Last week we proudly released the new collection from Keith Jarrett – Selah. Here he is to talk more about the book and the poetry world beyond…
So, we are thrilled that Selah has been unleashed into the world. It’s been a long time coming and you’ve had other projects running alongside. It is a concise collection, every piece is incredibly powerful.
How was the editing process for you?
I’m also thrilled to have this finally out! Thank you.
It was an interesting editing process. I finished an early first draft of the whole collection maybe two, three years ago? But then I won a pamphlet award and had to put together some poems for that, so Selah was put on hold for a while. A year later, my writing style – and what I wanted to write about – had changed. I culled a lot of the early poems, but then I added more that I’d been writing in the meanwhile.
I got rid of more, after sending them to friends I trust for their honest opinions. I wanted some of my spoken word pieces to work better on the page for people who have never heard them. I’m used to writing three minute poems; on paper, that’s potentially five pages of repetition and digression without the rhythm of performance to navigate the reader through it.
I gave half of the remaining draft – the poems that weren’t working for me yet – to Hannah Lowe to look over; she’s a fantastic poet and editor but, crucially, had never seen me perform. We spent an afternoon talking through things like structure and layout. One major thing I took away from it was that most of my poems could end a stanza early; I have a habit of trying to wrap things up neatly.
Finally, I sent a draft to Burning Eye and Harriet Evans, the copy editor, went over everything with a fine tooth comb, looking at all the punctuation and grammar and, unfortunately, the copyright issues, which meant I had to change a few song references. Once all that was done, I pestered Malika Booker for approval! She’s one of the most nurturing, brilliant poets I know. She again flagged up a couple of things that didn’t work and wrote a beautiful foreword, which ended up on the back cover.
Selah, as you elaborate in the book has a transcendent meaning, in the poem of the same name, the structure is continual, there seems to be no space to stop and consider until the end. It stands out both visually and in rhythm from other pieces in the book. Was this poem the foundation for the collection or did Selah become the title for the collection later?
Selah’s always been a word I’ve been drawn to, for all of the possibilities of meaning it contains. It crossed my mind a long time ago to name the collection Selah but I worried it might sound vague or too religious – and a quick internet search on the word digs up some questionable stuff. Once I’d written the Psalms poems – and once I got over my worries about how they might be read – I couldn’t think of a better title for it. If there’s one thing that links all the pieces, it is that questioning of belonging and place in the world, that ‘stop and consider’ space.
The poem ‘Selah’ has a different journey. It had no title for ages. I wrote it at the end of an actual protest, after wondering what I was doing there, and what I was doing as a writer and as a human – a real existential crisis. Once I’d put together a few poems for the book, I returned to ‘Selah’ and started to see a musicality in the relentlessness of that particular poem. The lack of breathing space is the point of it; it became a litany of all the themes I’d been working through. It goes from religion to sex via R. Kelly(!) and activism and, most of all, my own humorous take on it. The continuous stream, a column of justified words, is a moment of letting go. ‘Selah’ was the only name I could give it, after all of that.
You recently joined Dean Atta and Phoenix Fagbutt at the Black Flamingo Open Studio – how did that go?
The event was great! Dean was doing a residency at Tate Britain with a visual artist, Ben Connors, and I was invited to take part in the closing event along with Phoenix. It was a mixture of dance, drag, poetry, performance… all good things.
It was a very mixed crowd. There were, of course, people there specifically to see us, but then there were others who just strolled in from the gallery and were curious about what we were doing, and that was fantastic. Most of them stayed and I had a great few conversations after. I don’t get enough of a chance to perform in visual arts spaces, but I hope that’s about to change!
It was also the first outing for Selah. I’d literally just had a box of Selahs delivered to my flat the day I went over to the Tate, so I marched them over that afternoon! I think there’s a copy of the book still there at the Open Studio, alongside plenty of other books, mainly by LGBT+ poets of colour, and you’ll be able to flick through them there until the 16th, I think. Oh, and there’s also some copies of the Black Flamingo zine there… I have a poem in it, and there’s a mixture of other poetry and art included.
As a queer person of colour writing poetry, it may be important to have visibility and inject those n narratives into wider contexts, especially in the poetry world. Do you have any advice for young LBGTQI writers of colour?
First and foremost, you’re not alone, no matter how isolated you may feel. There’s a community out there – reach for it, even if it’s just online. Follow other queer writers of colour on social media. Speak to them! Most importantly, though, as cheesy as it sounds, I’d say you have to write your truth. As someone who also writes fiction, that statement is especially strong. You can reinvent yourself through writing, and you can present visions of the world that offer new possibilities, so don’t be afraid to do that. If what you’re writing scares you a little, you’re probably going down the right path.
Also don’t get hung up on what you think you ought to be writing, on what other people’s idea of ‘black’ or ‘queer’ or [insert label] says you should be writing. You can move beyond that. But when you do, try to bring other people along with you to share your success, to work collaboratively. It can be lonely when you feel you’re the only person doing what you’re doing. That burden of ‘representing’ doesn’t belong to you. You cannot be the spokesperson for your community.
Finally, a lot of people struggle to fit more than one idea into their heads (and that’s partly where the whole ‘page’ vs ‘stage’ poetry debate has often found itself – with some people believing it’s a crime to write well and ‘perform’ a poem). At some point, you may feel you’re being pigeonholed or tokenised by people who don’t understand that you’re a whole person and not just whichever bit of your identity they want to latch onto. Find other people who can accept you as a complete person and keep them close. Write them into your world.
(Check out this interview with Keith and Toby Campion on queer poetry for Penguin Pride, Gay Times magazine.)
Finally, where can people see you and buy your book? Do you have any plans for a tour or adventuring outside of London soon?
I have a few gigs all over the place in the next couple of months, but I’m mostly bound to London where I live, study and do most of my work. That said, I’m in Hastings on Thursday for a new spoken word night, Shebang, and I’m in Basingstoke on the 28th for Come Rhyme with Me. On the 4th July I’ll be in Huddersfield at a school.. and I’m always happy to meet fellow poets and poetry lovers wherever I am.
I have a few London gigs coming up… the next one is Jazz Verse Jukebox on the 16th, at Hoxton Hall. I try to keep my blog up to date, at least the bit which lists all my gigs, so you can check that out: zoneonetosix.blogspot.com.
Outside of that, check the Burning Eye website for copies of Selah, or you can drop me an email to get a signed copy, or ask your local bookseller to stock it. Even better, do all the above!