Shameera Nair Lin talks to the National Poetry Prize winning poet Marvin Thompson about his musical inspirations, exploring British colonial violence and racism in his work, the lack of representation in nature writing and conquering poetic forms like the villanelle.
Marvin Thompson is making waves. A poet and secondary school educator born and raised in London, he currently resides in Torfaen, south Wales. More recently, he was named the winner of this year’s National Poetry Competition, with more than 7,000 writers from 95 countries taking part.
Back in January, I sat down with Thompson for a conversation about his debut poetry collection, Road Trip, published in 2020 by Peepal Tree Press. We spoke of ‘nature writing’, dual heritage, language and more over a period of ninety minutes. The conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.
When did you start writing poetry?
Like a lot kids, I listened to a lot of rap and hip hop music. I started writing poetry, I guess, by writing really bad rap lyrics. I was no good at it, not at all. I studied Electronic and Electrical Engineering at university, and I think I took that course because my dad was an electrician and I saw a brochure that discussed transistors and resistors and thought it sounded really cool. It wasn’t: I hated it – but when I should have been studying engineering, I was writing bad love poems at the age of 19. So I started off in a very bad way.
That’s the age where it’s acceptable to write bad love poems.
In terms of music, what do you like listening to?
People like Kendrick Lamar, plus a lot of UK Grime: Kano, Chip, Dave. I like lyrics, as in complex lyrics, that’s really exciting for me. I quite like storytelling in a rap. If I listen to rap, I pretend it’s like doing research or reading. I’m not really, but it’s the excuse I give myself. I’ve got loads of books on Audible. But when I’m a bit lazy, I chuck on some hip hop.
When you think about it, different traditions and forms of storytelling, be it oral or otherwise, have shaped literary culture. For instance, you write about the Anansi myth extensively in your poetry. In that sense, it works symbiotically.
Yeah, that sounds good to me!
What are your overall inspirations? Whether in life or in art.
When it comes to life in general, my mum and dad, massively. Both mum and dad came from Jamaica in the 1960s, sort of part of that Windrush generation. Seeing what they had to go through in Britain in terms of racism, quite frankly, and seeing how they struggled through that and were successful, that has given me a fighting spirit. It’s quite natural for humans to feel defeated on some days. One of the things that keeps me going is knowing what my parents went through. Having a kind of inspiration to help you keep going is important for me.
In terms of art: music again! Bob Marley, jazz by the likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. What music really connects me to is my Black culture. In my head, music is a big part of Black culture generally, but my household culture in particular. My dad listened to loads of music, and it was a real range from Michael Jackson and Miles Davis, to a country-western storyteller called Marty Robbins and the classical composer Tchaikovsky. A real, broad mix of different types of music and I’ve been able to enjoy and appreciate that throughout my life.
Recently, I got into watching dance videos, particularly dance artists on YouTube. One in particular I’m interested in is Kevin Paradox. His style is really unique, really musical. He’s almost transformed in the music. He talks about art, how to become a better dancer and artist in general, as well as the kind of frame of mind you need to produce good art.
A lot of yourself seems to be in your poetry. It sounds like a generic statement, but there is an intimate quality to putting yourself out there on paper. Am I right in thinking so, and if so, is that quite uncomfortable? How do you grapple with it?
I got into writing stories through poetry. The book is almost half semi-autobiographical and half completely fictional. The fictional things come quite easily, but I realised halfway through writing that a lot of readers like to feel a sense of autobiography, like getting insight into the poet. Then I thought, I should probably do that. And then I didn’t know how to do it, really, I didn’t want to write about myself, or my dad, or anything.
But I took a bit of a leap and wrote about my dad a little bit. He was part of the Aden Emergency in the early 60s. Now, I knew my dad was in the army and went to Aden as an electrician. What I didn’t realise was, during the Aden Emergency, there was a lot of torturing going on, so much so that the UN stepped in and said, ‘look, Britain, you’re torturing a lot of the people from Aden, stop doing it.’ When the UN turned their back, they started doing it again. So, when I found this out in 2015, initially I was shocked. But really I shouldn’t be shocked, because it’s Britain and I thought to myself, ‘What if my dad was part of that?’ I still have no idea. But I thought I’ve got to write about this. Also, it became an outlet for writing about how I feel about my dad – he passed away in 2000.
