Monday, 22 September 2014

The Writer Outside: The Rise of The Uncatergorisable

  


The Writer Outside:
 The Rise of The Uncatergorisable
Edit of an original commission from The Society Of Authors
By Salena Godden

 I begin writing this in a beige hotel room in downtown Chicago. I came here to make a BBC radio programme about the lost legacy of Little Miss Cornshucks, an obscure blues singer and performer from the 1940s. It is an uncanny coincidence, and worth noting, that Richard Wright, author of one of my all-time-favourite American novels, The Outsider, lived here in Chicago too. And, as I sit at this hotel room desk, working on the script for my programme and mulling over this commission, the title and theme, both pieces seem somehow connected. What is an outsider? What is it that outsiders have in common? Is it that they are vulnerable, undiscovered or simply misunderstood? Like Cross Damon, the hero of Richard Wright’s novel, or like Little Miss Cornshucks, and come to think of it, like all the writers and poets that make the work I love.

Let me briefly take you back to 1940's Chicago and tell you just a little bit about Little Miss Cornshucks - She’s the greatest blues singer you never heard of and she put the teardrop in Try A Little Tenderness. In the days when black American jazz and blues singers bore elegance and grace – think of Dinah Washington or Billie Holiday in satin gloves and evening dress – there was Mildred Cummings from Ohio, aka Little Miss Cornshucks, standing on stage in bloomers with bare feet, dressed like a deep-south country girl, with a ripped straw hat. During her heyday she was top of the bill at notorious speakeasies like The Delisa Club and The Rhumboogie. She performed to integrated ‘black and tan’ audiences, a mix of rich and poor, from Hollywood stars like Mickey Rooney and Frank Sinatra to factory workers. Even if it wasn’t intentional, her evocative costume and cute and comical act must have reminded some in the audience of their own humble beginnings, while also provoking some white members of the crowd to check their prejudice and privilege. This would have the audience enraptured and in peels of laughter. And it was then, just as she had the audience in the palm of her hand, she’d sing her heart out. She’d walk to the edge of the stage, sit and swing her bare feet, and sing the opening lines of her inimitable version of Try A Little Tenderness. Her voice silenced the room – some girls they do get teary – as she boldly shared her pain and vulnerability, and as she sat there wearing that same old shabby dress. Now here we are in 2014. Dinah Washington is on a postage stamp but who remembers Little Miss Cornshucks? By all accounts Mildred Cummings was unique and sassy but she wasn’t lucky. She wasn’t savvy, nor successful in protecting herself from sharks and other pitfalls of life and show business. She died penniless and practically forgotten – in other words like a true outsider.

Little Miss Cornshucks
It occurs to me, and not for the first time, that the outsider is who we all want to be, that the outside is the cool place. Outsiders document our times and narrate our present from a clear perspective that is unsullied by fashion and ahead of the zeitgeist. As I write this I can conjure a romantic image of an outsider writer in a dusty garret, she guzzles cheap red wine with blue stained lips and bad teeth, writing with the last nub of pencil by candlelight. There is no money on the outside. There is very little applause. There are no lists or prizes.
Yet, I always believed that the outside is where the good work lives, with its hunger and raw truth, bold heart and brave soul. Writers that have some spice and kick, that find a voice of their own and walk in a path they carve for themselves – in the footprints they got big enough to fill with their own perseverance and sass. Yes, these writers, artists and musicians, the ones that fit in no category, the trailblazers. They are out there to be discovered - they are not stocked at the airport bookshops. And in my experience, those people write the books that stay in your heart, the poetry and lyrics that tattoo your memories.


