August Digital Poet in Residence Jessica Wood talks to her friend Amara Amaryah about places that feel like home, cooking and domestic rituals, and their current creative prusuits.
Amara Amaryah is a poet and travel writer based in the UK and Mexico, you can find her on Instagram and her website.
Jessica Wood: I guess we can begin this space by reminding ourselves a little bit about the conversation we had before that made us want to share. Oh, actually I realised maybe introductions are good!
So I’m Jessica, I’m the poet in residence for The Poetry Business for the Month of August. I’m a poet from Yorkshire, from the north of England but currently based in Lisbon, Portugal, and also I’m mixed race, so I’m from England but I have ancestry and close family in Jamaica, so this tension of living in a space that’s not my own is something I inhabit a lot in my life and is kind of part of the conversation I would love to have with my friend in this space right now.
So do you want to introduce yourself a little?
Amara Amaryah: Yeah, I’m Amara Amaryah, I am a poet and a travel writer, and I also write about wellness and being in movement quite a lot recently. Similar to Jess, I am born in England and although in the south. So I was born in London, and I have family or ancestry in Jamaica. I’m currently in London, but I’m usually based in Mexico, so similar to Jess I feel this sense of movement, of being and writing in a space that you’re not really from, but you’re making home or making a base in it.
Jessica Wood: Before we started recording I just remember you were chatting a bit about food and enjoying the experience of cooking right now. Specifically what it looks like to help feed and nourish yourself in your body. So I wanted to start by sharing a poem that I really think you will like. It’s by Lorna Goodison, and the poem is called The Domestic Science of Sunday Dinner.
Amara Amaryah: Ooh, what a title!
Jessica Wood: I know it’s really really beautiful [the title]. I thought it would be a nice way for us to open this space together, and this conversation that we’re having. Yeah, so…
The Domestic Science of Sunday Dinner There is the soaking of peas; the red kidney beans dried out for hard life, which need to be revived through the water process, overnight osmosis There's the seasoning...
[You can listen to Lorna Goddinson reading the poem here, recorded in 1996. The Domestic Science of Sudnay Dinner can be found at 47 minutes onwards.]
Amara Amaryah: That’s so beautiful, I really feel like I went through the journey of the ritual of sourcing, cooking, serving of being nourished. I really love that, it reminds me of some of the conversations you and I had years ago, maybe two years ago when you were writing about food.
Jessica Wood: I really wanted to share this poem in particular, because of how it resonates with us, particularly our experience of Jamaica. The kind of distanced experience of Jamaica that we have to a place that we strongly resonate with. I just thought it really spoke to this sense of the things that you can cling onto a place when you’re not actually there. Yeah, so I’m glad you enjoyed the poem.
I’m intrigued to explore a bit what this looks like for you day to day, and for me, as well. In the midst of me being here in Lisbon, hoping and considering living a life here that exists beyond even the next year, and for you preparing to go back to Mexico.
What are some of the things of home and identity that you cling to and that you hold onto in a time when you were away?
Amara Amaryah: I think for me, food is a big one. Food is yeah… I think being able to cook Caribbean or specifically Jamaican dishes away from, number one away from Jamaica. Because I’m not there. To be able to do that. Even when I lived in Birmingham, being able to recreate those family dishes. It feels good being able to still do that. Not to the full extent, obviously, because I can’t find, like callaloo or ackee in Mexico, right. But other things I can still make like dumplings, for example. I’m still able to carry that part with me.
A really nice story is when I was in Oaxaca, which is the first place I went to in Mexico. I was in a bit of a homestay Airbnb situation and we had like different guests and I was quite I was there for quite a while, so I kind of got used to the rhythm of being in the kitchen. So we kind of established our spaces and cooked together.
On this occasion, I really wanted to make dumplings. So I made them. I think we had black beans as well, which we use in Carribbean food. So I was like, ‘Okay, I can do this’. The host’s taught me how to make Mexican guacamole. So I made guacamole and black beans, and in Mexico, black beans is quite a prominent dish anyway, So I was like, ‘Okay, this is working’. We’ve got dumplings, got a bit of a Jamaican Mexican twist going on. And it was really nice. It was nice to be able to bring that culture, my culture and put that on the table and be like, okay, so yeah, it just felt really good, really comforting.
