Connecting Medium

Written by Janet Phillips for Poetry News on

Dorothea Smartt’s first collection of poetry, Connecting Medium, was published by Peepal Tree this summer and marked by a chic and funky launch party and reading at a club in Piccadilly. For Dorothea, quite a bit of the evening passed in a blur of excitement. She is very happy to have her book finished. Coming six years after her first poetry commission, it is another milestone passed for a poet who, despite having a strong drive to critically assess and develop her writing, says she might never have written at all if it hadn’t been for the fact that she was missing her sister.

Dorothea was born in London and grew up in Battersea. Her parents came to London from Barbados in the 1950s. Many of the poems in Connecting Medium explore both the Barbadian heritage and the experience of growing up in London, with both confidence: 'Your coming made me // a different kinda Essex girl, / the kinda Blackwoman / the world ain’t seen yet' ... and confusion at Clapham Junction: '...Stood... / looking at the largest / railway junction in the world / with a train passing / every three minutes / Wondering where to go'. Some of the poems are written in what Dorothea calls her 'London voice', others in the 'Bajan voice' [Barbadian voice] of her childhood.

'I learnt to speak English from my parents, who speak in a very particular way. So I use language in a very particular way, and I always say to people, poetry saved my Bajan voice', she says. 'It used to be something I was embarrassed out of, but it’s the voice that I love, it stops me in my tracks even now. With the Medusa poems [of which more later], I was really struggling to put those poems together. I was trying to do it with my London voice until at one point I tried them in a Bajan voice and it just fell into place. In some ways it’s the voice of my childhood, my primary voice. I wanted to save it, I didn’t want to lose that way of expressing myself'.

When Dorothea’s sister left home at the age of 18, Dorothea began to use a diary as a means of dealing with the loneliness. 'It became a place for writing and exploring my feelings - and at that time I think I wrote one of my first conscious poems. I didn’t have anyone to talk to - it was very upsetting when she left, we were very close. So I should acknowledge her for my getting into poetry'. Then, Dorothea’s involvement with the Black Women’s Movement in the eighties presented some early opportunities for writing. 'It was in my politics to articulate the Black woman’s experience, my experience. In the early eighties the feminist movement gave validity to doing that kind of thing', she explains. She worked for local groups and Black Women’s co-operatives in Brixton, helping out, organising newsletters, writing book reviews and theatre reviews. She didn’t think of publishing poetry until some of the women she worked with got her involved in performance, and her poetry was incorporated into a live art piece performed at Brixton Art Gallery. Then Black Women Talk, a small publishing collective, decided to put an anthology together and asked her to submit some work. A couple of her poems were subsequently published in the anthology which also included work from Jackie Kay and Bernadine Evaristo. Similar invitations followed, with the result that she was published fairly widely, quite early on. The performances continued with invitations to read at benefits and women’s events.

Her solo performance work, Medusa, a combination of poetry and visuals, began to take on a life of its own. Inspired by cleverly combining this myth with a Black woman’s experience through hair-dressing (Dorothea was once called 'medusa' at school because of her hair-style) the work got her her first commission at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (with Sherlee Mitchell) in London and is now the subject of academic study in the US. A paper was given on it at the 2000 Black British Writers Symposium in Washington, D.C. 'I sat in the audience taking notes', says Dorothea, chuckling. 'Then I thought, Dorothea, this is too weird, you’re writing down things that you’ve said!'
The ICA commission gave Dorothea space and time to look seriously and critically at her writing. Luckily, at around the same time, the agency Spread the Word were starting up the first Afro-Style school workshops with Kwame Dawes as tutor. 'I already knew I could perform', says Dorothea. 'I had a voice which made people sit up and listen. But I was concerned that my poems should stand on the page on their own without me. The Afro-Style School changed the way that I wrote. It broadened me out and made me engage with form. I’d always thought that that would inhibit my particular voice, but through the school I found that it didn’t. It was important to discover that I could use this stuff as well, it didn’t belong to other people. Also I realised that a lot of these forms came out of oral tradition in the first place, so it suited me'.

'Kwame was really well versed in Afro-caribbean poetry, African American poetry, traditions in African poetry... He validated my work. Jacob Ross of Saks media (which runs Writers’ Hotspots courses) played a part too. Jacob was a wonderful workshop leader, and he contextualised my work for me - he placed it in among a whole stream of voices that are coming out of the African-Caribbean Diaspora'.

It was through Kwame Dawes that Dorothea got to know about the work of Peepal Tree press, and with his encouragement, eventually sent Jeremy Poynting, the director, her manuscript. 'I went to see him with my penultimate draft', she says, 'and he just said, read it to me'. Through this process they identified poems that needed more work or poems which didn’t fit in. Dorothea is careful to acknowledge the people who have helped her, in particular Kwame Dawes and Bernardine Evaristo, who read early drafts of the book.

Several poems which came out of Dorothea’s Poetry Places work at Brixton market appear in Connecting Medium. Her brief for the placement (set up by the Poetry Society) was to explore the market, its history and people, and come up with a series of poems for National Poetry Day. Food features prominently, as you would expect, and so does hair. 'I had to do a poem about hair,' she says. 'This is one of my main interests, my themes, if you like, and I feel I’ve got so much more to say about it. It resonates so much around the Diaspora. It really strikes a chord - other black women know exactly what you’re talking about. It may well be the subject of my next collection'.

Now a part-time lecturer on creative writing at Birkbeck College, Dorothea has been a visiting writer at Florida International University, run workshops for Survivors’ Poetry, Apples and Snakes and Spread the Word, and has recently joined the poetryclass teacher-training team.