Portrait, 1994 by Olivia Rutherford
From my first gig in 1994 I understood that I would have to work hard, that I would probably starve and have holes in my shoes. I was just twenty years old and I was prepared for isolation, that I would have very little interest or time for children or marriage, for my own health or safety, and I signed up for a lifetime of hustling and hard knocks. I have worked in schools for many years, mainly for the First Story charity who champion creative writing and literary talent in disadvantaged secondary schools. There in the classrooms I meet teenagers and the next generation. I observe the difference between the young writer who wants to know how to 'make money like J. K. Rowling' and the student who writes because she has to and wants to, for herself and for the joy of the process. Here then, is where the writer begins life as an outsider. Not writing for an audience, not reading books for homework, not aiming for prizes, but coming to life inside the discovery of books and finding your own voice and forging your own path.
I was delighted to discover that Kate Tempest has been nominated for the Mercury prize. I love Kate, she is a great voice and huge talent, she has put the graft in and worked hard. I hope she gets all the credit she deserves, as a woman, as a poet and as a beautiful old soul. Every time I hear her new album played on BBC 6Music I feel like I can hear poets up and down the country shouting at the wireless "We told you poetry was good! For fucks sake! We told you poetry wasn't for pussies!" I just hope we hear more diversity on the radio now, more women, more guts and more colour. I am amused when I read journalists confused with finding the correct wording, the right category and a neat box for the likes of Kate Tempest. One journalist wrote the headline the rise of the uncatergorisable. And I love that and I say Bravo! Viva! Bring on The rise of the diverse! The rise of the mighty uncatergorisable! To begin with there's Chimene Sulyman's outstanding debut poetry collection 'Outside Looking On' which arrived with Influx Press this month. I'm looking forward to Joelle Taylor's debut poetry collection launching with Burning Eye Books in October. Most mornings I'm here at 4am, starting work, making lists, writing. And I am inspired and excited by new diverse work emerging from my personal favourites like Nikesh Shukla, MC Angel and the Lyrically Challenged Collective, Anthony Anaxagorou, Niven Govinden, Oli Spleen,  Lail Arad and Sabrina Mahfouz to name just a few off the top of my head. Click on their names, follow them on twitter, just trust me you will not be disappointed or bothering yourself with wasting time finding category, its about the work, the writing and the voice.
Poetry will always be the great outsider. For some it is something to be avoided because it can be a bit of work, a bit difficult and inaccessible. I think audiences get put off by the elitism that attaches itself to the form. Personally I cannot do cats or cupcakes, but that's just me, I like poetry that burns the throat and hits me hard. Poetry is confused by its many guises: performance poetry, spoken word, punk poetry, rant poetry, slam poetry, hip hop and rap. I am often frustrated by the names and labels used to identify me and my work – I don’t really feel I really fit into any of these boxes, ‘black poet’ or ‘feminist poet’ or even ‘performance poet’ - These boxes are limiting. So what do I call myself? I’m Jamish – that’s my own name for a mix of Jamaican and Irish and British. When I was at school my classmates debated my blackness right to my face. They argued over the shade of me, whether I was black-black like a Nigger or brown-black like a Paki – it was important for them to get the insult right. I was made to feel I wasn’t black enough to be black or white enough to be white. I remember I used to stick up for myself:  I am not half-caste, I am not half anything, I am a whole me

All of these labels we use just take me back to that school playground, creating gangs and alliances so that everyone knows whether you have been elected to fit in or not and then lists appear to cement these boxes. Writing this I am reminded of the mantra of the Jamaican Maroons (some of my Jamaican ancestors were Maroon, the rebels that fought the British and began the uprising and the beginning of the end of slavery, but that's a whole other blog...) I have read that the Maroon people believed they should never bow head or knee, to hear only their own voice, to stand in the shadow of none and to be masters of their own destiny. And so what else could this writer ever be but a bit of a rebel with a sense of living on the outside. I look forward to a day we can publish and read books and poetry without  labels and boxes. I think they distract from the actual work, from the discipline and the guts required to live the writing life. Truth is wherever you come from, writing hurts, if you are doing it right. And as writers we all know there is a great beauty in the solitude of creativity, the being alone is where the good work blossoms. 
 The Outsider - I can picture you now, you are sitting and swinging your legs on the edge of the stage just like Little Miss Cornshucks, singing your heart out, sharing your stories, writing those wonderful words, giving everybody a glimpse of your world from the outside.

(c) Salena Godden 
New edit from an original commission by The Society Of Authors 
Published in 'The Author' Summer Edition 2014



 Salena Godden's 'Fishing in The Aftermath / Poems 1994  -2014' is a collection of over 80 poems to celebrate 20 years of poetry and performance, it was published in July 2014 with Burning Eye, it is available in all good bookshops or you can order it online HERE.  My literary memoir 'Springfield Road' has arrived! I have been so overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of my subscribers, I posted some of fantastic first reactions and photos on my tumblr HERE. 'Springfield Road' officially hits the shops on September 30th 2014 with Unbound. The 'Springfield Road' ebook is available HERE and the London book launch is on October 1st - Please scroll down for all my wicked Autumn gig dates and parties. Lastly 'Try A Little Tenderness – The Lost Legacy of Little Miss Cornshucks' was originally aired throughout May 2014 on BBC Radio 4. It will be broadcast globally on the BBC World Service four times this week: Wednesday September 24th at 03.32 / 14.32am / 23.32am  and Saturday September 28th at 11.32 GMT. When you tune in please follow the programme with this brilliant storify HERE
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Happy scrumping and conkering! sgxx

 
Happy 80th Birthday Leonard Cohen
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Autumn 2014: Radio & Gigs & Festivals & Parties

September 22nd:

September 24th:
various times / BBC World Service

September 26/28th:
with Kevin Eldon, Robin Ince, Francesca Martinez and more...

September 28th:
19.30 / BBC World Service

September 30th:

October 1st:

October 2nd:
Robertson Street and The Carlisle, Hastings.

October 3rd:
with Clive Anderson, Arthur Smith and Benjamin Zephaniah 

October 8th:
with Shami Chakrabarti, Chimene Sulyman, Laura Bates...
  
October 10th:

October 11th: 

October 22nd: 
with Tim Wells, Laura Bolger, Keith Jarrett and Emily Berry

October 28th: 

November 5th:
The Book Club Boutique / Bonfire night Burning Eye party

November 22/23rd:
Cosmic Trigger with Daisy Campbell, Liverpool