Other things I think music is gonna be….
Jessica Wood: Sista, I resonate with everything you’re saying right now!
Amara Amaryah: Not just like on Sunday, but yeah Sunday’s are for reggae music that you just wake up and you just hear the roots, the lovers rock, whatever it is. But just generally, it’s a big part of my culture, radio culture is so big as well, in Caribbean households. Well, all I know is London. But I think everyone who I’ve spoken to my friends who are Caribbean and based in London or other parts of the country, the radio is such a big part of our culture and our community. So sometimes, when I was in Birmingham, and I would listen to radio stations, I knew my mom would be listening to, or in Mexico. I just had my own playlist and allowed that to uplift me. Yeah, I think those are the two main things that really do hold me; music and food.
Jessica Wood: It’s really interesting hearing you speak about it because I really resonate with all of this. I remember, this was the first Christmas that I experienced being away mostly because of COVID and all the restrictions to be able to come back to England. So it felt like a really tender time. It was really nice, but it was difficult in some ways. So one thing that I did was I brought some traditions of England into this space.
So in Portugal, they celebrate Christmas on the 24th in the evening, but I really still wanted the sense of waking up on Christmas morning. So we had friends come for breakfast, so I did like a British fry up, but then I infused it in the way that my grandma does with a lot of Caribbean traditions. So we make our fry up at my grandma’s house on Christmas but then also we have like, ackee and saltfish as well..
Amara Amaryah: I was waiting for you to say it!
Jessica Wood: Obviously, obviously! I can’t find ackee here, which is deeply sad. So I made fried dumplings, and baked beans, but obviously like you don’t just eat them from the tin, you have to season them first. I did the baked beans with some fried onions, salt, pepper, and chili. And then also fried plantain too.
I infused as many elements that I could from both places that are really important to me within a food experience. Even little things like when I was living in Jamaica, I was really close with a lot of Trinidadians and they taught me a lot about their cooking and cuisine as well. So even here, I can’t find the green seasoning that we used to use. But just the process of making it myself helps me feel connected to all of these different places that have become really important and significant to me.
So yeah, food is one and music is another..
Amara Amaryah: Can I just say I plantain just makes me feel at home.
Jessica Wood: Yes, I’m sorry, like nothing! I was really worried when I came here that I would not be able to find it. But I’ve managed to which is good. Um Yeah, that was one of the things that I was like, first priority: find a hair store and to figure out how I’m going to control my curls and second: find plantain and I managed to find both pretty fast so..
Amara Amaryah: I’m happy for you sis!
Jessica Wood: Yeah, I’m very thankful and yeah, and then music is another one. What is hilarious is when I was living in Jamaica, I listened to dancehall a lot, just because that’s what is on the radio all the time. But yeah, you know… I tried to pretend that I’m not into it as much as I am because it’s dutty, but I love, I adore! I have a playlist literally called Back in England because I made it when I was leaving Jamaica to come back to England. And it’s literally just full of dancehall, like, all the stuff I was hearing on the radio Vybz Kartel, Alkaline, Shenseea, it’s also full of Soca as well, because of my Trini friends. And often when I’m feeling that sense of nostalgia for that place, I just listen to this music. And I’m just reminded of all of the memories and the emotions of being there. So yeah, food and music is definitely like a big, big connection.
Amara Amaryah: You know, what I find really interesting about this? The fact that when we’re traveling, we kind of have to think about what we carry with us and what we can’t actually carry because of the restriction in terms of luggage. I’ve kind of adopted this mentality that I can’t actually have attachment to physical things that much anymore, just because it’s just not feasible, it’s kind of expensive to keep moving absolutely everything around. So I love the fact that the things that we’ve mentioned are all things that we’re having to craft, all my playlists, for example, which we physically craft, the food which you physically make, these are all things that we don’t have to depend on in a material kind of way. And I think that’s so true. Some of our ancestors who were in movement or even closer, like our grandparents, or parents having to carry it [culture] with them, and recreate it when they arrived. So I find that, really interesting.
