Books: I want a little sugar in my bowl

Bittersweet: Contemporary Black Women's Poetry ed Karen McCarthy, Women's Press pounds 9
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The Independent Culture
Given the mixed blessings that black women writers have received over the years, Bittersweet seems like the perfect title for this anthology. Sure, the African-American female voice has made an incredible impact through authors like Alice Walker and Maya Angelou, and in the francophone Caribbean, Maryse Conde is a name to watch. Yet poetry remains one of the most difficult areas in publishing for both men and women, and you have to go back to 1986 to find the last substantial black British women's poetry collection, Merle Collins's Watchers And Seekers. Who sang "I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl"? Wasn't a man, that's for sure.

Bittersweet is an anthology of tremendous depth - it features poets from around the world writing in a series of colourful, eclectic styles. The poetry is of a high standard and covers a lot of thematic ground. It was put together by Karen McCarthy; with 10 years experience in publishing and extensive knowledge of the poetry world through her work with Apples and Snakes, a South London promoter that has been around for some 15 years, McCarthy had the knowledge and contacts to find the femmes with the flavour.

"There are lots of interesting things happening in black women's writing," she declares. "I think that there are lots of experiments with the genre, taking poetry as a starting point and blending it with different media." Ample proof of this is to be found in Bittersweet where the musical metaphors of Akure Wall interact with Stacy Makishi's audio-visual allegories. Then there's Bernadine Evaristo's hybrid "verse-novel" that melds the lyrical and the prosaic. All three couldn't be more different.

"Black poetry need not be regarded as just one thing," Karen agrees. "It's usually taken to be performance poetry or rap. It's important that black writers don't have any set expectations placed on them." Poet Bernadine Evaristo knows exactly what McCarthy is talking about. "Black poetry has become synonymous with performance poetry so it's performance poets who are promoted, they're the ones who've come to prominence and there is a sort of ghettoisation going on."

The current situation is tough. Publishing verse is not seen as good business sense and the sexiness of performance poetry arguably makes it harder for poets who are concerned first and foremost with the craft of writing. "When I give a reading I'm always billed as a performance poet even though I'm not," Evaristo points out.

Few black poets have been published in recent years (only Jackie Kay, Patience Agbabi and Evaristo spring to mind) and to a certain extent, the situation of black British women writers has not been made any easier by the towering presence of their African-American counterparts. Evaristo, who co-edited a collection called Black Women Talk Poetry in 1986, sees a double-edged sword in the success of the Walkers and Angelous. "I think a lot of us were empowered by African-American literature, you know, black women writers in the 1980s, and then it became almost invalidating because although there were commonalities, they weren't actually talking about our experiences. But publishers were stuck by then, they would publish black American books, not black British."

Bittersweet is an important publication in that it shows not just the vitality of the black British poetic voice but its standing in the wider context of writing from around the world. More importantly, the collection unveils young writers like Malika Booker and Shamshad Khan, from London and Manchester respectively. "There is a new generation of writers coming through," enthuses Karen McCarthy. "So it's important that we don't just show Alice Walker and Maya Angelou, because there has been an evolution."

Alongside the new voices stand the previous generations. We're talking about the big three: Grace Nicholls, Merle Collins and Jean Binta Breeze, who all came to prominence in the age of Sus, Spare Rib and the Brixton riots. Then there are the key figures from the African-American canon such as Nikki Giovanni, Jayne Cortez and Ntozake Shange; they all give Bittersweet a very rich sense of heritage.

With a mix of published and new pieces, the anthology has both a freshness and a succulent familiarity on the tongue. The poems have intellectual substance, tragedy and comedy, but above all a sense of humanity that reaches beyond gender specifics. Every woman, be they Lorna Goodison or Olive Senior, has a story to tell and each text is treated as part of a wider, epic recital. "I think the diversity of the work out there is the real strength of the book," reflects McCarthy. "In the structure I wanted to show all the aspects of women's lives to really try to give a sense of womanhood."

The collection is divided into 11 sections with titles like 'Blood', 'Water', 'Salt', 'Fire' or 'Electricity' which form a comprehensive life cycle of experience that unfolds over some 84 pieces. "The names of the sections came a little later down the line as I thought about bringing the work together," explains McCarthy. "I thought of different stages and tangents in women's lives, like childhood or adolescence. 'Salt', for example, is about loving and relationships. We need salt to live and it flavours our food but when you add it to the wound it hurts even more."

Bittersweet isn't overtly bound up with issues of race. "The themes are varied, complicated and far reaching," notes Bernadine "That can only be a good thing. If you look at the anthologies from the 1980s, they were coming from a very specific black feminist perspective. Of course, the times have changed." To its credit, Bittersweet does not get lost in browbeating introspection but tackles the demons of solitude and the painful experience of growing up with a cogent universality.

The last piece in the section 'Blood' is an abridged version of Evaristo's verse-novel Lara, which charts an Anglo-Nigerian adolescence in an almost exclusively white part of London in the 1970s. Lara has nothing around her that affirms her sense of blackness, as her father's Yoruba culture wasn't passed down to her. "That's something that I went through and felt I wanted to write about," explains Bernadine. And so did a whole generation of black men. Pass the salt, sister, the food smells good.