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Untold Stories: Poetry at English Heritage

Untold Stories – Poetry at English Heritage took place in the autumn of 2020. Through new commissions, a poetry exchange and a public competition the programme allowed us to experience English Heritage sites in new ways and offered opportunities for everyone to explore our past through poetry. The programme was co-curated by Jacob Sam-La Rose, English Heritage’s Poet in Residence. This digital anthology brings together a collection of works written as part of the programme. It features poems written in Shout Out Loud workshops led by Malika Booker; as part of the Untold Stories Poetry Competition; and by commissioned poets Esme Allman, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Jay Bernard, Malika Booker, Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa and Jacob Sam-La Rose. english-heritage.org.uk/untold-stories

Untold Stories – Poetry at English Heritage took place in the autumn of 2020. Through new commissions, a poetry exchange and a public competition the programme allowed us to experience English Heritage sites in new ways and offered opportunities for everyone to explore our past through poetry. The programme was co-curated by Jacob Sam-La Rose, English Heritage’s Poet in Residence.

This digital anthology brings together a collection of works written as part of the programme. It features poems written in Shout Out Loud workshops led by Malika Booker; as part of the Untold Stories Poetry Competition; and by commissioned poets Esme Allman, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Jay Bernard, Malika Booker, Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa and Jacob Sam-La Rose.

english-heritage.org.uk/untold-stories

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Malika Booker<br />

Addressing history from the 1700 as<br />

a Black cre<strong>at</strong>ive involves writing<br />

into trauma, silences, gaps and<br />

an ongoing erasure, practised since<br />

colonialism to valid<strong>at</strong>e trans<strong>at</strong>lantic<br />

slave trade practises th<strong>at</strong> rendered Black<br />

bodies inhuman. These bodies were<br />

merchandise, subjected to horrendous<br />

living and working conditions and abject<br />

torture. The legacies of the imperial<br />

actions still perme<strong>at</strong>e today’s society,<br />

recently igniting a revolution th<strong>at</strong> rocked<br />

the world after the de<strong>at</strong>h of George Floyd<br />

when reactions varied from: calls to<br />

various channels within the educ<strong>at</strong>ional<br />

system to decolonise the curriculum, to<br />

n<strong>at</strong>ionwide marches, and the iconic and<br />

controversial toppling of historical st<strong>at</strong>ues<br />

in Bristol. These shaped my choice of<br />

Brodsworth Hall and Peter Thellusson’s<br />

slave plant<strong>at</strong>ion in Grenada as the site<br />

for my poetic response. However, given<br />

the emotive clim<strong>at</strong>e and the fact th<strong>at</strong> my<br />

mother’s family are Grenadian I could<br />

not sit down during the isol<strong>at</strong>ed st<strong>at</strong>e of<br />

UK lockdowns and delve into poems th<strong>at</strong><br />

resurrected the trauma of my ancestors. I<br />

therefore decided to focus on architecture<br />

– the imit<strong>at</strong>ion of gre<strong>at</strong> <strong>English</strong> houses in<br />

the colonial territories.<br />

Once I began to research however, I<br />

stumbled upon mahogany. The poem<br />

begins with the first sentence th<strong>at</strong> I wrote<br />

in my notebook “And then I realised the<br />

whole house was filled with mahogany,<br />

the doorknobs, the bannisters, the stairs<br />

themselves… My God it was worship<br />

and annihil<strong>at</strong>ion all in one.” The colonial<br />

rel<strong>at</strong>ionship with this luxury item ranged<br />

from praise for its opulence and majestic<br />

quality, to a ruthless extermin<strong>at</strong>ion of<br />

thousand-year-old trees.<br />

The research amplified the connections<br />

between colonial acquisitions and the<br />

development of an <strong>English</strong>ness – reliant<br />

on imported tea, sugar, wood etc,<br />

and amplified the cruelties of empire.<br />

The empire’s lifeblood pumped on<br />

the consistent annihil<strong>at</strong>ion of people,<br />

culture, land and resources, a wide<br />

scale, environmental deforest<strong>at</strong>ion, and<br />

exploit<strong>at</strong>ion th<strong>at</strong> was quite biblical in an<br />

Old Testament sort of apocalyptic way.<br />

This quintessential British wood<br />

and furniture provided the symbolic<br />

poetic potential for me to <strong>at</strong>tempt to<br />

capture the epic and complic<strong>at</strong>ed scale<br />

of environmental, political, religious and<br />

social impact of our colonial legacy. This<br />

poem seeks to be testament, witness,<br />

interrog<strong>at</strong>ion and praise. Mahogany has<br />

to sing its own song in a bid to highlight<br />

the epic complic<strong>at</strong>ed interconnectedness<br />

between Britain and her colonies.

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