At the same time, I was listening to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children on Radio 4. It all just came together. And I thought, if Salman Rushdie could do magical realism, maybe I can as well. The point being that Gerald Oswald Archibald Thompson, from Road Trip, is my dad, but at the same time he isn’t – I couldn’t make my dad a war criminal. I couldn’t write, ‘my dad was a war criminal’ or pretend to write that. I had to make up a kind of fictional dad, so the name Gerald Oswald Archibald Thompson is a fictional name. I made it up. The initials, GOAT [Greatest of All Time] is a hint to my dad.
If I could pretend this fictional dad wasn’t my dad, I could be emotionally honest about how I feel about him, but I could pretend in my head that it’s not really him anyway. He can be in a concentration camp during the Boer War, or he can be chopping heads off during the Peterloo Massacre. He could be doing all these different things because he’s not my dad, but a fictional dad. Makes it easier, right?
That meant I could then invent two children – I’ve actually got three children – Haden and Derys, pretend they’re my real children and write emotionally honest stories that are fictional. If it was my real kids, I could never write about them.
That really clicks. When I first read ‘The Many Reincarnations of Gerald Oswald Archibald Thompson’, I wasn’t sure who the General was. Is that a kind of uncertainty you’re comfortable with?
To have your dad walk out of a mirror in a cupboard is obviously fictional. I’d like to think the reader would go, ‘ah, it’s fiction’ and this narrator is not a real narrator. It’s a great story where someone comes to life, if you’d like.
Even now, talking about it, I can see the issue. It feels autobiographical, but it’s not autobiographical. So ultimately, what is it, really?
What it does do is look at Britain’s colonial past and talk about it. All these things talked about in the poem, such as concentration camps, are a massive part of the war when Britain was fighting against the Boers in South Africa. But when you hear about concentration camps, you automatically think, ‘Germany.’ But let’s not forget that Britain was one of the first powers to use concentration camps in Boer. To me, that’s quite a disgusting warfare. What’s happened in Britain is we’ve eulogised our colonial past and we kind of go, ‘okay, there was slavery, we get it, fair enough.’ But anything else that happened is not really talked about.
A great example would be India before colonialism, where no-one spoke English. It’s not necessarily a problem, but imagine being almost forced to think, speak, dream, pray in a different language. It’s not your own language. It doesn’t hold any of your heritage at all. That to me is – oh my god, I can’t even fathom that. I can’t think how it would feel to be able to look back at your country and go, ‘crikey, we used to speak Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, all of these languages and now, many of us still speak those languages, but many still have been infected by English and our traditions aren’t what they used to be because how can they be if you’ve got a different language to speak through, and dance through, and talk through, and feel through.’ Some of the things the British Empire has done are disgusting.
As much as the poem is about my dad, it’s also a chance to say, ‘Britain, I kind of like you, but you’ve done some nasty things.’ The story has many purposes.
When I read it, I thought it was an open negotiation, not only with the individual, but the systemic ills of Empire, colonialism and its legacies. An open battle, negotiation and reconciliation, almost.
I can see that, because if I look at my dad as a representation of the Empire – and at the end of the poem, I write, ‘and my love for you / feels doomed’ – it’s to say I have the same relationship with Britain. Do I love you, or do I not love you? Just to clarify, my dad has never been, as far as I know, a war criminal.
I was struck by the honesty of your work, which is not a feeling I get as much as I’d like from other poets. Sometimes in contemporary poetry it can be about style over substance and all you really want is an openness and rawness.
I try to make most of my poems about the human subject. Other poets might want to write about mountains, politics, the environment, but I try and start with the individual human. As a reader, you’re going to get more of a connection with the work that way.
When I go and watch a film, I don’t want to watch a film about a mountain. I want to watch a film about charactersthat do stuff and go through emotional upheaval, and I can go on that journey with them. Or I can laugh at them. Or I can, you know, be sad for them.
I understand that desire to get the balance between the personal and the structural. A lot of conversation is happening now about how ‘nature writing’ is developing. Especially in ‘new nature writing’. I’m not sure how much you dabble in reading or writing within the boundaries of what is considered nature writing. Would you, first of all, identify as being part of ‘nature writing’?
As much as I wouldn’t have, in the past, called myself an ‘ecopoet’, it has to be factored in that a lot of my writing is about landscape.
I adore trees. Partly because when I was younger, I was a bit of a loner. But I also liked woodlands and forests. You can sometimes get a connection with wildlife that you may not, if you had a friend next to you, just talking to you. When you go out on a walk and you’ve got a friend with you, it’s all about human connection. When you go on a walk and it’s just you on your own, you’re trying to make and feel some kind of connection with the trees around you. God, in my perspective, is around you, and He is in the trees, in the fields, in the animals. That’s why I think I write a lot about nature and landscape: being a bit lonely as a kid, I made a connection with it.
When I read a lot of ‘nature writing’ – and I struggle with the term ‘Anglo nature writing’ – here, I’m thinking of mostly mainstream UK-based writing you would see in Waterstones – I get the sense that it’s a bit self-indulgent. That’s one thing, but it’s almost as if race is not a factor in a lot of these works. So, I wonder how you felt about racial representation and an exploration of colonialism and its history being written within these works? Do you feel a sense of ‘something must change’, and is that something that carries in your work as well?
A lot of nature poetry has forgotten about race completely. I wanna be one of the people – and that’s why I was happy to work with Poets for the Planet – just to say to anyone who’s writing, there’s diversity in all types of writing.
As a colonial subject – I say colonial subject, but my parents were colonial subjects, because when they were born, Jamaica was still part of the British Empire. Basically, what was colonialism all about? Stealing people’s land. And then, making them work the land. In Britain, the land was all about making the peasants work the land. So, land and nature are very connected to power. Those who were really rich had lots of land, which was managed and cut by the poor who were deemed worthy enough to be the gardeners. Land and colonialism, it’s all entwined. I love nature, but it has that political dimension and history which I’m very aware of.
I guess I was wondering if there was a sort of frustration involved in that, or rather, a tension with how ecopoetry is being sold.
In Britain, it seems that nature poetry is indelibly linked to Wordsworth and Keats and the Romantics. They were all white guys, which is not necessarily a problem. But if you are still linking it to that, several centuries later, that can feel like a problem. I’m not surprised in a way because a lot of my life, I see sections of our media where there isn’t really representation. You could look at it as nature poetry being another example of it. I’m not surprised at all.
One recent thing that comes to mind is one of the A-Level Music exams in Britain decided to drop the only Black composer they had on the syllabus, which was Courtney Pine, the jazz saxophonist. Although this was retracted later on, why did it happen in the first place, and why is there only one Black composer? There’s only one person of colour – why should we only be learning about music where, if it’s “worthy” of study it must be classical. What is that? It’s ridiculous.
But I’m used to living in a world where I have to negotiate my own confidence in doing things, with the idea that those who have been lauded down the centuries don’t look like me. If I’ve got to be a bit of a pioneer, or dig a bit deeper to find people who look like me, with whom I could feel more of a connection, I’ll just do that.
In Road Trip, you write this poem called ‘The Weight of the Night’. I read it again and again. First off, what made you write that?
First, there was this radio play I listened to on Radio Scotland. What happens is a bloke is summoned by his ex-girlfriend to meet her at a train station. This was 7 to 8 years ago, before the MeToo movement. At the time, I wasn’t really educated on these issues.
What happens then is she goes up to him, and says, ‘By the way, you raped me.’ And he’s like, ‘What are you talking about, I raped you?’ And she’s like, ‘You remember that game we played, where I pretend to be asleep and you do your thing, and I pretend to wake up, but I was awake the whole time? Well one night, I really was asleep. And if I was asleep, you couldn’t openly consent. So, that’s rape, right?’ It ends with her telling him that she just wanted him to know, and him acknowledging that. Again, that was before the MeToo Movement, when I wasn’t really educated on issues, but the play stuck with me.
