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Roy McFarlane talks performance poetry
Eric Doumerc, contributor
Edited by Jill Ella, BBC Birmingham

Roy McFarlane
Roy's latest performance is Talking Brothers

Roy McFarlane has been writing and performing poetry in the West Midlands for several years.

Roy was brought up in Wolverhampton, and now lives and works in Birmingham.

He was interviewed by Dr Eric Doumerc who has been researching Caribbean oral tradition and its influence on black British performance poetry since the early 1990s.

Eric asked Roy about his heritage and how it has influenced his performance poetry.

"I was born in England in 1963, spent most of my time in Wolverhampton, although I work mostly in Birmingham and do most of my poetry in the Midlands," begins Roy.

Trinityville, Jamaica

"But my parents are from Jamaica, St Thomas, a little place called Trinityville. My parents came over here in the early 1960s. Very Christian, so we had that Pentecostal background. My father was a deacon, a minister of the Gospel. So that's the background I grew up in, and I guess I've learnt a lot from my father when he stood up and performed in the pulpit.

"I grew up with the church very close, so I wasn't very aware of things happening until I went to Bilston College [around 1981] and then I started to question my identity and what it's like to be black."

Roy didn't go straight into writing poetry, it came about after a career change.

"I came out of the computer network," says Roy. "I knew it wasn't my kind of work, and I started working with young people. That was from the mid 1990s, and in working with young people, you had to use music, rap to kind of get through to them.

"I met with a young man by the name of Winston Garrison and we went on a journey together. He was good with the rap, he could work with young people, and I was the one who picked the themes and the subjects to talk about.

"We used poetry to talk about what was going on and I guess that was the first time I started to use poetry. We did a little pamphlet together. That was in 1996 to '98 and that was my first little touch of poetry."

Frustration

Roy continues: "Then when I started to work with the race organisation in 1999 to 2000, I got frustrated that I had to be politically correct in the way I said things. I had to be always thinking about the way I was gonna put things, and I started to read poetry, and I met Roi Kwabena.

Roy McFarlane
Roy performed at the Tate in London with Dreadlock Alien (Richard Grant)

"I told him that I had written two poems; one was about Stephen Lawrence, and another one was about racism. I showed them to Roi Kwabena and he said, 'Yeah, this is good! Why not perform?'"

Roy met Roi while he and his work colleagues were developing an organisation called the African Caribbean Youngsters Achievements Awards, in 2001.

"We were putting on a presentation, a show, and we got to meet Roi, and he liked the work that we were doing.

"We also met at Black History Month. I was putting on conferences around race and I asked Roi to come along and do a poem. So we shared a lot of poetry, and then he pushed me in my poetry. My first performance was at The Crescent, with Roi Kwabena, and I did one at The Drum, too.

"Roi introduced me to the New October Poets. One of my other influences was Dreadlock Alien (Richard Grant). I got to meet Richard. He did a performance at one of our race conferences and we got talking. Richard said, 'Listen, I've got the New October Poets. How would you like to come along with us?'

"I remember one of the biggest events I did with Richard was down at the Tate, in London. As part of the exhibition we were allowed to perform for the evening, and it's one of those wonderful experiences. To have about 20 or 25 poets of mixed culture or colour performing in that setting was real fantastic, man!"

City Voices

Roy is also involved in a project in Wolverhampton called City Voices.

Roy explains: "Simon Fletcher organises an event called City Voices where people who like poetry get together and listen to poets. So you may have one main poet, or five up and coming poets who will perform, and whether it's the Willenhall Poetry Group, or the Black Poets Group, he will allow them to perform on specific themes.

"Simon encouraged me to do a lot of poetry. I think I've done about three or four City Voices events. It's a nice setting and it's about performing poetry and sharing poetry. We meet every second Tuesday of the month."

A few years ago Roy was able to offer other poets a platform to perform after being given a residency with Starbucks.

"There was a competition and Starbucks were looking for a poet to perform, to do their thing," explains Roy. "I was fortunate to win. I was able to use one of the Starbucks cafés, turn the upstairs into a little stage and have poets come along and for about an hour or two, we did poetry. So we had poetry and coffee. We had lots and lots of coffee!"

Roy's poetry often reflects reality and everyday experiences.

Roy McFarlane
"If poetry is about life, then it has to take that into account."

"I think, as an equality and diversity officer, there are things you want to say but you have to be diplomatic in the way you say it, in a certain arena. But I found the freedom in my poetry to express the things I wanted to say. So a lot of my poetry is about injustice, about racism. But there's also the other side and people say that I write a lot of love poems and general observations of day-to-day life," explains Roy.

"It depends on how I'm feeling at the time. Over the years I've always looked at the work of other poets, and one person that I like is Langston Hughes.

"He wrote at a time when change was going on in America for African-Americans as well, and he challenged aspects of race, lynching, poverty and at the same time some of his poems are so silly, you know, just looking at life and he's got some beautiful jazz love poetry."

Reality

Some academics tend to see black British poetry as confrontational, as being always about racism, or race, or social issues. In the 1980s some black poets reacted against that conception of black poetry. But Roy doesn't feel it is a 'trap'.

"No," says Roy. "I wouldn't call it a trap because if poetry is about life, then it has to take that into account. If you choose to move away from that and to say, 'I'm more than that,' that's your choice. And if you feel that you're being pigeonholed, I can understand that.

"But, for me, living in the UK, living here in Birmingham, you cannot run away from those experiences. So these things are around us and, me personally, I think it is the poet's duty to bring that across. If we don't say it, nobody else is gonna say it."

Roy's latest performance poetry project, Talking Brothers, is set in a newsagents and has been performed at ArtsFest and The Birmingham Book Festival.

"Talking Brothers is doing really well," says Roy. "Four poets, Dan Wilson, Phil Simpson, Simon Swanson and myself, use poetry to look at aspects of masculinity. The general response has been really great. The theme, the poetry and the performance work well together. Regarding a tour, we are certainly looking at appearing at a few theatres and festivals.

"So look out for us next year!"




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