Manchester Literature Festival’s Spring digital programme launched with a new commission of four poems from British-Trinidadian, poet and musician, Roger Robinson.
Robinson was awarded the T.S. Eliot Prize and the RSL Ondaatje Prize for his 2019 poetry collection, A Portable Paradise, which included powerful poems about the Grenfell disaster, being Black British in the UK, and fatherhood.
The new poems, written in prose especially for the Manchester Literature Festival, also cover social issues relating to the Black British experience, putting an historical context onto a contemporary setting, with references to the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.
“Poets are dangerous”, says Roger Robinson, “because they make people feel things. They take the hard things and put them in a form people can empathise with.”
In a world where opinion is often not just divided but divisive, Robinson brings a human touch to debate. In his hands the hard issues not inflammatory, they are real. Robinson doesn’t simply tell us about the pervasive negative effects of racism, he helps us feel it.
As he describes it, poetry is an ‘empathy machine’. And it’s his job to change opinions not through argument, but by making people feel what it is like to experience what he describes as an ‘internalisation of racism’ which happens in quieter moments.
The event is hosted by Roger Robinson’s good friend and fellow poet, Malika Booker. The pair set up Malika’s poetry kitchen in 2001, a writer’s collective to nurture the talent of new poets.
Their decades of friendship make for good rapport during the interview. They want it to feel like the audience is eavesdropping on a conversation with friends and in many ways that’s what it’s like.
There is no pretence. This is the first time Robinson has performed this new work and Booker gives her reaction. For her the silences within them are a strong feature. Was Robinson aware of this as he was writing? ‘No’.
Immediately for the audience this brings the realisation of how the artist has little control over people’s perceptions of their work once it is in the public domain. It also frees them to join in with their responses in the chat – there is no right or wrong in our response to art.
Following from the new work, the conversation turns to a broader look at Robinson’s life and work. We hear about his early life in Trinidad, steeped in oral storytelling traditions of his family. He talks about balancing life as an artist with life as a father to a young son and the challenges of home schooling. And because the interview is done as a video call to his home, we also get to browse his bookshelves as Robinson picks up book after book off the shelf behind him, talking enthusiastically about his recent reads.
His passion is infectious and with it comes a generosity as he celebrates his work, the work of other and shares writing tips. As Robinson recognises, no-one becomes successful on their own, but through the support of a massive community, and we all have a part to play in supporting those who support us. It’s a vital message of connection for our times.
The interview was pre-recorded, which meant there was no opportunity for direct audience interaction and questioning that comes with a live event. However, it was interesting to see the audience interact with each other through the chat. The recording also means the event is fully captioned for accessibility and is available to watch again for anyone who signs up within the 7-days it is available on Chromecast.
Roger Robinson Hosted by Malika Booker is available to watch from 25 March – 1 April 2021. The event is pre-recorded and captioned. The short collection of poems is one of a series of New Commissions supported by an award from the DCMS Culture Recovery Fund and presented in partnership with the Centre for New Writing and Creative Manchester.