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© The Poetry Society
BiographyKeith Jarrett is a poet, fiction writer and educator from London. His poetry addresses issues including identity, race and sexuality and takes its power from a sense of inquiry rather than polemic. He is a former UK Poetry Slam Champion and won the International Slam Championship at FLUPP in Rio in 2014. His play, Safest Spot in Town, was performed at the Old Vic and on BBC Four in 2017 as part of the Queers series. Jarrett runs workshops and has performed at and co-ordinated poetry festivals in Spanish and English, in the UK and abroad. His debut poetry pamphlet I Speak Home was published by Eyewear in 2015. This was followed by a full-length collection Selah (Burning Eye Books, 2017). Jarrett was named as a Spread the Word LGBT Hero in 2017.
A poetry show Identity Mix-Up debuted at Edinburgh Fringe in 2013 and received five star reviews. It explored Jarrett’s discomfort with labels such as African, Black, Caribbean and so on:
“It was a fun interactive show which came out of me frustrated by being labelled but as the show goes on and in fact as I continue developing the show I realise that it’s a very privileged person who can say ‘I don’t want to be labelled anymore, I’m transcending, I’m a world citizen’ – my friend Fernando in the Dominican Republic, try getting into an airport saying he’s a world citizen so he can come visit me. Try telling the people who have been killed by police in the States ‘oh I’m not black!’” (From ‘A Bit of Talk’ conversation with Hannah Silva)
Much of Jarrett’s work explores the nuances of identity. ‘A Gay Poem’ has become such a showpiece for him that Jarrett has even parodied it himself in performances. It was originally written before a show when asked if he had “a gay poem”. The self-referential piece starts by showing the absurdity of asking such a question but it goes on to rebel against the author:
the more you try to clip my words
and stifle my expression
the more I know it’s you, not me
who should be called into question.
Such complex pieces are typical of Jarrett and marry with his “astonishingly practised delivery and his inclusive manner” (Sabotage Reviews). Jarrett’s easy warmth and charisma primes the audience for a breadth of content and pitch, bridging personal and political issues, the comic and the tragic.
Jarrett often adapts poems for the page because of the difference in the relationship between the reader and the poem and the audience and the poet. I Speak Home has an epigraph from Audre Lorde quote on the importance of speaking, an urge which drives this pamphlet:
and because a lecturer once told me that dictionaries are graveyards for words
because writing is forgetting to live because a tongue births
new meanings with each breath with each twist
and sounds shift mouth to mouth
because of this I am writing my words down
to bury my silence.
(‘Ventriloquism (Brompton Cemetery, November 2013)’)
But identity is also complicated by language: “I have three or four tongues in my mouth / and they work out several times a week (‘Forked Tongue II’). Jarrett can be melancholic but he retains humour and playfulness, using puns, juxtapositions and breaks to juggle multiple meanings and registers. ‘Poem Poems’ sends itself up:
one brow so high it tickles the feet of angels,
who snort mirthfully through clenched noses
But at the same time it delivers chilling indictments about the state of the UK. I Speak Home is itself a clever title, combining several senses; to express yourself and your background, to communicate with some home we are separated from, to deliver or ‘hit home’. The complicated and conflicted senses of home can be seen in the surreal and joyous ‘E17’, which opens:
But there is a burning microwave,
on a Wednesday, the size of a drive-thru McDonald’s
and in that microwave is an excited Walthamstow
except Walthamstow is made out of Fruit Pastilles
and when you offer it out to the whole of McDonald’s
nobody wants the orange one
everybody wants the dark green one
and a fight breaks out in the car park.
Celebration is central to Jarrett’s poetry. The first poem in Selah is ‘Acknowledgements’ and it addresses “We who have survived”, “We who never take for granted. We who stand in love and in fury and in power.” ‘Selah’ is a Hebrew word which appears in the Psalms and can be variously (but inexactly) translated as ‘stop and consider’, or dance, or silence. Certainly for Jarrett it is a word of praise, an exclamation, a stop, an acknowledgement. The breathless, breakless title poem litanises all the violence, shame, difficulty, hope and persistence of this collection.
There are poems here which explore family and inheritance, but also those which speak to a wider colonial history. ‘Sweet Thing’ was written for Black History Month. The poem describes the violent reality of the sugar trade “entire nations built on bend-back blade […]” “while the swell of cane propels ships around the refined world”, while the text going vertically down on the right is a quote from Narrative: Sugar from the West Indies: “Sugar provides the sparkle as well as the taste in champagne.” It’s a racism which still shapes our society.
‘Backwards (After a Drowning)’ reverses the form of Wallace Stevens’s ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ to address the tragic and iconic image of a child who was drowned while seeking refuge. The poem has an epigraph from the far-right baiting hatemonger Katie Hopkins which called migrants “cockroaches”. ‘Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’ uses footnotes and marginalia to escape the jingoistic rhythm of the taunt, using a hyper-reasonable tone to engage with the meaning of the racial taunt:
Furthermore, it would be expedient to re-orient
problematisation of flags and colour representation
into the wider discourse of (sub)liminal space
being cautious of those who seek finial solutions.
There are several ‘Psalms’ in Selah:
They say my language is borrowed
was never returned
tambourine skin can’t fix again
send me a chorus, Lord.
(‘Psalms 133: A Song of Accents’)
The form of a psalm allows for a personal, tender address – and for hope:
I know things will become clear with time:
whether I will lap it with my tongue
or sing it as a psalm.
Something has lifted
(‘Making Light: Absence (Epilogue)’).
Jarrett was brought up in the Pentecostal church (“on Sundays, I swap my F words for hallelujahs / there, they call me Dat Bwoy is Bless, you know!”) and he researches Caribbean migration to London and hybrid identity through the history of Oneness Pentecostal churches. Religion is clearly an important subject for Jarrett, but he is never dogmatic. ‘When the Roll is Called’ repeats an image from an earlier poem of someone playing the children’s hand game “here is the church and here is the steeple / open the doors […]”. The poem expresses the need for openness – as individuals and in communities:
this is the time for high scores and broad churches
and minds stretched out to breaking point across
Waterloo Bridge, while the congregation is singing
from the same hymn book […]
At the heart of Selah, and Jarrett’s work in general, is an understanding of the need to sing, to dance, to celebrate, to speak – not in ignorance of pain, but because praise and celebration give us the impetus to continue to move forward.
Keith Jarrett’s website
Watch the poet read ‘A Gay Poem’
Video: ‘Poem Poem (3)’
A performance for Penguin Pride
A conversation: Polari Magazine
Interview – Burning Eye Books
‘A bit of talk – with Keith Jarrett’, Hannah Silva
© Emily HaslerI Speak Home (Eyewear, 2015)
Selah (Burning Eye Books, 2017)
Poems of Keith Jarrett
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère