First of all, congratulations on winning the 2020 Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award! How does it feel to have the book recognised in this way, at this moment?
It’s nice personally, but it’s a strange year to win. I am conflicted because so many others are struggling. It’s weird to be handed a cash prize during a pandemic. It’s also funny because people often ask what I will do with it, but the truth is that every penny is going to the landlord.
What led you to begin writing poetry around the subject of the 1981 New Cross fire?
In 2016, I was invited to do a residency by Speaking Volumes at the George Padmore Institute, a north London research centre devoted to Black history. After a while, looking through the boxes, I realised that the story of the fire was most compelling, so started by writing ten poems about that. It was astonishing to me that I hadn’t learned about this at school, given that it was so connected to the Brixton uprisings in 1981, and that the Black People’s Day of Action was the first mass march by Black people in Britain. Obviously, now that I think about it, I am not remotely surprised that we never learned about it. But anyway, I thought I could do something with the structure of the story. It’s unresolved – it has never been settled whether it was a racist attack or an accident – so there’s a space there, a gap, a question. I did not feel that I had to ‘bestow justice’ or right any wrongs, yet there is this absolute symbolic power in what happened that night in 1981. And we still see it in Grenfell. The lack of accountability, the lack of care, the way powerlessness is built into the very structure and fabric of our culture.
In some of the poems we have a speaker actively looking at archival material, in other places you inhabit voices and perspectives that we assume are derived from your reading of that material. Could you tell us about the role archival material has had in your writing?
It was pivotal. What I really took away from it was a deep sense of how the state operates, how we interact with it, what it means to be ruled by this authority. I started out feeling enchanted by the archives – feeling like I was making contact with history. But now I question the archives, I wonder what this impulse to preserve really means and I also question that initial enchantment. So often there’s the feeling of “uncovering” when writers go into archives, but now I recognise that as something we maybe expect or desire – and so we experience it. Actually, most archives are very well-trodden and someone has already done the work of uncovering, hence the material being there. I still find it very exciting, this task of making something out of pre-existing material, but I am more sceptical about the set of emotions associated with it.
You won the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry for an earlier incarnation of this work, Surge, Side A, which you presented as a multimedia performance. How did the collection evolve out of that work, and in what ways did the multimedia approach influence your writing?
I think it was a two-way process. That first performance at the Roundhouse in Camden was a test of the material. Could I be on stage for an hour? Could I present the process as well as the poems? Could I include the film I’d made? I wouldn’t describe it as a linear journey from development to performance to collection. The collection is the latest incarnation of the material, but probably not the last.
There’s a startling intimacy to the characters in these poems, especially in the moments when you articulate the voices of those who perished in the fires. What did it take to find and manifest the voices in this book?
Research, mostly. I was reading testimonies written by family members, survivors, witnesses. But then you’ve got to move away from the strictly factual if you want the book to have an independent life. So there is a combination of my own life experiences, observations, quotations from the news and from other texts. I was trying to create a mood, a kind of tonal landscape in which many voices are always present, speaking with and through each other.
I wonder if you could talk about the way you’ve arranged the poems in this collection, their order, and how they sit alongside photographs, text messages and media interviews?
I worked with my editor to choose the order. She had a big influence in that. I wanted the photographs to mark different stages in the story of the fire and its aftermath, so that it wasn’t simply dates and titles, but moods, feelings, images. So for example, one of the poems ‘Washing’ is next to a photograph of the families reuniting a year later to celebrate the lives of the young people who died. So it’s not just this story of tragedy, but of collective struggle. Someone asked me whether I meant to place ‘+’ and ‘–’ back to back; the answer is yes, I knew they had to sit beside each other in the collection, but the fact that they are printed on the reverse of each other is an accident of the printing process. Yet it’s very fortunate, because I think it’s better that you can see one through the other if you hold it up to the light.
Surge is a book about queer politics and bodies, about parties and adolescence and exploration. I wonder if you could comment on how these themes sit alongside the central themes of Black history, memorialisation, and the tragedies of the New Cross and Grenfell fires?
Yes, well, the oldest person to perish in the fire was twenty-two, and the youngest person to give a testimony was eleven. So this is really the story of youth, young people. And it’s the story of the city too – its dangers as well as its thrills. So many kids who survived the fire, and a few who didn’t, weren’t supposed to be at the party at all. And when I read about where the bodies were found the next day, there was something intensely visceral, physical and mute about it – the opposite of a party. The idea of blackness as defined as proximity to death is not one I have wholly embraced, but it’s a useful concept here.
The book is as much about being queer in a city where this happened. To be walking around, to be gender non-conforming, to be trans, to be oddly connected to this young woman Yvonne Ruddock who died in the New Cross Fire on her sixteenth birthday, but to know that in 1981 I would have been seen as sick, wrong, perverted. I recognise that other people have written about the New Cross Fire in different ways and will continue to. But it would have been disingenuous for me to excise that constant preoccupation I had and continue to have, which colours both my love and my understanding of London.
Part of the impact of this book is that it speaks to the racism, discrimination, and media and governmental hostility the Black British community has been exposed to over the past forty years. What has changed since the New Cross Fire? What still needs to change?
Everything and nothing. But you knew I was going to say that.
You have been working with these poems now for many years, and I wonder if you are still discovering new things through the work, and through the reception of the work?
Yes. Someone asked me the other day about the ethics of the title and it is something that is still playing on my mind, because I had an ethical crisis writing these poems which has still not gone away. And someone else asked me how the poems had changed, how the collection as a whole has shifted meaning. With books, you’re always in this funny position of being very intimate with something that might be brand new to an audience. So I am discovering patience in my practice and trying to square the imperative to always be new with the necessity of remembering the old.
Surge is available now with Chatto & Windus. The Young Writer of the Year Award is a £5,000 prize for an outstanding work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry from a writer aged 35 or under. For more information on the award, visit youngwriteraward.com.
Photograph © Joshua Virasami