Jessica Wood: Yeah, that’s a really good point, actually, and it makes me think about the things that we can carry and things that we can’t carry the distance between them. …it’s different when you have a choice to obviously, for our ancestors there was no choice in what they could or couldn’t carry. But for us when we have a choice, there’s a real power in making those decisions and thinking about what we can bring.
As artists as well. I’m interested in those decisions that we make, and how we can infuse that with our creativity as well: What things can we bring with us that we can express through our creativity in some way?
Jessica Wood: Actually, I would like to do a little writing exercise, which kind of relates to this sense of things that you can carry, it’s based a lot on memories and very sensual experiences. But also it links to food as well, which is something we talked about.
And so it’s in this poetry collection, Magnolia 木蘭 by Nina Mingya Powles, she has this poem, really beautiful poem called Breakfast in Shanghai.
Writing Excercise - Feel free to complete before or after reading the poem to your preference - Pick a meal - Pick a location - Pick four different descriptions about when you are having this meal (for example: Breakfast in Paris / on a rainy day by the sea / when you feel lonely / when the sky is pink / in a bustling cafe) - Use these four descriptions as the starting place for each stanza and write a few lines to explore this.
Jessica Wood: I’m intrigued to know what place you picked.
Amara Amaryah: I chose a memory from my time solo in Jamaica, I was on the coast. And I was imagining an interrupted morning on the coast. My routine was messed up because I was coming from England. So I was waking up at 5am and it was just so peaceful, then all of a sudden, the fishermen would come in, and it would just be noise, but not in my way, like, not anti-social, kind of disruptive just.. completely their rhythm, the rhythm of the morning. Yeah, they had their greetings. The cooks would start, and you start to hear like the pans and stuff. So I was thinking about that space.
Jessica Wood: I did this exercise once before, when I first arrived to Lisbon. That time I remember I picked Jamaica as well, just because that was a prominent place and I was reflecting on my other time living abroad. This time, I was thinking that having now lived here a year and having had a lot of experiences here I actually wrote about breakfast in Lisbon. I didn’t go into depth, but I was just remembering specific moments. I remember the first morning where it really felt like spring was close. And an early morning before I was traveling to meet our team somewhere, and then I was remembering a morning where it just felt really cold and gray and rainy and winter and yeah, just these really sensory experiences, thinking about how each of those moments are just wildly different from each other.
Amara Amaryah: Yeah, I love that you’ve been able to experience like the full cycle of Portugal or Lisbon as well, I love that you’ve got like the colder moments and the Christmas time, the first days of spring. That’s really, I really look forward to having that.
Jessica Wood: I think that’s a really nice thing about being in a different place is being able to experience the full cycle of things. I’m sure there’s lots of different, grander cycles in the life of Portugal that I haven’t yet experienced, but the experience of a year in a place, all of the changes that your body itself goes through as it navigates the year and then weather around you, the natural rhythms of people. It heightens this sense of being aware of all that I’ve missed in England this year but also, I’ve experienced so many cycles of life in England that I’m happy to enjoy this one here right now.
Amara Amaryah: Yeah, right yeah.
Jessica Wood: But yeah, every now and again this poem pops into my mind, and it’s just a nice way to reflect on being in a place and remembering the significance of each little moment that you get here and the way it can build into something bigger. You might not know the full vision of what it is when you’re living in the moment But it can form into something beautiful.
Amara Amaryah: No, I’m definitely going to go back to finish it off, because I feel like I really needed that kind of a prompt to get me.
Jessica Wood: Yeah, I’m glad. I’m excited to see what you create in the end.
Amara Amaryah: Yeah, I’ll share it when I’m done. Thank you.
Jessica Wood: So for you, it’s an interesting space to be in because as you’re currently in England with the knowledge that you’re going forward. What did you experience, when you were in Mexico, especially as an artist navigating your creativity somewhere else? And what do you want to carry there again?