Another thing was a month before I wrote that poem, I listened to a radio documentary about consent. As a person, you could be giving consent all the way through and at the moment, your face might express ‘stop’ without saying ‘stop’. In a male-female situation, you’ve got the female basically saying ‘stop’ and as a bloke, you’ve got to read that and go, ‘the face says stop, so stop.’
Now, maybe in a court of law she did not say stop and the person gets away with it. But in the court of the heart, it’s very nuanced when it comes to consent. It can be a point of you saying ‘yes’ only because you were coerced into saying ‘yes’. It isn’t true consent because you were pressured into saying ‘yes’.
The documentary enlightened me on that topic. The problem was, I couldn’t see myself writing it from the woman’s point of view. I didn’t feel the integrity would come through if I tried that with such a sensitive topic. I thought I’d play with perspective and the second-person ‘you’, which seemed to work better. But what I had to do as well, because it was from the man’s point of view, I felt really obligated to give women agency in the story.
Beyond the specific topic of consent: have you ever had a situation where you’ve done a bad thing, and as far as you’re concerned, it was a mistake. It’s a big mistake, but you’ve got to suffer the consequences? You want to say to the world, ‘look, I made a mistake, I’m a reformed character now, let me go.’ And the world says, ‘Tough luck. Some mistakes are just tough luck.’ That kind of sense where sometimes, where it’s a big mistake, you’ve got to live with it and no-one is going to give you a break. I wanted that kind of sense of terror and horror, but with the realisation that what she’s gone through was ten times worse.
A lot of your poetry, when I was reading it, felt like you were in a Sunday box, confessing introspectively. Do you think you’re influenced by that sort of introspective quality?
From about ten years old onwards, I didn’t have a lot of friends, which is a bit sad. What that meant was I cultivated a lot of introspection. I did a lot of things where, when people would go out with their friends to the mall, I’d go to the park and ride my bike, be on my own. I have always been an introspective person because it was a defence mechanism. If I wasn’t doing that, I probably would’ve gone nuts with this loneliness. I was my own best friend, if you like.
When I started writing, that kind of characterisation where you’re very much in the person’s head really intrigued me. It’s probably, again, a product of my youth, where I was in my head all the time.
I was wondering about the final two lines of “What are your thoughts on comedians using the N-word?”, where you mention that ‘all my jokes fall flat.’
I saw a documentary with Richard Pryor on YouTube. There’s one part in it where he goes to Kenya and stops using the n-word after. Later on, he finds that people find his comedy less funny. Something he didn’t realise, I think, was when he used the n-word, it then allowed him to be equally crude to white people.
If you take Martin Luther King as a more sophisticated way of dealing with race issues, it was a cruder, but perhaps even more kind of successful way of being able to interrogate race relations by first using the n-word which almost, in a way, attacks yourself…if I’m that crude about Black people, then I can be that crude about white people. And also, having that idea in the 1960s, the height of civil rights and Jim Crow laws, a successful Black entertainer using such harsh language against white people is almost a marker of, ‘You wanna be rude to us? We’ll be rude to you. Done.’ It’s like a protest in itself.
The title of the poem itself is ‘N-Word’ and you don’t spell the term out. I was reminded of the collection Homie, where Danez Smith does not reveal the real title of the collection until you turn away from the cover because they don’t want white people saying it.
In rap culture, the word has become so prevalent. What I also wanted to do with that poem was just to remind people of a deep and complex history. It’s not just a random, everyday word. It’s a complicated word. An American could say it as a term of endearment or an insult. Like many words, it’s got multiple meanings.
I’ve come across arguments where, in the context of rappers, they are desensitising the term by using it more, erasing the semantics of hurt. It is used to affirm, not to wound. I don’t suppose you buy into that line of argument?
