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The language they choose

About four years ago I started to think about how best Offa’s Press could extend its range of poets and further draw on the common cultural and language practices of the West Midlands.

We’d published a number of books that drew strongly on Black Country dialect and traditions, Dave Reeves’s Black Country Dialectics, for example, and published a pamphlet of Kuli Kohli’s poetry, Patchwork, spiced with Punjabi life and words, but hadn’t got much further than that.

So, after a number of conversations with colleagues and regional writers, I started to pull together a group of younger poets who showed promise and a greater diversity in the language they choose to express themselves in. I was moving away from the Standard English I’d been obliged to speak, and write in, at school and university and out into new linguistic country.

It was an interesting journey and one I’m still on. As someone who reads French poetry in the original, and grapples with other languages, I should have thought about this diversity question sooner, surely, but hadn’t that language been presented to me as monolithic and immutable? I don’t remember having read a single line of Provençal or Parisian dialect. Perhaps I have.

With these thoughts in mind, the group of ‘new voices’, all from the wider Black Country area, as it turned out, was about to experience some mentoring. I’d lined up the poets with their ‘best’ mentors and off we set aided by some ACE funding which was much appreciated.

I worked with Tom Allsopp, from a mining background and an English/ Drama teacher so someone with whom I had a fair bit in common. I also worked with Santosh K. Dary. My 25 years of work with ‘north Indian’ poets would come in handy!

Emma Purshouse worked with Gracey Bee and Priyanka Joshi, Nick Pearson with Fraser Scott and Kenton Samuels and Marion Cockin with Anne Babbs. Some of the cultural links between mentor and mentee are more obvious than others but we all discovered that we were learning new stuff as well as reassessing the old.

What we found was different approaches to the language chosen, some of which may be generational, but I’d like to dwell, for a moment, on a couple of poets who know the importance of food, and who in the Black Country does not enjoy their food? Santosh K. Dary and Fraser Scott are both deeply-infused with a sense of where they live and their everyday language. Both know that particular food items conjure up worlds of memory, culture and comfort.

In ‘Bulbulhamptan Tuesday Market’ Santosh describes meeting her friends to go shopping. The term ‘Bulbulhamptan’, by the way, is the regular Punjabi way of saying ‘Wolverhampton’. The word ‘bulbul’ is also the Punjabi word for a nightingale, a slightly comic but loving association. She writes:

Finding a bench we eat paneer pakoras,

sip bottled paani, but prefer masala chai.

Gup chup on ailments, there’s no cure for us,

bitch about our bahus, they just don’t try.

Notes: paani - water, masala chai - spicy tea, Gup chup - chit chat, bahus – daughters in law

Santosh finds herself, as someone who thinks in Punjabi and writes in English, straddling a linguistic divide and she’s doing it very well. Not only is the poetry warm and affectionate it’s also skilful, as these four lines show, being part of a traditional (Shakespearean) sonnet.

Fraser Scott, who was born in Brierley Hill and now lives in Coseley, reminisces about his grandparents, ‘Nan and Grandad’, and the crucial role of food but he expresses the names of these important things in dialect, not ‘Standard English’:

The real gaffer made opple pie

filled with sweetness

and baked in a Rayburn heart.

Tradition and a blunt knife

peeled tayters and fingers

into a stainless-steel sink,

while um-med offal delicacies

were mixed with wizened hands.

Notes: opple – apple, tayters – potatoes, um-med – homemade.

As poets, their concerns are to find the closest way to the heart of the matter, and good poets always know where the heart is. Using the language that is closest to home packs a much greater emotional punch than distant or ‘polite’ equivalents. Read Emma Purshouse’s Close, published by Offa’s Press in 2019, if you want to test that theory.

This ‘local speech’ was once frowned upon by the men who decided what was ‘proper’. Consider, for example, the way the ‘unschooled’ country labourer, and poet, John Clare was embraced then abandoned by publishers in his day. And that didn’t do a lot for his mental health!

Any road up, as my Grandma from Darlaston would say, nowadays writers and poets are choosing their own language-ways forward. I wish them all the best.

Article for The Blackcountryman magazine, published September 2022

‘New Voices’ is published by Offa’s Press, £7.95. To buy a copy please go to the online shop:

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