With a career spanning over twenty years and work published in all manner of magazines, anthologies and journals, few poets have made a name for themselves in the way Panya Banjoko has. We sent our Kevin Jackson down to Five Leaves for the release of her new collection Some Things, and it's fair to say she made quite the impression.
Five Leaves Bookshop, champion of independent publishing and Nottingham writers everywhere, hosted the launch on 5th September of Panya Banjoko’s new poetry collection Some Things, published by Burning Eye. Abii (The other half of Soetry, Panya's song/verse hybrid) conjured the music.
Panya Banjoko is a legend on the Nottingham poetry scene and far wide. I was fascinated to learn she has toured internationally, coordinates a writers and artists’ network, is a patron of Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature and a founder of “Read a Black Writer Day”. She was one of the first poets I heard perform when I moved to Poetry-City 4 years ago, and inspired me to take my own writing more seriously.
Some Things is a triumph of story-telling. Story-telling, as Philip Pullman recently reminded us, is a magical practice, descended from pre-history. Panya’s poems work that magic. She is a story-weaver-supreme. Her parables startle, glisten, charm. And pierce — they are sharp, go in deep. Always find the nerve. Pain and pleasure — made inseparable.
My standout story poems in the collection are the Hummingbird sequence, threaded through the book. Great fables, they come from somewhere far, yet just across town. They speak to our world’s ways with clear-eyed compassion. Toad and Snake “played side by side: venom bound their friendship”. Hummingbird, their victim, is the “other” — “looking at half moon”, and ends stripped of wings, his essence. In the second poem, Hummingbird, “before his courage sank like filthy swamp,” is given healing: “What will you do now you are new again?” asks Ant. And when you get this wonderful book you’ll find out in Hummingbird III.
Each poem’s fabric, words, sounds, images, form, is captivating. We follow Panya’s craft-work, strand by strand, tracing every bead-like detail, constantly surprised. Dreams become children: “Last night I was feeding dreams/in a place over summer/where tribal statues played”. Buses become theatre: “Morning’s dream/was on a bus/slacking/through a maze”.
A carnival of characters animates the poems. In Panya’s hands, poetic personalities are electric, sparking, jolting us into attention. Aunt in If We Are Lucky, who “ believed if it ticked/then the tock would follow”. The Maker — “When he wove, words became cloaks/maidens sought”. The Master Craftsman in One Of A Kind,“ who planted gems in rows like marching ants”.
These are vivid creations, enthralling in themselves, but the poet gifts us these characters not to please but to pounce. The characters, as the poems, captivate then confront.
The heartland of Panya’s poems is a place of tension: between belonging/not belonging, hope/ hopelessness, they/them. Every poem works this tension differently: every poem appeals for understanding whilst confronting its absence. This invitation-confrontation dynamic is there, bullet-like, in The Others, the short poem which serves as preface: “They judge your guts/even before you’ve had a chance/to spill ‘em”.
Family Ties offers a fuller example. The title, words, associations, we get these, right? We stride in confidently. But the poem slams us at once: “Me and my family look good on photos/Even the police wouldn’t get mad at us”. There’s an edge in that wry second line, sharpened as the poem develops, showing a family compelled to fight to define its identity: “We crawl/through holes in upper right corners and out of a box.”. Which box would you want to be cooped in, the poet seems to ask? And what if there’s no box for who you are? What if you don’t want to fit — what then?
An answer to these uneasy questions comes in poems taken directly from Panya’s everyday experience of racism, as a black woman, from the first generation of Caribbean people born in Britain. These poems lay bare what it means to be perceived/treated as different, as “other”. Airport is a shattering poem. Hard to hear. Vital to hear. “…I wear…/my daughter’s hope to keep me breathing”. Listening to it, witnessing Panya’s body re-live its encounter with the “hostile environment”, inhabiting her distress, outrage, humiliation, shook me to the core. It confronted me head-on with my dominant culture, white male privileges. It demanded to know if this was done in my name.
As a queer person, I’ve collided with being “other” often enough, sometimes come away bleeding. But accepting you’re personally different, and accepting you are part of a history and on-going operation of oppression (think Windrush, think Grenfell Tower, think street body searches) is a bone shock. My response came scalding out as a poem, which closes this review.
Panya’s gripping, fearless, vulnerable, ultimately life-affirming poems pose big questions, beautifully. Perhaps these are the Some Things hinted in the book’s title. The poem of that name reveals more: “And some things are hard as memories/or splinters made from rocks/that demarcate borders”. The things which separate us, what are they, why are they, who keeps them there? These are bedrock questions. And the poet insists we face them, as she faces them, everyday. The quality of each poem in this breath-taking collection gains her that right. And when we do, there is the hope of living inclusively, together. In a world with nationalism on the prowl, Panya’s call has never been more urgent.