Mkuu Amani speaks to Panya Banjoko, the multi-award-winning poet, who co-ordinates a Black Writers Network and is a patron for Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature.
by Mkuu Amani
In her own words, Panya Banjoko has had a turbulent love affair with poetry.
She wanted to break up with it, but it wouldn’t let her go, and so she has succumbed to its charms and learned to love it.
Today, after three decades, she writes because she wants to be an excellent writer. She wants to master the art.
She also believes that she has something to say as a ‘black woman living in the UK.’ And who can argue with that?
Not that any argument would deter her anyway. The assured, poetic eloquence that we see today was born of its fair share of blood, sweat and tears.
Lack of support for young ‘black’ writers during the 1990s was just one of many factors that meant that the young, bespectacled creative had to fight and claw her way into the poetry circle.
Her first public appearance, a poetry recital in front of an audience at Nottingham’s Association of Caribbean Family and Friends, sealed the beginning of a remarkable journey.
It’s a poetic journey that went on to include the publication of her debut collection of poetry, ‘Some Things.‘ (Burning Eye Books, 2018).
Also, her work has been featured in a host of anthologies, some award-winning, including ‘Dawn of the Unread‘ published by LeftLion magazine (2016), and ‘Clever Girls.’ – winner of the Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey Award for a Book about the Working-Class Academic Experience (2019/20).
Three decades have passed, and alongside her creative endeavours, she continues to work as an archivist and PhD Researcher at Nottingham Trent University. Yet, Panya’s creative flame remains undiminished, as I found out when I spoke to her.
What are you currently working on? And when are we likely to see it launched or published?
“I’m working on a number of things at the moment. A new collection of poetry which is probably a year away from completion. I’m also working on a couple of poetry films one for City Arts about Jamaican old time sayings and the other for Nonsuch Studios about my dreadlocks hair. Both are currently in the editing process. I am also working on a book about the Windrush generation in Nottingham.”
Your poetry film ‘one of a kind’ is so beautifully constructed both lyrically and visually. What was the inspiration for the story and how pleased are you with how it was ultimately depicted?
“Initially I wrote it for a poetry submission for Peepal Tree Press. The theme was filigree.
I wanted to think laterally. Rather than write about an object of beauty and fall into the colonial cliché of writing about something exotic and vibrant, I wrote the poem about someone who makes an object of beauty – a master craftsman.
It was longlisted by Peepal Tree Press but not shortlisted for publication.
I then entered it into the Writing East Midlands Aurora competition where it was commended, and I had some really good feedback about it. So when I was asked by City Arts to select two of my poems to be made into a film, I thought it deserved to be one of the two films.
I am very pleased with how it turned out and the use of animation to tell the story works really well.”
There’s quite a twist in the tale…
“When I write my poems, I want the first line and the last line to have an impact.
I begin the poem with ‘They had kept him’ which provides the suspense, I hope, for the reader to want to read on. I end the poem with ‘then they cut off his hand’ because I want the reader to feel the poem and remember it.
There is also a little part of me that likes to shock, and I hope the ending provides that.”
WHEN DID YOU REALISE THAT YOU WANTED TO BE A CREATIVE WRITER?
“I was always a reader which I believe is a prerequisite for becoming a writer. And although I come from a literature-poor family – I was, by virtue of my Jamaican heritage, surrounded by oral storytellers.
Perhaps this environment encouraged my love of words and developed the verbal skills that stood me in good stead as a ‘dub poet.’
So initially, it was more the act of performing poetry that interested me rather than writing poetry per se.”
Tell me about your first poetry. What age were you when you wrote it, and what was it about?
“I can’t actually remember the first poem I wrote, but I do remember the first time I performed poetry.
I’d probably been writing for a couple of years before finding the courage to stand in front of an audience.
I performed at the Association of Caribbean Family and Friends Centre (ACFF) in Nottingham as part of a Black history month event curated by the late Len Garrison. He was one of the founders of the Black Cultural Archive in London.
It was after a few years on the performance poetry circuit that I realised that if I wanted my words to have some semblance of longevity, I needed to work towards being in print. And that’s when my writing changed. This was during the early 1990s when the internet had not yet become a phenomenon.
Although the form and style of my work changed the content of my work remained the same. I still wrote about my experience as a Black British woman living in the UK and spanned topics such as the legacy of slavery, racism, relationships, and current affairs.”
Do you have a favourite poet?
“I have a number of favourite poets; Louise Bennett-Coverley for her audacity at writing in Jamaican vernacular despite being stigmatised for it. Also, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze. She began her career as a ‘dub poet’ in a male-dominated environment and stayed the course.
There are also poets like Claudia Rankine, Kei Miller and Danez Smith as well as Linton Kwesi Johnson who narrated the Black British experience in the 1970s and 1980s.”
I understand that you are one of Nottingham’s ‘Rebel Writers.’ Tell me more.
“I have campaigned and advocated for Black writers in the city since Nottingham became a City of Literature in 2015.
I have also worked hard at raising the profile of Black writers and offering them opportunities to get on the publishing ladder.
I speak up about discrimination on the literary landscape in Nottingham, and I am not afraid to do so.
From Byron to DH Lawrence to Alan Sillitoe, Nottingham is a city of rebel writers and of course, that includes me!”
You can visit her website panyabanjoko.wordpress.com