. She read ‘Picture My Father’, a poem she wrote inspired by her own father. With there being songlike elements within this poem, hearing Nichols both read and sing her musical poetry added another level of understanding and artistry to her work.
With many attendees interested in Nichols’ own journey from Guyana, her home-country, to England, Nichols shared her poetry directly influenced by migration in the Caribbean, one of which being ‘Timehri Airport to Georgetown’. Discussing the importance of the ritualistic event of attending the airport to say goodbye to family members leaving Guyana, she highlighted the emotional experience of those left behind in contrast with the excitement of those leaving. Her own move to England conformed to this tradition, as even though she didn’t initially intend on staying in the UK, leaving her home and her family was extremely emotional.
She continued her discussion about her own move to England by discussing her own experiences becoming accustomed to the different aspects of Western culture. Nichols stated that one moment when she first missed Guyanese culture was at Christmas one year, when her and her husband went round to a friend’s house to visit unannounced. Although this was a common occurrence in Guyana, she quickly realised that in England, we are not as prepared for spontaneous guests. This lighthearted, humorous story exemplified her own experiences of these two differing cultures and how she grew accustomed to British culture and a very different way of life.
Nichols’ move to England allowed her to learn more about Caribbean literature. In her youth, she was extremely wide-read, but all of these authors were English, such as Enid Blyton and later John Keats. In Guyana, English literature was frequently taught to and read by children, meaning the works she read as a child always have a special place in her heart. However, moving to England allowed her to read more literature inspired by the Caribbean and her own culture, such as the works of Derek Walcott and Martin Carter, two poets who continue to inspire her today.
Of course, Nichols’ event couldn’t have been complete without her discussion of one of her most famous works, ‘Picasso, I Want My Face Back’, a poem inspired by the story of Dora Maar, Picasso’s muse and mistress. Nichols is heavily influenced and inspired by faces, such as Picasso’s ‘The Weeping Woman’ and enjoys creating poetry and dialogue around paintings. Picasso’s cubist style of art was influenced by African folk art, also creating a personal connection with Nichols’ own love for traditional African art. This experience of creating out of looking is one that has always been important to Nichols throughout her career and she has written many more poems inspired by art, especially during her year’s residency at the Tate Gallery.
Nichols didn’t just read her own poetry, but opened up the discussion when asked insightful questions by audience members. Answering questions about her own experiences getting into publishing, the pressure upon black writers today and the implications of the title ‘Black History Month’ itself, Nichols exemplified the importance of writing about what inspires you, not what society expects from you. In her brief discussion surrounding ‘Black History Month’, she highlighted the importance of bringing black history into mainstream education, making it an all-year around celebration, not merely confined to one month. Although some representation is better than no representation, Nichols reenforced the discussions that repeatedly occur around ‘Black History Month’, that is, the need to bring black history into open discussion in Western culture.
I cannot include all of the insightful conversations prompted by Nichols work at the event, however, her discussions surrounding migration from the Caribbean to Britain are crucial in today’s society, when migration remains to be such an important issue. In sharing her poetry, Nichols was able to share her own personal experiences creating her work, passing on words of wisdom to aspiring poets in the room. This intimate setting provided a perfect platform for attendees to speak openly about their love for poetry and celebrate Nichols’ exceptional talents as an award winning poet.
Nichols is currently writing a collection of sonnets directly inspired by Georgetown, giving her the opportunity to celebrate her hometown. Upon the release of this collection, there will be numerous chances to experience Nichols’ writing and hopefully hear her speak at more inspiring events like this.
This event was a triumphant chance to celebrate Nichols’ work during Black History Month, with the ACCA and Sussex Student Union successfully banding together to make this event happen. With many more events coming up at the ACCA, they are definitely worth watching out for, so make sure you don’t miss the chances to hear other talented artists perform their work.
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