For me, personally, when a rapper is using it, I don’t think they’re thinking of it in any other kind of way than “in my opinion, you use it a lot, so I’ll use it as well”. Which, for some rappers in America, it’s used a lot in a community by Black people. Alright, fair enough.
I’m not of that community, so I can’t really talk from that. The problem for me comes when you’ve got that kind of history of it, which I think is American – everyone else looks at it as a really disgusting word – but then you’re pushing it out as a ‘nothing’ word, and the people who are listening to it by and large haven’t got an understanding of how it’s used in your community and why it’s used that way. In Britain, for example, you’ve got a situation where you’ve got someone who knows it’s an offensive word that shouldn’t be used, but uses it nonetheless.
To be honest with you, it’s a very complex issue. I listen to a lot of music where the n-word is used and sometimes I don’t care, but the other day I’ll be like, ‘that’s disgusting’. Maybe I’m a hypocrite.
Maybe that’s part of the negotiation you’re having.
Just the other day, a friend of mine tagged me in a post asking me if there are ‘five themes’ in my writing that recur. What are your five themes?
One reviewer said that a lot of my characters cry. And then I thought, ‘oh yeah, they do, don’t they?’ Now I’m conscious of not making them cry. [laughs]
I think trees. I will not stop writing about trees. And Anansi only appears in one of the poems in the collection, but I think in later books, Anansi will appear all over the place. Anansi was a story my mum used to tell me.
For example, you’ve got the tradition of the tooth fairy and the elf. But I told my kids that in our house, Anansi takes the tooth away and gives you the money. And in our house, it’s not that elves don’t help – elves do help Santa after all – but also so does Anansi. At Christmas, we get presents from Anansi. Now this is a complete tradition that I made up myself, but I guess it was my way of making their cultural heritage part of their life. Not to say one is better than the other, but they’re different and they’re not going to learn that difference if they don’t learn it from me.
What you mentioned about cultural transference seems to form a running thread in Road Trip. You talk about this legacy of culture in different ways, particularly in your jazz poem. I think jazz is a genre of inheritance, and for you to write that ‘is it brainwashing’, I wondered why that was the case if it’s an act of love.
In Britain, you sing Humpty Dumpty and such nursery rhymes to your kids. You’re part of that tradition. Then you take yourself and actually realise I’ve got my own tradition. My mum used to sing calypso songs to me, and so I sing them to my children. And that all sounds great, except, in the moment you’re singing it, two things are happening. You’re thinking, ‘Am I giving them “too much” culture, forcing it down their throat? Am I brainwashing them?’ in that way. Then you realise, ‘If I don’t do this, I am not giving them what they deserve and what they need to grow as individuals who remain in touch with their culture.’ So, it’s very much the case that because you’ve not seen anyone else do it around you, you wonder, ‘Am I doing something weird? Singing a calypso song to a child?’ My mum did it, I know people in Jamaica did it. I know people around the world sing different songs to Humpty Dumpty. But in the moment, of living in south Wales, I’m thinking, ‘Is this right? Am I forcing stuff upon them?’
That’s where it came from. If I was in London – where some people are a bit more attuned culturally, though not all – and just around my immediate family, who are Black, and I was singing calypsos, I would feel right at home.
Finally, is there anything you’re working on which you’d like to share?
At the moment, I’m working on villanelles. I tried to write them a good ten years ago – I was rubbish. I got this idea where I wanted to take a traditional villanelle and play with it and do strange things with it. But, if it didn’t have the rhyme scheme, the kind of strong rhythm and repetition, it’s really not a villanelle. What the villanelle is great at doing is creating this lovely little bit of music – nineteen lines of music – with the repetition, and the rhythm, and I realise I spent much of lockdown writing villanelles without the refrain – ‘cool, modern villanelles’ which were a little bit rubbish. But then I said ‘ok, I can do this, I want to conquer the villanelle.’
What I realised was I need to write my villanelles as close to the traditional form as possible. I’m enjoying being able to say all I want to say about race, or my children, politics within the confine of this lovely, musical form. It’s taken me ten months to be good at them, but it was ten months well spent. I’m really excited about what I’m writing now.