Amara Amaryah: To be completely honest, my artistry has totally changed this year. Not just because of Mexico, although I’m pretty sure it had a part to play. But mainly because I published my book this year. It took a lot and I feel like I’m really happy with that offering. Poetry right now is something that I am enjoying for self I guess, I’m not really doing much more than kind of seeing what comes to the surface, which has been really weird, because I’m the kind of person who’s like: ‘I need to be working on at least a poem a week, or whatever it is,’ I need to be like spending time in poetry. And this year, maybe from spring onwards, I’ve kind of just allowed myself to be like ‘meh, when a poem comes, I’ll pick it up and I’ll spend time with it’.
What I have been loving is prose. I’ve been writing a lot of prose, reading a lot of prose. And it’s been really nice. I feel like funnily enough with poetry, although it’s freer, I feel more, not restricted… but I’m much more disciplined with the way that I write: ‘we can make this cleaner’, ‘we can cut that down’, ‘this line would look better if it was…’ you know like, I don’t know if this is something that we as poets need to work on. Or if it works, if it’s fine I feel like the discipline, especially in thinking about my book, as you know, is well you’ve gotta think about pages and stuff like that. So I was really, maybe I was thinking of poetry more as an editor. Now, I think towards maybe this year, towards the last few months, I’ve been editing and cutting down and trying to make things work. And so now I’m expanding, which is what I love prose for, that expands and essays, I’m kind of able to elaborate more rather than to reel it in and make it as succinct as possible. I’m like, No, no, this is absolutely indulgent. And I’m going to let this train run on. And that’s fine. Yeah, I’ve really been enjoying that.
Jessica Wood: Oh, that sounds exciting. I’m excited to read some of your prose when it’s ready to be shared. I think something you said is really interesting about the nature of being poet, but then also, in a way, almost how it links to… maybe this is bit too profound, but almost like to be abroad as as well, there’s something about when you move into a new space, if you have kind of like the mindset even in your creativity of restricting. I understand what you’re saying, how as poets we’ve learned to fit the form in which we work and to have that sense of honing the language. There’s something really nice about imagining you going back to Mexico and being expansive and taking up space with your whole physical self, but also, with how you’re allowing your creativity to flow. I’m excited for you, as you go back to see how your creativity will expand beyond what you’ve normally been accustomed to.
Amara Amaryah: Right? Yeah, that’s exactly it, and I feel like yeah, another possibly profound point to add to your profound point is the idea, with it being so expansive. I’m kind of operating like you said in a way that I’m not used to. I’m completely not used to it. I’m not used to introducing myself in this language. I’m not used to existing in a mountain town. Right. There’s so much of life that I’m not used to that completely mirrors my creativity at the moment, there’s so much of it that’s like cool… I’ve never thought to write in this way.
Jessica Wood: I’m excited to see where it flows and develops. And I’m intrigued, what kind of prose have you been reading that has been influencing you in this time?
Amara Amaryah: So a few things I’ve been reading. I’m rereading some short stories by James Baldwin, a collection called Going to Meet the Man, which I love, love. I think I found in a charity bookshop and at the time I knew I was going to love the writings of James Baldwin, but I didn’t realize it was a collection of short stories. I kinda just saw the name and picked up. And then when I got into it, I was like, Oh, my gosh, this is the literal gold and I think I’m gonna go back to it every summer.
Other prose I’m reading a collection of essays called In The Garden is edited by Jamaica Kincaid. I’m really excited. It’s got a few of my favorite writers in there as well, so this is good. And when I really and I think it’s really fitting for right now, because well actually going to Mexico, it’s kind of made me more intrigued about not just gardening, but just nature in general and being in nature and what my relationship is with it, just because there’s so much of it [nature] in Mexico. So it’s been, it’s been quite nice to see it from the perspective of essays. And they’re mainly based in the UK. So that’s been really interesting. So in the my about writing, some of them are writing about God is that they’ve had in other countries and stuff and what it means to to grow certain things that don’t originate in the UK, and that kind of tension.
