A Sociological Encounter: Kayo Chingonyi interviews Jay Bernard, author of Surge

This interview is part of The Sociological Review’s exploration of what it means for something to be ‘sociological literature’. In this strand of the work, practice-researchers and sociologists reflect on sociological encounters with contemporary poetry and prose.

Surge is ‘a fearlessly original exploration of the black British archive: an enquiry into the New Cross Fire of 1981, a house fire at a birthday party in south London in which thirteen young black people were killed. Dubbed the ‘New Cross Massacre’, the fire was initially believed to be a racist attack though this was never proven, and the indifference with which the tragedy was met by the state triggered a new era of race relations in Britain. Tracing a line from New Cross to the ‘towers of blood’ of the Grenfell fire, this urgent collection speaks with, in and of the voices of the past, brought back by the incantation of dancehall rhythms and the music of Jamaican patois, to form a living presence in the absence of justice.’

KC: I was thinking about how Surge exists in various forms.  There’s photography in there, there’s some illustrations. It gives us a sense of the lives that it depicts in a way that is very nuanced and open to different possibilities. So, I was wondering about how you found the process of incorporating certain elements of black social life and sociality into the book? For example, I’m thinking about the ways that you use dub poetics in the book. There’s a sense in which you’re exploring a political perspective but at the same time, you’re animating that in the form to which those young people gathering in celebration may well have been dancing. There’s this sense, even as you’re exploring the politics of disenfranchisement, you’re also using the forms that empower. I found that really staggering and, for me, it lent the book a hopeful element, which I think if you used just one form or a particular form – maybe a traditionally elegiac form – it might not have come across; that joy of being alive – of being young – might not have come across as strongly.

JB: Yeah, it brings up two things. The first thing is this thing of poetry, right? And the institutions and the very high walls that people build around it. One of the things I really grappled with when I first started putting the book together was it wasn’t a book of sonnets. Would I be forever condemned as a performance poet whose work didn’t stand up on the page, as a result of writing things that are not… I don’t think it’s deliberately loose, but I wasn’t over-writing, I wasn’t trying to shape this into perfect little porcelain figures, you know? And that came from reading and listening to dub poets. And also it came from, for example, the memory of toasting, as a kid, being on the mic, and listening to people, and how incredible… how incredibly attentive that music is to the people it is speaking to, and where it comes from. And the strangeness and the mysticism at the heart of it, how it’s electronic music, this pure imaginary.

There’s an amazing podcast called The Strangeness of Dub. It’s by Edward George who has done some amazing stuff as part of Black Audio. And he traces it back to Congolese rhythms that made their way to the Caribbean and he talks about all of the different characters that contribute to the sound of dub, and what it was. He talks about the intense relationship between one of the big Caribbean stars of the 30s and 40s – Margarita Mahfood – and how she brought Nyabinghi drumming into wider currency, but how dark her life was, and how she had this relationship with Don Drummond, who murdered her. And it turns into this sensational story. The Caribbean is up in arms about this man and he dies in a mental asylum. But it’s that relationship between the two of them that is central to this music. So, when you talk about politics and culture coming up out of disenfranchisement and out of struggle, I think you’re completely right. That’s exactly what I was trying to get at. I was trying to get at the fact that so much aesthetic innovation comes from the bottom up – interpersonal struggle within difficult conditions. Not from the top down. It comes from accidents. It comes from King Tubby, you know, an electrician who invented the remix. You know, it comes from kids who grew up in the ghetto, doing the most incredible engineering when it comes to sound systems. And it also comes through capitalism, as well: the economic imperatives that lead to the innovation of new sounds. So, I’m always trying to be a bit more subtle about, or trying to be conscious of, listening. And putting that down, you know, in a way I’ve heard it. Or the way I remember hearing it, which isn’t perfect, but hopefully the accumulation of mistakes [laughs] leads to some sort of aesthetic, and cultural, literary formulation, if not perfection.

KC: So, you’re bringing things into a kind of dynamic relation with each other by mixing and blending them?

