For Black History Month, at my workplace, we were encouraged to write 150 words about an inspiring Black person. I chose to write about Maya Angelou:
Because she gives such great advice in Letter to my daughter and Wouldn’t give nothing for my journey now. Because her writing is so wise. Because her life was interesting enough to fill seven autobiographies. Because she was a Civil Rights activist and a single mum. Because she writes and speaks with style. Because without her we wouldn’t have the poem ‘Still I rise’. Because she was so musical and her words so precise. Because she was so open-minded, yet she wouldn’t take any nonsense. Because she said: ‘All great artists draw from the same resource, the human heart, which tells us that we are more alike than we are unalike’ (Angelou, Letter to my daughter, p82).
So for the first post of October, here’s a joint poem written by me (October poet-in-residence) and Nasim (September poet-in-residence). Me and Nasim discussed doing a handover a week or so ago– I was in a car park in Rotherham looking at a rainbow and she’d just got back from work and put her rucksack on the bed.
Seeing as Nasim had done a wonderful interview with Dead Women Poets Society, and I’m a big fan of them, we decided to ‘resurrect’ one of my favourite Dead Women Poets, Maya Angelou, and write something in response to one of her poems.
We agreed to write a joint poem, taking inspiration from Angelou’s ‘Ailey, Baldwin, Floyd, Killens and Mayfield’. The names in the title are five activists and writers that she celebrates with the opening ‘When great men die, rocks on distant hills shudder…’
We decided to choose two famous people each (e.g. writers, activists, artists) and a family member to write about, and we planned to put it together in such a way that nobody would know who had written which part. So here it is:
Cavendish, Hughes, Swift, Whiteley and Grandma
Perhaps, if you had lived four centuries, you would have learned the parts of atoms - proton, neutron, electron – sat, pig-tailed, uniformed, among your peers, waved your hand wildly in the air. Perhaps, you would have attended lectures and learned about the bigness of quarks, wondered how everything we know can be broken down so small. Perhaps you would have swapped one white gown for another, spent your days in a lab, long hours, round eyes, brain full of wonder. Perhaps, you’d have won a Nobel. Taught. Perhaps, if you had lived four centuries and learned what happened when we split an atom, if you had seen the pain, the blast, the bomb, the power of the nucleus, known a fiery isotope obliterated schools full of pig-tailed girls, like you, you would despair at how far we’ve fallen, so far from the days you dreamed, like Seuss, that we could balance worlds, our humanity, so hopefully on the head of a pin.
When we stayed in your house, we were there the day you passed. Around us snow and dark trees – all black ink and white gouache. And us, by the fire. I wonder what the crows thought, and what shape you would have taken, if you could be any animal in or beyond creation.
Your chords have charmed legions of teens, have guided them through the long grasses, past the predators of high school corridors, your voice a talisman, a prayer for better days, for bodies coming home to themselves, a spell to help the gangly control their limbs, clear the skin, learn to love, break up, love again. You made us resilient. Radiant. Resplendent in our youth.
I want to go out in the garden and name every twig, leaf, caterpillar and beetle, worm and blackbird, herb and bulb and flower, the bucket by the waterbutt full of comfrey, and the tin bath that my dad was bathed in. The little pyramid for growing beans, the bamboo sticks and the empty compost bags. Every eggshell, banana peel and apple core in the compost, every squiggly creature, slug and snail, woodlouse and millipede, the trowel, the spade, and the cutters so stiff with rust. The rose and the bindweed, the paving stones and the decking, the sun and the rain, the broken fence with the hole at the bottom where hedgehogs and badgers may freely roam, and everything else that is all around and so quickly forgotten. See the butterflies. I name you, Opal Whiteley, the small blue.
She stored so much stuff in her attic: tin openers, a spare kettle, a toaster, and would have shared them gladly with you. She took me to her neighbour once. Her neighbour was blind, put her hands on my face. She saved up for a house without her husband knowing, put down the deposit and presented him with the key. They had sweets in eggcups at Christmas, and there was usually snow, and the grey crackle of radio. Birds still leave their prints on the path. * When grandmothers die, the world is colder. Gone are days spent cocooned in jumpers woven with love. Wardrobes of scarves recoil in waves, needles prickle with grief. When my grandmother died I held her. My mother watched with weary eyes, just as she’d watched her mother hold me the day I breathed my first. When my grandmother died, her hands stopped first, the wizened skin always restless, shaking, making, coming to a rest. I stroked her palm, imagined her liver spots revealed her future, a map for the path she had now had to hobble without my arm to guide her. I memorised the pattern. One day, I’ll meet her there. Ruth Yates and Nasim Rebecca Asl
Suggested writing prompts:
1) Write a letter to your imaginary (or real) daughter. What advice would you give them about things like money, self-worth, plumbing and sandwiches? Or write about ‘accounts of growing up, unexpected emergencies, a few poems, some light stories to make you laugh and some to make you meditate’ (Angelou, Letter to my Daughter, px,2012).
2) Choose five people you admire. They could be alive or dead, activists or writers or family members. Write a poem in homage to them, like Maya Angelou’s ‘Ailey, Baldwin, Floyd, Killens and Mayfield’. You could write about one person per stanza, or merge it all together like a collage.