Prism

Review: Nafeesa Hamid and Colette Bryce at Inspire Poetry Festival

4 October 19 words: Kevin Jackson

We caught performances by poets Nafeesa Hamid and Colette Bryce as part of Inspire Poetry Festival...

Nafeesa’s first poem, B8 Branded, finds us on the bus, journeying through Alum Rock, a Birmingham area officially labelled one of the UK’s most deprived. "So what?" Nafeesa says. "Come with me. I’ll show you the people behind the postcode. You’ll glimpse their secret souls." The poem looks with unflinching clarity, but stays generous. It’s not about, it’s “for the boy who wants to be a gun”, “for the missing girl”, “for the parents who made it to the Macmillan coffee mornings”.

Whether about sex, virginity, or health care, Nafeesa’s poetry strides straight up to you, tells it “like it is”, demands we think more bravely about the realities of life, what it means to be British Pakistani, to grow through trauma, to be Woman in cultures where men largely seek to commodify and colonise women.

This is not poetry that judges. In our society that looks for snap answers to validate snappier judgements, Nafeesa’s poetry blazes out, insisting the world is much more complex and our responses need to match if we’re to ever to value each other. Nowhere is this plea more potently expressed than How Men are Made. From opening question “perhaps he was more man than fist” to shattering conclusion “he is not monster/he is my father”, this poem jangles every nerve, yet it stays thoughtful about domestic violence behaviours that are appalling and agonising. It knows those involved are real people and it demands we stay thoughtful too, not run away, not rush to condemn either. This poem, as many of Nafeesa’s poems, is an act of fierce courage that takes us all forwards.

Nafeesa’s poetry is a firework display where all the fireworks are pointed inwards, startlingly lighting up our shadows and our souls. Her honesty earns the right to demand ours.

There is a timeless magic to Colette Bryce’s acclaimed poems; they feel at once solid as a church cross and insubstantial as figures in bonfire flames. They hover over landscapes of geography and time. They witness, at once bright and breezy, murky and muted. They protect and preserve. They believe and they question.

Colette first shared poems in which we visit places and memories in and around Derry, where she was born (“between the Creggan and the Bogside”), grew up and encountered “the troubles”. We are lifted above these places, so we too may see them shaped within a longer history, within larger truths. We see pieces of an “adult world that had tumbled into hell”. We discover the Gaeltacht, Irish-speaking families teenagers were sent to, where “English was not spoken”, “teenagers converging in a riot of hormones”. There’s a nagging sense it’s not a poem about teenagers.

The witnessing is complex, questioning, never still, never resolved. In A Library Book, we experience library as asylum and as “a spell to go back to childhood”. Poems as threads to catch, to travel by, defined the group of poems Colette read from her upcoming collection The M Pages. M, she confided, could stand for mourning, memory. M is also a person, a dead sibling. The poems addressed to M are extraordinary, a working out, through language, of what “M is no longer” means. They are a reaching towards death, “the ether side”, those who are “in no time”. 

Rising, affirming, smiling, Colette’s poems teach us, as balladeers do, and with their same timeless witness, more of what it means to be human, travelling the line between experiences, memories and the “point at which they always disappear”.  

Inspire website