JB: Yeah, exactly. There’s a book, there’s a film, there’s a show and soon there’s gonna be a sound piece, too. So, you know, maybe that speaks to [the idea of] creating a collection. For me, this has always been a multi-formed thing. So, the poetry collection is really a record of all of the readings I’ve done and conversations I’ve had, rather than being the crystallization of everything, and the last word in this project. So, what’s exciting is that something like a poem like ‘Tympanum’, which to me is a very underwritten piece, I think there’s a lot of space and room in that, but that space and room can then be explored somewhere else.

KC: That’s an interesting point in relation to not privileging the page as the site of literary reception but privileging social engagement and being in the world as the space in which the poetic contract is enacted – if there is such a thing – between the reader and the text and the poet. It was interesting to hear you say that [the book] is the kind of record of your readings, your engagements, questions and a more provisional document, which is explored in different media in order to bring out some of its other resonances and characters. I think that brings another thought into my head around community and its relationship to your writing not merely as a subject but also in terms of its enabling mechanisms. I detect in your work the trace of somebody who is engaged in community as an abstract concept as something that’s powerful and beautiful in that sense, but also engaged in community as an everyday reality, which makes it possible to function within the kind of systems of oppression that capitalism gives us. Can you talk a little bit about community?

JB:  Yeah. It’s a funny one, right? Because I think we’ve been part of a community of poets since day one, really, and what that’s meant  is that there’s such a different understanding of literary history that doesn’t – as you say – privilege the page, like. You go to the Apples and Snakes archive, and it’s as much the distinctiveness of the flyers; it’s as much the recordings of the events; as much venues. It’s the mix of musicians and poets. It’s the workshop as much as it is anything else. It’s a whole way of life, actually.

And I think that’s really important to me. Like, I don’t think I can ever let that go. I don’t think I want to. I remember when I did my first pamphlet talking to Les Robinson, who ran Tall Lighthouse back then. I remember him being like, you know, it’s really great to have your work now, before you go off to the big guns, so to speak. And I remember being sort of dismayed by that. Obviously, I ended up at PenguinRandomHouse, which is one giant conglomerate. Nonetheless, it made me think about the people who are there when you are doing open mic. And the people who grow poetry really, the people out in the fields basically, making that raw material but barely remunerated for it. And how that is invaluable, in a way, that all the Rebecca Wattses in the world could write all the articles that denigrate this stuff, but it’s priceless. It’s priceless because it has come out a group of people for whom none of this was meant, you know? Roger Robinson winning the TS Eliot? Bernardine Evaristo getting the Booker Prize? That didn’t come out of nothing. That has come out of black community workshops and POC writing groups and specificity, you know. So anyway, that’s one element of it.

I guess the other element of it is the joyfulness of so much poetry, when you think about it; actually so much of it is so good-natured, and kind, and open. And I think that’s partly because it has fewer capitalist forces than maybe any other medium. And so, everyone’s kind of in it in a way that is in part motivated by power and money but in many ways, it’s just not. And it’s kind of ridiculous, we get so many characters for whom it is that. So, then things like festivals, the number of poetry festivals and events and gatherings. To me that is a real form of social cultural activism that I think we don’t value enough until such a time as we cannot do it, like now, or war comes to the city or the country. What gets shut down? You know, it’s the festival; it’s the publishing house; the writing group. I don’t think we realize how delicate and powerful it is. So that’s another element of it, I guess. I think it’s just like, a nostalgic thing, no? Obviously, as someone who is queer, and black, and therefore historically has found themselves on the edges of either community there’s both a kind of nostalgia for Black British community life. It was my mum’s 60th birthday, for example, in January, and I was like, Oh, I remember this. And it’s like, you know, Kumukanda [Kayo’s collection] is all about that rite of passage, right? You move from boyhood to manhood. And you talk about your father and your father’s father and that’s kind of what I was seeing as well all these kids – I was that kid once. Little kids running around in the middle of the hall and there’s the cake and then the sound system and all the adults just sitting there getting drunker and drunker… the anticipation of the food, which is really why everyone’s there. It’s just like there’s a set of practices that can’t ever be replaced. That are incredibly simple, incredibly, incredibly elemental in some ways, and nourishing in just the simplest possible way. Nothing special is going on. It’s just people in a room really, but there’s a certain set of understandings and practices and it’s almost a reflective experience, going to those kinds of things. It’s important to me that my work, written or in performance, is for that crowd. That will always be really valuable to me. And I think that ultimately is where I situate myself and my writing. When I think about myself as a writer. Ultimately, I am in the corner of such a room watching blackness play out.