Another book that I’m reading is this book called The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, which I love, it was gifted to me. I didn’t really know what to expect, because it’s almost a meditation book, really, each chapter ends in a meditation that you should think of, and kind of carry with me through the day. But it is like a reflection, and memoir, so it fits really nicely in my interest.
Jessica Wood: Sounds like there’s an interesting thread in all of those things. Reflecting on being in different places, and even the one with the space to meditate at the end. And those different rituals and things that you create when you’re in a new space.
Amara Amaryah: I wanted to ask you, I did have a poem to share, but I wanted to ask you what you’re reading or things that have inspired you?
Jessica Wood: Reading at the minute has not been a big thing, or as big as I want it to be. But I follow this page on Instagram [https://www.instagram.com/poetryisnotaluxury/]. It’s probably been my biggest influence, because it’s like a daily drip feed of poems that I find really ground me. There’s a poem that I read by Mary Oliver, called Summer Morning. And when I read it, it was the perfect moment for me to experience it, because it really spoke into a lot of things I was experiencing at the time. So I had a really emotional and visceral reaction after reading it. But yeah, right now I’m, I’m more engaging with these specific, smaller poems and allowing each individual one to speak to me, rather than a collection or anything. Actually, getting books here, especially books in English in Portugal is a little bit difficult. My reading list is growing so long with so many different collections, and essays and poems that I want to read ….. which is also forces me to slow down and approach my reading a little bit differently than I normally would.
The other day, actually, I read this magazine called The Happy Reader, which I just found very randomly, but I really like, it’s an interview with an artist or a creative or some person and an author. And they basically just talked about their mutual love of reading. So this one is with a guy called Moses Sumney. Who is a musician.
Amara Amaryah: Oh, I like yeah, yeah, yeah I like his music
Jessica Wood: In this interview he’s talking with an author: Jia Tolentino and one part of what they said really stood out to me. They were talking about how reading is almost like fulfilling an appetite. If you eat something, that doesn’t fulfill your appetite at the right time, it kind of does the food a disservice if you eat something, and you kind of like, ‘Oh, I ate it. I feel full. But I’m not really satisfied.’ It’s not what I wanted. And kind of lessens the experience of it almost. I mean, obviously, that’s a massively privileged thing to say. But, you understand what I mean? This sense of appetite and feeding you.
Amara Amaryah: I never thought of it that way.
Jessica Wood: JesiisYeah, it was interesting because they were talking about how you have to read books at the right moment. And when you read different things that fulfills a specific appetite in your life at that time, so this connection that you’re having with the James Baldwin collection – it’s feeding a specific appetite, a need or hunger that you have at this moment.The one thing that I’m reading right now is Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letters_to_a_Young_Poet]. What I’m enjoying about this is the sense of poets speaking to one another, but not really providing the critique of poetry or doing the hard work of poetry, but just allowing room and flourishing to experience life. I feel like that’s the space that I’m in right now… dwelling in the questions and accepting the uncertainties.
Amara Amaryah: I want to say just quickly as well. Do you think? And if so, how? Because you’re learning Portuguese now, do you feel like that’s having an impact on maybe your approach to language and your writing? In terms of, do you feel like, you know, when you’re dealing with different kind of linguistic patterns and stuff that’s kind of making you rethink how you are maybe more reluctant to or maybe more eager to?
Jessica Wood: Yeah, it’s making me realize the power of language and communication. And it makes me realize the real privilege of language and the privilege of speaking English, for example. I’m getting better and more confident at leading conversations in Portuguese. But I still feel very incapable, and I prefer to be in control. So sometimes, I’m very unwilling to give up that control, and that authority, because I love words, and I love language, I’m often very unwilling to give up that authority I have over language, in order to facilitate someone else leading in a conversation or feeling comfortable. So that has been a big challenge.
