The two poems featured here by the multi-talented Inua Ellams take us through London streets at night. Directions (after Billy Collins’ poem. Please read this before you read Inua’s) is a hand-on-our-shoulder poem, talking to us as a friend familiar with the poet’s home (‘you know the wild bush at the back of the flat/the one that scrapes the kitchen window’).
The poem was written in response to Billy Collins’, closely following his structure, tone, line breaks and mirroring his epiphany. Where Collins’ Directions takes us into the beauty of nature: high up ‘you will eventually come to a long stone/ridge with a border of pine trees/which is as high as you can go’, Inua’s is rooted in a deep urban setting where your journey takes you ‘to a rough rise/of stairs that reach without railings/the run-down roof’. Nature is there but it ‘struggles for soil and water/and fails where the train tracks scar the ground?’
If we are lucky (‘if this is your day’) with Billy Collins we ‘might even/spot a hare or feel the wing-beats of geese/driving overhead toward some destination.’ It is open, free. Whereas if it is our day on Inua’s journey, ‘we might even/catch a car chase or hear a horde/of biker boys thunder-cross a bridge’. The enormity and permanence of nature with Collins is life-giving, for all its brevity, but with Inua, nature and people are transformed and conquered by ‘the shudder of progress’; this is a ‘sculpted landscape’, where the ‘moon fights through drifts of fumes’ with ‘bruised allotments’ and ‘filth-stained fallen leaves’.
If you were wondering how Inua knows the streets of London so well, particularly at night, he is co-founder of The Midnight Run, where creatives ‘interact with the city, to respond to it by making art based on (thereby documenting) experiences.
Directions is the second ever poem Inua wrote (three years ago) in the #Afterhours format, which he is now taking further at the Poetry Library, where all of the poems will be British. Inua explains: “#Afterhours is a poetry project in which I rewrite my childhood through the lens and language of British Poetry published between the years 1984 and 2002, from when I was born to when I turned 18. The Poetry Library is the perfect organisation to work with. They have a vast inclusive collection and I can engage with poets and lovers of poetry who visit their digital and physical spaces.”
Below, Inua performs his poem Lovers, Liars, Conjurors and Thieves, which takes us through the avenue of South London from Elephant & Castle to Peckham via Camberwell (no. 171 bus if you want to relive it). This is an area I know well. When my one year old son couldn’t sleep, we used to look out the window of our top floor flat, at the end of the Walworth Road, and watch the ‘cliché hell’ of Camberwell. Listen to the cracking sounds of the opening stanza and then the music of the words and band behind.
Inua Ellams is an award winning poet, playwright, performer and graphic artist; a writer with a style influenced by classic literature and hip hop, by Keats as it is by MosDef. Rooted in a love for rhythm and language, he crosses 18th century romanticism and traditional story telling with contemporary diction, loose rhythm and rhyme. His publications include, poetry: Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars, 13 Fairy Negro Tales; and Plays, Black T-Shirt Collection and Cape.
(after Billy Collins)
You know the wild bush at the back of the flat,
the one that scrapes the kitchen window,
the one that struggles for soil and water
and fails where the train tracks scar the ground?
And you know how if you leave the bush
and walk the stunted land, you come
to crossroads, paved just weeks ago:
hot tar over the flattened roots of trees,
and a squad of traffic lights, red-eyed now
stiff against the filth-stained fallen leaves?
And farther on, you know
the bruised allotments with the broken sheds
and if you go beyond that you hit
the first block of Thomas Street Estate?
Well, if you enter and ascend, and you
might need a running jump over
dank puddles into the shaking lift
that goes no further than the fourth floor,
you will eventually come to a rough rise
of stairs that reach without railings
the run-down roof as high as you can go
and a good place to stop.
The best time is late evening
when the moon fights through
drifts of fumes as you are walking,
and when you find an upturned bin
to sit on, you will be able to see
the smog pour across the city
and blur the shapes and tones
of things and you will be attacked
by the symphony of tires, airplanes,
sirens, screams, engines –
and if this is your day you might even
catch a car chase or hear a horde
of biker boys thunder-cross a bridge.
But it is tough to speak of these things
how tufts of smog enter the body
and begin to wind us down,
how the city chokes us painfully against
its chest made of secrets and fire,
how we, built of weaker things, regard
our sculpted landscape, water flowing
through pipes, the clicks of satellites
passing over clouds and the roofs
where we stand in the shudder of progress
giving ourselves to the vast outsides.
Still, text me before you set out.
Knock when you reach my door
and I will walk you as far as the tracks
with water for your travels and a hug.
I will watch after you and not turn back
to the flat till you merge
with the throngs of buses and cyclists –
heading down toward the block,
scuffing the ground with your feet.