KC: To speak of blackness. One of the things that I’ve noted in your work is this frequent recourse to examining blackness in its full complexity. And in particular, I was thinking in preparing some things to ask you, about your project The Red and Yellow Nothing, which is a project kind of about the moment before blackness, in one sense, before blackness has a wide currency and where racial categories as a form of social hierarchy have a different value. Is questioning those things, hierarchies and orthodoxies a part of a part of your perennial work as a writer, do you think, as well as being in that room where blackness is played out?

JB: I would like to say that maybe that’s where the queerness comes in. Because I think social realities all have lots of playfulness and whimsy as well as a darker side. And maybe I use queerness in my work to undermine those hierarchies. One of the things I was worried about with Surge was that it would be too pious: too much a kind of like Black Woman Screaming in Pain kind of thing and I didn’t really want that; I wanted there to be almost abrasive or audacious acts in the book where I am drawing attention to who is telling you this history. I think in The Red And Yellow Nothing, too, I was deliberately employing whimsy. I think I was trying to pull the rug out from under – or not pull the rug from under because I think that makes it sound too specific – but I was saying, look, here’s the thing about what we think we know, we think we understand. But when I present it in this way, when I present it as a kind of story about Camelot it’s really hard to take it in the ways that we have previously, it’s really hard to be serious about The Red And Yellow Nothing like come on, you know what I mean? It’s a middle Dutch, text, you know, what does that even mean for blackness? And that’s possible all the time. But sometimes I think it’s really easy to fall into particular narratives and particular ways of writing about oppression or marginalization that are important, don’t get me wrong. Yes, big serious texts are very important but without a little bit of tongue in cheek, or a little bit of dirt, I’m not sure it’s real. And I’m not sure it takes us anywhere. You know, it’s so interesting to be in a moment of viruses. It’s both become part of the language; we talk about things going viral, but we’re also talking about it in terms of how we relate ‘social distancing’ and so on. And the fascinating thing about a virus, of course, is that it’s also one theory of where life originated. We think it was that act of mutation, the act of infection and what it does to its host, you know, and that moving from animal to human, human to animal and so on. It’s both perilous and also completely necessary. That’s the flipside, isn’t it? That’s kind of life itself. It’s risky. Death is always kind of staring you in the face, really; death is always a possibility but that’s why you’re alive. That’s how you know you’re alive. So, for me, maybe that’s something I kind of maybe, not regret about Surge, but it’s something that I would definitely pay more attention to: this urge to play. I remember when I was at Yaddo [a residency]. I remember being like, oh, man, I feel like I need to be playful with this text and I’m like, how do you play with the deaths of thirteen children? Like, how do you do that? You know, and I think I avoided it, actually. I was talking more about relationships and so on. I think I’m gonna be harder next time and when that urge comes up, I’ll listen to it.

KC: The tempering of that urge in relation to the material within Surge is perhaps to do with the ideas of responsibility that you were talking about in terms of these being the stories of people’s lives. I was struck by something you were just saying in terms of trying to maintain a playfulness, there’s a real spirit in Surge of that kind of rug-pulling that you were talking about, and thinking in particular, about the passages that relate to an experience of carnival, but shot through by the lens of queerness in a way that queerness is not subordinated, as it as it can be in certain texts where people feel it’s enough to include queerness as a possibility, rather than centering it as a diurnal, everyday, run-of-the-mill, mode, and I really loved that aspect of the book; that interplay between ways of being and being seen and presenting. And, also, in your performance, Surge Side A, the way you inhabited that possibility in your bearing as well. When you were toasting you were adopting certain poses that you then shifted when you were moving through the crowds in carnival or pride, which I thought was a wonderfully artful thing that was in the writing and not just an aspect of performance. Did it feel important that Surge in your telling should be a queer book in that sense?

