Roger Robinson aan Babs Gons: 'What if the book of poems isn’t the thing in itself, what if the actual thing is making change?'

In ILFU Corresponding Stories vragen we schrijvers en denkers van over de hele wereld om elkaar te schrijven over de grote thema’s van onze tijd. Onze penvrienden van maart en april zijn de Britse dichter Roger Robinson en onze Dichter des Vaderlands Babs Gons. Vandaag de eerste brief van Roger aan Babs, over dichten als een vorm van creatief burgerschap.


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Van: Roger Robinson
Aan: Babs Gons
Datum: 14 March 2024
Onderwerp: Corresponding Stories

Dear Babs,

I hope this letter finds you well and inspired to continue your amazing writing and artistic journey. As I sit to write to you, I am looking down on my garden that's beginning to sprout green plants due to an unseasonable warm spell. But I fear that the plants pushing up unexpectedly will probably struggle if the inclement weather returns.

Since I saw you last I have been busy writing my novel about a kidnapped African woman who becomes a servant to a lady-in-waiting in a 15th Century English castle. I am reminded through the book's research of the layers that have occurred beneath the surface, the stories and moments that affect global-majority people negatively, and the profound impact black people's history still holds on them today. It's disheartening to witness the continued hurtful damage inflicted on black and global majority people, both historically and structurally, that shapes our present, and the constant (and tiring) work that it takes for things to change in the future. The onslaught of the colonial and imperialist project can be depressing, and at times, I have to seek antiracist systems, concepts, and working models to help me relieve some of its grinding psychological weight.

One concept that has been particularly useful to me in this regard is the concept of Creative Citizenship. Creative Citizenship, in its broadest terms, means the intentional use of creativity to debunk and reject all stale and outdated notions of citizenship—who it belongs to and who deserves it. It embodies a creativity that deconstructs or challenges accepted norms of citizenship within social media and other communities.

But in order to discuss Creative Citizenship more fully, I must first take you back to a story—a story from my life experience. Picture me as a quite chubby nine-year-old, opening up a cheese sandwich packaged in foil while driving with my Mum, who was a visiting district nurse. Sometimes, we travelled long distances to rural areas, and I always had my snacks, sandwiches, and boxes of apple juice.

As a visiting district nurse in 1970s Trinidad, she often had to visit very rural areas, where country people were highly suspicious of outsiders. Making connections and providing treatments was challenging. On these visits, my mother and I would drive to rural towns, greeted by locals at the edge of orange orchards. Amidst Valencian oranges, my mother would break the ice with jokes, creating a relaxed atmosphere. As she peeled oranges, exchanging laughter, time seemed unhurried. Walking slowly, my mother, in her khaki nurse's uniform, bonded with locals, sharing stories under the intermittent sun. We spent hours at their wooden house, eating, laughing, and exchanging information. My mother relaxed, feet up, eating and laughing while I played with the puppies.

About thirty minutes before we were about to leave, my mother would start dispensing medicine to those in need who emerged from the shadows of the bush. Wounds were dressed, stethoscopes listened to swollen bellies, and care was given. Reflecting on these experiences, I now understand the power of storytelling, creativity and conversation in building trust and facilitating healing.

What if the book of poems isn’t the thing in itself? What if the actual thing is making change through social engagement due to the privileges of opportunities that the book affords?

What I left out from my mother's story was her dedication to documenting these encounters. After returning home, she would spend hours under the yellowed light of the kitchen, meticulously recording her observations. Taking great care to line up pictures and names with prognosis gained from her creative medicine. Her ingenuity served a specific purpose – advocating for those she encountered and ensuring they received the resources they needed.

Perhaps my mother unknowingly provided me with a model of how to be an artist and a Creative Citizen – using storytelling as a tool for change through connection. Maybe there's something to learn from her approach, something about bringing the margins to the centre and making the invisible visible.

But perhaps I am already doing that. What if the book of poems isn’t the thing in itself? What if the actual thing is making change through social engagement due to the privileges of opportunities that the book affords? What if the book puts me in a position to talk to publishers to get them to donate free books with black people as characters in school? What if the book is the thing that gets other poets to perform in a situation where the audience can pay with real and virtual cans of food for the hungry? What if the poetry book allows me opportunities to collaborate with organisations to create bursaries for a new young generation of black writers? What if it’s not just a poetry book but much, much more? What if it’s about me being a Creative Citizen and using my art and imagination to create systems of change?

As artists and Creative Citizens, we have the power to shape reality, to expand the emotional capacity of others, and to foster empathy through storytelling. And Creative Citizenship is not just the realm of the artist – everyone can use the creativity they have to make interventions and disrupt the status quo.

I think it is time for a breath of fresh air, so I am going to go and sit in the garden with a coffee for a while. The sun is pushing past the clouds, and I need every bit of sun I can get. I hope one day not to have to think of solutions but I guess that’s a part of our calling.

I hope you are enjoying your role as Dichter des Vaderlands and managing to take some breaks in the sunshine.

I look forward to your reply.

Your poetic comrade,