Creative, Culture, Interview, Literature, Profile

The rhythmic life and work of poet Malika Booker

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Malika Booker’s childhood dream was to be a dancer. But according to her, she didn’t have the chops to achieve it due to her lack of rhythm: “When someone goes 1, 2, 3 or 5, 4, 3, I’m like uh, uh and I trip up.” 

The irony of this is that Booker’s entire catalogue of award-winning poetry and short stories is filled to the brim with movement and rhythm. Whether it is the constant change of setting and language in Pepper Seed or her exciting past that inspires her own poetry, rhythm is embedded throughout most of Booker’s work. 

After speaking to Booker about her background, it became obvious as to why most of her work seems to be based around movement. From the age of thirteen, she moved from her homeland of Grenada to Britain and stayed with her aunt. While she stayed in Britain, her mother and brothers moved to Guyana, and then to the United States. What most may view as a stressful and overwhelming venture in their life, Booker views as a gift that has enabled her to write many fantastical tales of travel and adventure. 

When a student in a recent Q&A asked, “How can poetry help black people like me, in the diaspora, to be more in touch with their roots?”, Booker explained that it is important to be proud of the diversity of one’s background. In reference to herself, Booker went on to say, “All I saw was the spaces of stories in that journey. There is a uniqueness to capturing that movement from the mother country to the diaspora. There’s always been a history of movement, so as a writer just trying to capture that is interesting.” 

This sense of rhythm and movement can be found in most of Booker’s work. Her classic collection Pepper Seed features a multitude of locations that highlight her colourful and varied life. From her brother’s home of Brooklyn to her home country of Grenada and her teenage years in Brixton, there are a plethora of interesting settings in the collection. Booker vividly brings these places to life through her concise use of language which accurately reflects each setting.  

What makes Booker such a standout writer is her ability to seamlessly walk the fine line between heart-breaking trauma and hopeful optimism. This talent is clearly acknowledged by French Poet Pascale Petit who told Boca News, “Malika Booker’s poems are raw as chili peppers rubbed into a wound, but what enthralls is the way she delivers her narratives in rapturous language that has the power to heal. This is poetry as revelation and prayer.”

A lot of this talent is present in Booker’s most recent poem ‘The Little Miracles’, which has recently been awarded the prestigious Forward Prize for Poetry. It is a heart-warming poem that focuses on Booker and her siblings as they nurse their ailing mother. Booker manages to create a deeply personal vignette through the emotive language and Caribbean Creole of her sympathetic mother: “Maliks, please stop the cat-wailing before/ you voice mek rain fall, and look how the weather nice/ outside eh.”  

When asked about the anxieties of releasing such revealing texts about her family, Booker said, “When the book [Pepper Seed] first came out I thought, ‘My God! My mother is going to read this and all of my family’s business is going to be all in this book.’ Then she [Booker’s mother] said, ‘This is great! You should have written about this! And Aunty did this!’” It really seems that an appreciation for creativity and the arts is embedded in Booker’s DNA. 

While Booker has an appreciation for rhythm and being on the move, she also likes to slow things down. She said, “I think a lot of times as artists we’re going through the fast life. We’re looking for stillness, so we can just kind of process things to be able to create the art.” Reasons like this are why she’s been coping so well with Covid. It’s given her the opportunity to indulge in her favourite pastime, an activity she believes is the best way for poets to improve and evolve: reading.

Booker put it best when she said, “I would be a demonically, crazy choreographer. If I did choreography with dance, people would say ‘who is she?’”. Even though she may not have rhythm on the dance floor she has a great understanding of it. She is like a master choreographer and her poems are the dancers. She is a seasoned veteran who knows exactly what is needed to set the stage on fire.

About the author / 

Sean Carroll

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