Marvin Thompson | “How could I be a poet if black artists did not exist?

The 2021 National Poetry Society Laureate talks about his new collection Travel by carand how Welsh verses influenced his writing.


You were born in London to Jamaican parents and grew up in Tottenham. How did you come to live in South Wales?

I moved to South Wales to start a family. I now have a wonderful partner, three paternal children and two stepchildren. An important aspect of my relationship with my partner is our understanding of the challenges our dual inheritance children may face. This understanding has given me additional confidence to address these questions in my writing.

Your family heritage is a refrain through your first collection of poetry Travel by car, which is full of creative intersections of time and place. Can you tell us about the different inspirations that came together in its making?

Before the birth of my children, my parents were my biggest inspiration. They were part of the “Windrush” generation who spent their childhood under British colonial rule. Growing up, they taught me and my brothers that our dark skin is both intensely personal and intensely political.

Unfortunately, due to my education, I grew up believing that great black people were incapable of creating great art. How could I be a poet if black artists did not exist? Fortunately, I found two models in their twenties. The first was African-American saxophonist John Coltrane. His wonderful avant-garde jazz was a revelation. Then I discovered Patience Agbabi’s iambic sonnets, sestinas and pentameters.

Influenced by Agbabi, Coltrane and the political ideas of my parents, I was able to create a first collection of poetry that celebrates the darkness and the beauty of diversity.

What were the inspirations that gave birth to your poem “The Fruit of the Spirit is Love (Galatians 5:22),” which won the Poetry’s Society National Poetry Prize for 2021?

The awkward first draft was written during the Black Lives Matter boom in June 2020. At the time, a host of white and British comedians publicly apologized for performing on face-to-face comedy shows. black. These programs were prime-time family entertainment from the 1990s to the 2010s. The apologies irritated me. Where were the tears of the producers, directors and television directors who gave the shows the green light?

The later drafts aroused too much rage. In an attempt to explore a fuller range of emotions, I began to reflect on my past. As a teenager, I laughed when comedians passed out as dual heritage footballer Jason Lee. Writing about my complicity in the tradition of the British minstrel made my poem more relatable, more honest.

How has life in Wales influenced your work? Are you aware of working in the incredibly rich Welsh poetic tradition?

Dylan Thomas’ “Don’t Go Softly Into That Good Night” is a Welsh sound poem. The appeal of his music is one of the reasons I started writing villanelles.

There are other great contemporary Welsh poets who have also influenced my work. These include Welsh-speaking poet Grug Muse, whose translation of “The Fruit of the Spirit is Love (Galatians 5:22)” can be found on the Poetry Society website. Hanan Issa and Abeer Ameer both focus their Muslim faith and heritage on lush and intriguing language.

Zoë Brigley’s poems are rich in their exploration of women’s lives. Alex Wharton, who is of Welsh and Caribbean descent, is a fabulous writer of children’s poems and his readings are fascinating. All of these poets reflect a new diversity of Welsh poetics.

You weave so many insistent themes into your work; from racial identity and injustice to the vital role of the natural world in our lives. But at its beating heart seems to be your love for your children, for whom you say your poems are written, and as we experience the tugging of traditions of your heritage, your poems seem very forward-looking …

Part of my job as a father is to prepare my dual inheritance children for a future in which they risk discrimination because of their skin color. With this in mind, I am currently writing A History of Great Britain at 45 Villanelles. This collection of poems will include Roman Britons of North African descent and former slaves such as Ignatious Scancho, the first man of African descent registered to vote in a British general election (in 1774). I have fun. There will be LGBTQ + heroes and disabled heroes; men, women and non-binary people. The book will be a celebration of British diversity in all its forms.

Marvin Thompson’s Road Trip was published in paperback in March by Leeds-based independent publisher Peepal Tree Press (£ 9.99, 9781845234607)

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