JB: Oh, yeah, hugely, hugely. I think that’s why you’ve got ‘Duppy’ which is the poem about protest being the flipside of carnival and ‘Pride’ which is about the street protest which is now a party. But that’s also a community act of memorial and visibility, as with the silent marches for Grenfell, which are monthly, which are also a kind of storehouse: of embodied, physical, understanding of the gravity of Grenfell, how it’s not intellectual, it’s not bureaucratic; it’s not history, either. It’s very much now, very much the present. All three of those have to interplay; they’re all under-shot by each other because they’re all part of the same tradition of being in the street, which is becoming less and less of a feasible position, not only because of Covid-19, but because of how our lives are increasingly domesticated, indoors, surveilled. To be in the street is still a troubling act to the police, if the street is where you spend your time, a lot of streets are actually private with no right of way, but they have the air of being public. Increasingly, I think the street is becoming kind of a sanitized place where you’re watched. In London we’re caught on camera 300 times a day. And the high street is increasingly becoming less and less a space in which you get any of your needs met. You get food from Deliveroo, buy electronics on Amazon. Now you can sell your clothes on depop. Everything is becoming more and more closed down to the extent that social spaces for queer and for marginal life, anyway, social spaces are becoming increasingly sanitized and diluted and disappearing.  And maybe we’re moving into another phase you know, maybe actually in 100 years’ time they’ll look at this period and be like oh my god, remember that wonderful time when everyone had all these websites, but something tells me that won’t happen.

KC: I do feel the sense as well in reading Surge of the loss of a certain kind of culture. And I think Surge does something really powerful, which is to render that culture explicit again. And the kind of culture I’m talking about is the sound system culture you’re alluding to by talking about the strangeness of dub; New Cross is suffused with that history of as you say, people in their own spare time learning how to make extremely sophisticated sound systems which are electronically sound and then also powerful and in terms of music, sound beautiful as well. And then I’m thinking about how there were pockets of this kind of community all around London, you know; to the north and east Stoke Newington had a similar kind of a vibe…Brixton is a famous one, of course, but it spreads also into West London as well. Is there a sense of that in the book; of mourning the loss of these social spaces for marginalized people?

JB: In a way, in a way but I think loss is inevitable. Just cause things change, you know, one of the fascinating things that Eddie George talks about is how the sound system actually killed the live careers of so many musicians because once you have a dubplate, once you can record something, and anybody can just play it over and over and over again, why do you need live trombones, why do you need a saxophonist? So, people had to then move into a space that was live, but electronic fundamentally. And I think he describes it as a field of pure imagination, which I referred to earlier. I mean anything can happen in this electronic aural space, anything which isn’t possible in live instrumentation, and yet that possibility of anything happening is what made live music so electric and alive. That mutation could happen any moment and you could be there to witness it. The tiniest deviation leads into the unknown. But then again, I also just think there are aspects of our culture that are super interesting and wonderful as well and it’s not always going to be the same thing. You know, in many ways, I think Surge is a nostalgic text, but I don’t like the word nostalgia that much because it’s a kind of rose-tinted understanding of the past and really what I’m trying to get at is, this is a messy, messy past. And this stuff, some of it is past, some of it’s still present. And it fundamentally doesn’t matter. You know what I mean? That was one thing I learned, like, hardcore fundamentally. What is history? What is it to record it? Why do you record it? Is it for its own sake? Or is it towards some other end? And if we never know the answer to what happened in the New Cross Fire, ultimately, what does that mean? Does it matter? Which I think always comes back to this idea of why write, why put it down on paper in the first place? For me, it’s because it’s always about the present. It’s always about how it feels today. What it’s like to look back today. That’s why I situate it so much in the archives because the archives take on a whole new resonance. I was thinking about the fact that so many queer spaces had closed or shut down. And the ones I recognized anyway, the queerness I recognized has long gone, you know what I mean? It’s like, the world is just not like that anymore. And I’m partly to blame for that. I haven’t upheld those traditions either, and in fact didn’t care to embrace some of them. But then, one of the things about the archives was the way that felt like a queer space. It felt like a new queer space, it felt like a place where queerness could be reconfigured, you know, and hopefully that is in the body of the text, which in the future people are reading. To me that is one of the more emotional elements of the text like in ‘Proof’. Whenever I think about that poem, I’m always like, it’s one of those poems that stings a little bit. Too deep. There’s something about being somewhat responsible for the death of your culture and being outside of it in a way that is specific to Black Britishness, which has its roots in a Caribbean sensibility. Erna Brodber is quite shady in Continent of Black Consciousness when she talks about how being a stranger is kind of a fundamental aspect of Jamaican psychology. We’re not necessarily gaining, and actually we’re not necessarily losing, but we are changing, you know.

