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Poetry Archive: Dorothea Smartt Reading from her Poems

Dorothea Smartt

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The Poetry Archive

December 2012


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Dorothea Smartt is a stunning performance artist and poet. She has taughtin the United Kingdom, and Bahrain, South Africa, Barbados and the U.S, after beginning her writing life in the Black/feminist co-operatives of the Eighties, and publishing her first work in anthologies. She has been dubbed the "Brit born Bajan International" by her iconic mentor, Kamau Braithwaite. Smartt turns out to be both the site-specific child of her South London upbringing,and a chorus member of the vocal Caribbean Diaspora, laying claim to more distant, sharedidentities, which speak in different voices and draw on historic memory and myth. Her unifying giftis her unfailing musical ear, which ensures strong thematic material is expressed in an appropriatetone and key, with powerful rhythmic effects, well judged climaxes and dying or open-endedcadences. She is as meticulous in framing resilient snapshots of her bullied Battersea childhood,as she is in recreating the blighted life of a young enslaved African boy, imagining both his anguishand loneliness before an untimely death and desolate coastal burial.

One of her recurrent subjects, rich in poetic potential, is Black women's hair, in particular the more specifically (perceived) threatening transformations of her own once familiar dreadlocks into Medusa's snakes, reptiles only subdued, as it were, by hair-straightening. In Connecting Medium (2001) the Brit-born Bajan explores socio-political and personal issues in the intertwined themesof distant heritage, home and hair with a firm, often angry, hold on reality, as well as a sympatheticawareness of underlying recurrent hopes and dreams. These "Diaspora lines" weave people andhistories in a "worldwide web" which enables the poet to be a conduit for pictures and narratives from a past forever yielding up stark unsentimental truths. In many poems Smartt the time-traveller crosses cultural boundaries with confident ease, speaking in the appropriate register, polishing diction with her eye and ear alive to its linguistic, musical and moral currency.

Her borrowings and invention come together in Samboo's Grave/Bilal's Grave (2008), a collection which serves as both memento mori and uncomfortable fable for contemporary Britain and the wider world. It is a powerful sequence of haunting snapshots which capture an African-Caribbean slave boy's abject existence after being "kicked from his calabash pot" by his captor and broughtback to Lancaster as a gift for the sea captain's wife. After dying soon after his arrival, he was laidto rest in a bleak spot near the mouth of the River Lune and abandoned to the elements:

Here I lie. A hollow
Samboo. Filled with your tears
and regrets.

These elegiac, poignant lyrics of loss occasionally give way to more violent emotions as in ‘The 99 Names of the Samboo', a bold incantation variously naming the "beloved" and the"damned", which shocks in its relentless blows and their cumulative effect. Smartt re-names ‘Samboo' Bilal, inhabits Bilal's very being, tracing and feeling every heartbreaking pang of his trajectory from Fulani Muslim boy to black novelty in proud "Lancaster life" and, in the end, aburied outcast.

Of course, being just a small part of this "worldwide web" does not lessen the significance of Smartt's South London self, circumscribed by Battersea and Brixton, and nurtured in the proudlykept home of her immigrant parents, arrivals from Barbados in Fifties' Britain. Her poems about domestic and school life address the private world of childhood with vivid insights, as do those tackling the commonplace slights still suffered in contemporary Britain - ‘Pissed Off' is hilarious and agonising. And it is in some of these often funny rants and ruminations that she slips into the Caribbean rhythm and sing-song of her first speech, only to tumble headlong back into the‘sauf London' accent acquired during her Battersea youth. Such subtle counterpoint requiresprecise vocal skills, and as a reader, Smartt is superb in her miniature dramatisations of image and emotion; and though her poems own the printed page as well as she hopes, they do nevertheless live more fully in the mind when performed by their immensely talented creator.

1. Mother Music 1.31
2. Generations Dreaming I 1.38
3. Generations Dreaming II 1.26
4. Craving 1.15
5. Five Strands of Hair 3.42
6. Black Girl Shuffle 1.03
7. Forget 3.05
8. Home 0.58
9. Milkdreams Ghost 1.37
10. Connecting Medium I 0.43
11. Connecting Medium II 0.44
12. Gambian Sting 1.33
13. c.1950 - Bubble n' Squeak 0.48
14. c. 1967 - Sweet Potaton' Callaloo 0.57
15. I'm In The Market For Hair 1.05
16. Ruby Lips 1.44
17. Shipshape & Lancaster-Fashion 1.22
18. Bringing It All Back Home 1.27
19. Samboo's Elegy:No Rhyme Or Reason 2.52
20. 99 Names of Samboo 2.40
21. Lancaster Keys:The Brew Room 2.50
22. Shake My Future 1.48
23. Pissed Off 1.36
24. A Sense of Denial 3.51
25. After Phillippa Yaa de Villiers,"Gaia breaks up withHumanity, her young lover" 4.29

Total length of the recording 47' 00"

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