But also, it has been interesting, because it’s made me realize the nuances of language. And I because I’m understanding so much of Portuguese now, and how my friends, when they’re speaking in Portuguese, how they phrase things, how it translates to English, even something little the other day, a friend of mine was speaking to me and she said, ‘Jess, life is yours’. And she said this in English. And for me, at that moment, I was processing something, and that really stood out to me, this sense of ownership that I have over my life, rather than it kind of just happening to me. And I don’t think she understood the full way of how it felt to me to experience that in English…. So I’m interested in these nuances as well.
Amara Amaryah: I’m so excited for you, with a collection out in Portuguese.
Jessica Wood: I mean, that would, that would be a glorious day. Not for a while, but yeah, that that would be a cool thing to work towards. I mean, for now, we can just work on like a few lines. In Portuguese, then maybe a whole poem little by little,
Amara Amaryah: We’ll get there, little by little. Um, yeah, no completely there with you about what you’re saying about linguistics and control. And yeah, I completely see that for you and your personality as well.
Jessica Wood: Yes eeew, It’s a challenge. Yeah, yeah. I’m learning.
Yeah, it’s amazing thing to like, be in spaces that have opportunity to learn a language, especially coming from England where I remember when I was moving here, like some people like, oh, but do you like have, an affinity to like, learn languages? Like, are you good at it? Just this sense of it being like an option, like, you know, you can just choose to be bad at it. And actually, no, you just study and work and try and fail. But there’s this sense in Englishness that it’s a gifting that some people have more than others. And I think, yeah, that’s been a challenge.
Amara Amaryah: I find that really, yeah, I’m so glad you said that. Because I’m finding in Mexico that when I don’t see… I think I’m like intermediate, I’m not advanced at all, but when I can like compensate, when I am in a space where I can use Spanish, …just present tense we’re talking! Some people will be like, ‘oh, you speak… I didn’t think you would speak’ like just this assumption, not even like in a negative way, just like, oh, that’s pretty good, like I never expected for you to learn Spanish, because most people in the parts of Mexico that I was in, they do speak Spanish, of course, and the other indigenous languages, but English too. Yeah, I think it’s such a weird, concept for me. Because if anyone was to come to London, there’s this expectation: ‘Yeah. Yeah, yeah yeah, you learn English and you learn it well -’
Jessica Wood: -not even just learn it, it has to be good! So yeah, these dynamics are interesting. And I am excited for us both to see how this will influence our writing as well.
Amara Amaya: Yeah, me too.
Jessica Wood: It’s good to reflect on language. Well, do you have more questions or things to share?
Amara Amaryah: I don’t think I have any more questions.. I could share a poem. I don’t know. How do you want to end it exactly? I did have a poem that I wanted to end on.
Jessica Wood: We could end on a poem, I would enjoy it! If you can bless us with a little snippet, that would be beautiful.
Amara Amaryah: Yeah, it’s a poem by Sonia Sanchez actually. I have a deep love for Sonia Sanchez, so much. I came across… when did I come across Sonia… I think it must have been my undergraduate looking at Black women’s writing… particularly from the 70s. I think, African American mostly, it was kind of the focus of going with, but um, yeah, I feel like this is a poem that has just stayed with me. How many years after graduation…?
there is no place for a soft / black / woman. there is no smile green enough or summertime words warm enough to allow my growth. ….. womb ripe. walking. loud with mornings. walking. making pilgrimage to herself. walking
Amara Amaryah: Yeah, that’s a section from the poem: Present.
Jessica Wood: That’s really beautiful, thanks for sharing.
Amara Amaryah: Yeah, I love that ending the idea of making a pilgrimage to herself. Absolutely how it feels especially when you’re traveling solo and going to these places, literally just kind of figuring it out as you go. You’re like ‘alright, lets see whats up’, all you’ve got is yourself and I really like that imagine
Jessica Wood: I like the idea, and so I want to wish you well on this pilgrimage that you’re walking to yourself.
Amara Amaryah: Thanks sista, you too.
[ Lorna Goodison’s The Domestic Science of Sunday Dinner first appeared in Turn Thanks (University of Illinois Press, 1999) and was reprinted in Guinea Woman (Carcanet, 2000) ]