KC: So, what, what does that mean for your work in terms of keeping those lines of communication between the past and the present open and also  – perhaps – therefore gesturing towards a future where there’s a continuity of tradition? How are you? How are you keeping that social engagement that you’re trying to write into in Surge? Do you have a sense of that in relation to your new project? If you’re even thinking of it as a new project or projects is maybe a better way of thinking about it?

JB: It’s a big old question, isn’t it? Big old question. In some ways, I’m really proud, because I think I stayed true to what I was trying to do. You’ve talked about a ‘storehouse of images’ and that’s kind of what I was trying to do; I was trying to look at the holes in the archives, the gaps, the things that don’t quite fit. I don’t think it’s necessarily wise to do that in a literal way. Like I wouldn’t do that literally again. I think I would give myself more time and space to let other gaps make themselves known. So, for example, there are some poems that just hadn’t formulated yet that have now: perspectives that I just hadn’t even thought about. And that is maybe intensified by the fact that it’s other people’s lives in some ways. So, if you’re gonna engage with this kind of social history there’s a dimension to it, a sense of responsibility, process, procedure, method that I was kind of just working out. I don’t think I did a terrible job; I don’t think I did a hatchet job. But I also think there were subtleties, nuances that I just couldn’t handle, didn’t know how to handle, or didn’t know how to express yet. So, I think for the next book, that’s already how I’m going about it. You’ve got to wait for it to be what it is. And I think I’m waiting for the thing to coalesce rather than starting with the thing and then radiating out.

And I guess, on a on a larger level, you’ve really got to ask yourself the question, why write? What is it for? What are you doing when you do it? I was at StAnza in early March and had a panel discussion based around this question of what the political impact of poetry is. And it was based around this Auden quote, he’s basically depressed and like, why am I doing this? Even if no poem had ever been written, no book had ever been written, no painting ever been painted, it wouldn’t have made one difference to political history. I think that’s maybe missing the point. But it’s something that I really want to grapple with more directly in the work, and in the construction of the next book, because I’m still on this social history streak, I guess. So far, it’s been the way that I’ve constructed a collection. Within that political tendency there is a question about process and art that comes full circle and once again becomes political. To me that circle is really precious and really valuable and is so mishandled and misunderstood in the way that we talk about art and the way we talk about poetry. So that’s something else that might inform how I build the next collection.

And I feel like there’s so much more to read and so much more to do. It’s much more to be as well. But I think fundamentally, it’s not tradition that that’s important to me as such, it’s recognizing that this germ of whatever cultural, political social phenomenon we have now has come from somewhere else, which I think is a little bit different to upkeeping the tradition. I think part of the reason I haven’t kept up certain traditions is because it’s not possible. I’m a queer trans person; I can’t keep up certain traditions. Also. My inclusion means it’s no longer traditional, fundamentally, I am a novelty in a weird way. And also, so much queer history is so white and so detached. So, again, when you say tradition, I think it’s much more a feeling a vibe. Germ. Virus. Dirt. Grit. That I’m interested in recording and documenting.

KC: Thank you. That was really fascinating and gave me a lot of insight into Surge, which, as I think I’ve mentioned to you has been really powerful to my sense of poetics and the poetics of political engagement and social engagement, also. It’s a staggering achievement. And if you feel that there’s more to do in the future, then I’m so excited to see what form that takes.

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