Dorothea Smartt has been a prominent voice for black women poets since the 1980s, called by her mentor Kamau Braithwaite the ‘Brit-born Bajan International’. If this sounds like a movement, call it a movement towards voice, as Smartt claims for her work what she refers to as her ‘two voices’: her ‘London voice’ of standard English, and her ‘Bajan voice’ – the voice of her childhood and her dreams.
Dorothea Smartt was born and grew up in London, to parents who had emigrated from Barbados in the 1950s. This identity and her feminist politics have informed her work, which has included working with black women’s co-operatives in Brixton, and a stint as Poet in Residence at Brixton Market (as part of the Poetry Society’s Poetry Places project). She was invited to submit work to a publishing collective called Black Women Talk, for an anthology which, in the event, also included work by Jackie Kay and Bernardine Evaristo.
Described as a ‘Medusa’, Smartt took the idea and turned it into a poetry of hair – black women’s hair – a powerful cultural iconography, in a performance work that included a sequence of poems plus visuals. These poems appeared in her first collection, connecting medium.
cut she eye at a sista mirror
turn she same self t’stone.
She looks really kill?
Ask she nuh! Medusa would know.
She terrible eyes leave me stone coal.
(‘medusa? medusa black!’)
The poem ‘iii. twists and turns’ from the sequence ‘five strands of hair’, disguised as a list of facts about black women’s hair, builds an image of a culture, its origins and its – indeed – twists and turns.
Fact: There is good hair, and there is bad hair.
Fact: Hair and scalp diseases were common amongst enslaved Africans.
Fact: A chemical used to straighten African hair is called ‘lye’.
Fact: Natural African hair must be processed to make it manageable.
Fact: Black women spend a major part of their income fixing their hair.
Fact: Straightening hair made the first U.S. Black millionairess.
Fact: Black women need the hairdresser more often than white women.
Fact: Different styles of plaiting and braiding marked rites of passage.
Fact: Unkempt hair is a sign of madness.
(from connecting medium)
In her series of poems about Medusa, Smartt appropriates the mythical figure of the snake-headed woman whose gaze means death, and polemicises her, creating a striking rhetoric of the power of silenced women – women who can’t even be looked at – and notions of beauty in the skin:
if you brown stick around
and if you white comelong y’alright . . .
Say: make it go away make it go away
da nappiheaded nastiness!
Is too tuff too unruly too ugly too black
too tuff too unruly too ugly too black.
(‘medusa? medusa black!’)
Smartt talked about her use of Bajan dialect in an interview with Janet Phillips for Poetry News (2001):
Some of Smartt’s work with a more ‘standard’ feel is equally concerned with the histories of black Caribbeans. Her pamphlet Samboo’s Grave/Bilal’s Grave (2008), resulting from commissions by Lancaster Litfest and the Slave Trades Art Memorial Project, addresses the story of a boy who, enslaved at the age of around eight, was brought to England in the 1730s by the captain of a slave ship (a Quaker) as a present for his wife. Rejected by the wife (but the reason for this isn’t known), the boy died only a few days after his arrival. He is buried in unconsecrated ground in the Lune estuary.
Smartt’s work imagines the voices of the captain and his wife, as well as the boy (called Samboo by the sailors), conceiving the story as interwoven – containing the threads of the history of all the protagonists.
Sambo. Filled with your tears
and regrets. The tick in the eye
of Lancaster pride; the stutter,
the pause, the dry cough, shifting
eyes, that cannot meet a Black man’s
gaze. Questions, questions from either
side that foul us for answers . . .
Who will heal and elevate to light
the souls of your ancestors if
you refuse to remember? If you
cover their incarnations with half-truths?
‘Grocer’? You were a slave trader!
And everything has its price,
and denial is only debt
with interest to be paid.
(‘bringing it all back home’)
These poems have a sad dignity. Bilal (as Smartt renames the boy) keeps his name to himself; the Quaker wife is either horrified at owning a slave or repulsed by his blackness; the sea captain is both denying and careless, and the histories of two peoples are damaged by the transaction. The language is careful, precise, formal.
These two ideas, of connectedness and of the terrible power of denial, also drive another poem written in Smartt’s “London voice”: this time with a warning of another danger of ‘carelessness’.
going on as the sun sets in the North (and scorches the South).
A single home lit by countless careless bulbs,
the hum of its appliances on stand-by. While
clicking fingers coat the keys of a Playstation,
and a car chase roars from the DVD on the plasma screen,
while someone else plugs into a symphony of jungalist beats . . .
( ‘A Sense of Denial’, commissioned by Platform in partnership with African Writers Abroad (PEN) for the exhibition and season of events “C Words: Carbon, Climate, Capital, Culture”, Arnolfini, Bristol, 2009.)
Dorothea Smartt has been called “part of a chorus of voices from the diaspora” by the poet Kwame Dawes. The power of a chorus is that it grows, and is both one and many. Smartt is a powerful, warm, sophisticated part of that chorus.
Smartt has been ‘attached live artist’ at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and a guest writer at Florida International University and Oberlin College. Her poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies including Bittersweet (Women’s Press, 1998), The Fire People (Payback Press, 1998), Mythic Women/Real Women (Faber, 2000), IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000), and A Storm Between Fingers (Flipped Eye, 2007). She is poetry editor of Sable LitMag, a magazine of new black writing. She works in schools, runs workshops and performs in Britain and internationally.
Connecting Medium, Peepal Tree Press, Leeds, 2001
Samboo’s Grave/ Bilal’s Grave, Peepal Tree Press, Leeds, 2007
Ship Shape, Peepal Tree Press, Leeds, 2008 (includes the poems from Samboo’s Grave/ Bilal’s Grave)
Judith Barrington, ed., Intimate Wilderness, Eighth Mountain Press, Portland, 1991
Carole Boyce Davies, Holger Ehling and Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie, eds, Moving Beyond Boundaries, Pluto, London, 1996
Kadija Sesay, ed., Flaming Words, Burning Images, SAKS Publications, London, 1996
Gillian Spraggs, ed., Love Shook My Senses, The Women’s Press, London, 1998
Karen McCarthy, ed., Bittersweet, The Women’s Press, London, 1998
Lemn Sissay, ed., The Fire People, Payback Press, Edinburgh, 1998
Jacob Ross and Joan Anim-Addo, eds, Voice Memory Ashes, Mango Publishing, London, 1999
Lizbeth Goodman, ed., Mythic Women/ Real Women, Faber, London, 2000
Courttia Newland and Kadija Sesay, eds, IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain, Penguin, London, 2000
The Forward Book of Poetry 2002, Faber, London, 2001
Malika’s Kitchen, A Storm Between Fingers, flipped eye, London, 2007
Smartt’s author page at Peepal Tree Press
The British Council’s profile on Dorothea Smartt
Smartt’s page at the Poetry Archive
An interview with Smartt in Poetry News
YouTube video of Smartt reading