Celebrating Black British Poetry and what it can teach us about public speaking
October is Black History Month and as the President of Covent Garden Speakers, a Toastmasters club in central London, I wanted to take this month as an opportunity for our club to honour, celebrate and educate ourselves about Britain’s Black history. I wanted to spend each week of October highlighting different aspects of Black British culture, art, literature and of course…public speaking.
For the first week I wanted to focus on poetry. There is so much we can learn as speakers from reading and listening to poetry and I hoped that as a club we could all come together to read some new voices and share old favourites.
Black History Month was first launched in London in 1987, it was aimed at local communities to raise awareness of racism and promote education that was not taught in schools. Now it is celebrated nationally each year, and this year it feels more alive and more important than any other.
I wanted to focus on poetry because I recently rediscovered poetry thanks to a speech made by one of our members during the summer and I realised that I hadn’t consciously read any Black British Poet’s work. Not at school (where I was a quiet little dweeb who never left the library), and not in the many years after. I hadn’t read anything by Roger Robinson , the first black British poet to win the TS Eliot prize in 2020, or Linton Kwesi Johnson, the second living poet to have his work published by Penguin Modern Classics. I hadn’t even heard of Benjamin Zephaniah who was once described as “Britain’s most filmed, photographed, and identifiable poet”.
But then I realised that I hadn’t read any poetry but I had heard so much! Since I moved to London 10 years ago I have seen some incredible performance poetry. I used to go to a live poetry night called ‘Bang Said the Gun’ religiously every Thursday night at a pub in Bermondsey. They had slam poetry, spoken word poetry, jazz poetry and reggae dub poetry, with headline acts from seasoned performers, and an opportunity for aspiring poets to stand up and take the mic throughout the night.
The crowd would alternate between raucous laughter, screaming table slamming and stunned silence. There was so much energy in that tiny room, on each table they had old plastic bottles filled with dried rice and chickpeas which we were encouraged to shake as we pounded our feet. All the words spoken in that room were alive, it taught me so much about how to “perform” your words, not just say them.
When it comes to Toastmasters and public speaking I think there is a huge amount to learn from poetry and particularly performance poetry. Performance poetry is poetry that is specifically composed for or during a performance in front of an audience. It embodies the difference between writing for the ear, and writing for the eye.
You can the difference between writing for the ear and the eye when newsreaders read out the news, often it’s very stilted because the news has been written to be read, not heard. When we speak, our sentence structures are different, they’re shorter, we pause between thoughts, and often speak in phrases. We may not all be award-winning writers but when we speak we are all natural storytellers. Our pitch, tone and pace naturally vary, adding emphasis, meaning and drama to even the most mundane reflection. Listening to performance poetry highlights this in a million ways, it shows us how to write for the ear.
But we have so much more to learn from poetry than just how to improve our public speaking.
Black British history and poetry are intrinsically connected. Poems such as Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Five Nights of Bleeding explores the racial confrontation and antagonism between Black youth and the police which led to the 1981 Brixton riots. Benjamin Zephaniah’s The Death of Joy Gardner details the killing of a Jamaican student who died in 1993 during a police immigration raid at her home. Joy was restrained with handcuffs, leather straps and 13 feet of duct tape and later died from severe brain damage. The police officers were acquitted on all counts. More recently Jay Bernard’s debut Surge digs into the Black British archive and the New Cross Fire, a house fire at a birthday party in South London in which thirteen young Black people were killed. Three events in British history that I hadn’t heard of before I started researching this week.
My personal favourite spoken word poet is George Mpanga, known as George the Poet. His podcast ‘Have you heard George’s Podcast’ is a masterclass in storytelling, and how you can use rhythm and sound. If you listen to one thing this week, listen to Popcorn. And if you listen to two things this week, listen to A Grenfell Story, George’s moving and harrowing reflection on the Grenfell Tower fire. A modern British tragedy explored through poetry to join Johnson’s, Zephanians, and Bernard’s work.
I hope you find the time this week to read, listen and watch some poetry, noting the difference between how it’s spoken and how it’s written, and learning more about our British history and culture.