Louisa Adjoa Parker is a writer of poetry, fiction and Black History. Her first poetry collection, Salt-seat and Tears, was published by Cinnamon Press in 2007 and was critically acclaimed by Selima Hill. Her pamphlet, Blinking in the Light, is also published by Cinnamon.
Literature Works caught up with Louisa to ask about her new work, her career, and the poetry world in general ...
You have a new collection, Blinking in the Light, from Cinnamon Press. Can you tell us about it?
I was one of four winners of the Cinnamon Press Poetry Pamphlet Competition 2015, and my pamphlet was published as a result. It is a small, sequential collection of poems which explore a traumatic year in my life – 1994 – and is set in Lyme Regis where I lived at the time. I wrote most of the poems after a therapy session during which I talked about these events, and realised I hadn’t come to terms with them. Writing the poems helped me to do this. It is very much about letting go of trauma, having the space and time to be able to do so.
We all deal with trauma in different ways, and in my case it was something I carried around with me for years. The themes are quite hard-hitting – suicide, drug overdose, being pregnant and single, poverty – but I hope I have dealt with them in a way that gives the reader hope. I wanted to invite the reader into the world I lived in at the time, as a young, black, single parent in Nineties rural Britain. Single parents were given a hard time in the media then (as the media tends to scapegoat society’s most vulnerable members), and although my circumstances were pretty extreme, I hope that readers will be able to empathise with this story, and think about the issues explored.
How do you approach getting a collection together? Do you have a very clear idea of the piece to begin with, or is there quite a bit of experimentation in selection?
I think for different collections there are different approaches. With Blinking in the Light, the poems so obviously fit together in a narrative sequence. I wrote all of them apart from two in a single sitting, and the two I had already written fit perfectly. With my first collection, which was also (mainly) autobiographical, I ordered the poems chronologically and split them into sections of childhood, adolescence and adulthood. With my next full-length collection it might be more difficult, as I’ve got lots of poems to choose from, using different POVs, exploring different themes, and which have been written over a long period of time. I will try to find themes that tie the poems together, and create some kind of order!
For poets who have never put together a collection, but would really like to find a focussed selection from their work, do you have any advice?
Having the poems in chronological order can be helpful, if they are telling a story about the poet’s life or a sequence of events. Other times it is useful to look for something that ties the poems together – particular themes. Collections can be split into sections, like a novel. I think the key is to go on instinct, and see what seems to ‘work’ for whatever reason. Some writers print everything up and play around with the pieces physically, to see what fits together.
You’re also a short story writer of course, and you’re in the new Fresh Ink Volume One just out and the Closure anthology – do you feel that short story writing and poetry have quite a bit in common, somehow? Can you also say a bit about your fiction work?
It was exciting to be chosen for the Fresh Ink anthology – the editors chose 3 of the stories from a fantastic new short story website that was launched last year – www.pennyshorts.com – and mine was one of them. Last year was the first year in which I had fiction published, so it was exciting and made me realise how much writing both fiction and poetry mean to me. I was also included in the Closure anthology, which is a collection of short stories by Black British writers published by Peepal Tree Press. The book has had a lot of attention and was named by the Guardian as one of the best short story collections of 2015. It’s a fantastic collection of contemporary writing.
I think poetry and short fiction are both snapshots of the narrator’s life, but a poem is like the kernel, an essence, whereas with a short story you have a little room to expand on a central idea and provide a little backstory, and of course dialogue.
I’m fairly new to fiction, having been writing it seriously now for five years or so, but I’ve been writing poetry for about twelve years. It’s as though I have different writer hats in my head for novels, short stories and poetry. Everything starts with an idea, and a feeling of wanting to write about something, although poems sometimes partly form themselves in my head before I write them. With fiction I have the idea, allow it to take shape in my head for a few days, then sit and write and see what happens. Fiction has allowed me to explore a range of voices, and I often seem to write from the point of view of marginalised characters, people who feel as though they are on the outside, looking in. Sometimes characters are inspired by real people, or a mixture of a people, and sometimes they’re totally made up.
I think for me it is important to tell the stories of a range of marginalised voices, particularly of black and mixed-heritage characters living in the South West, as so often the Black British experience is told from an urban point of view in contemporary literature. This can provide a new perspective and also a new background against which stories can be told. Place is a very important part of writing for me, and I have a very strong relationship with the rural South West, having lived here for most of my life.
You have written a number of exhibitions – can you say a bit about that?
I’ve worked on several projects which have explored the presence of BAME people in Dorset. I first became interested in local multicultural history during a module I studied during my Sociology degree, called Racism and Migration. The lecturer mentioned there were graves of eighteenth century black people in Devon, and I thought, ‘But I was the first black person in Devon!’ because that was how it felt when I moved there in 1985! I became fascinated with British Black History. I feel passionately about telling the stories of people whose voices have been ignored, or written out of history. Britain’s history is very linked with that of Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, and it’s only recently that these connections have begun to be explored in the mainstream.
The first project came about after I left Uni. I worked with Lyme Regis Museum and co-wrote a book and exhibition exploring ethnic minorities’ presence in the area. During the research I realised that this was just the tip of an iceberg and that there was a great deal of information relating to Dorset people and the African slave trade, for example, and much more. This led to a project I worked on with Development Education in Dorset (DEED), which produced a book and exhibition called Dorset’s Hidden Histories.
This looked at 400 years of the presence of African, Caribbean and Asian people in Dorset. Many people believe that Dorset has always been a white, mono-cultural county, but history tells us otherwise. People have been coming in for a variety of reasons from all over the world for hundreds of years. Many Dorset people owned plantations in the Caribbean and would bring slaves back with them. Many of the West Country’s manor houses were built with the proceeds from the slave trade, or from the huge compensation paid to Britain’s slave owners by our government when the trade was abolished.
After Dorset’s Hidden Histories I worked with DEED on a project exploring the presence of black soldiers, 1944 We Were Here: African American GIs in Dorset. This was a very moving project, as I interviewed some of the children the soldiers left behind, most of whom never found their fathers, and the men were treated terribly by the US Army. I also produced an exhibition and book called All Different, All Dorset, exploring contemporary experiences of BAME Dorset folk, and then went on to work on a short film of the same name for Bournemouth University with filmmaker Ebi Sosseh. Last year I worked with DEED again and produced a book and exhibition, The World of East Dorset, exploring the stories of East Dorset children and their connections with other countries.
What’s next – what are your new writing plans for the coming year?
I really hope to be successful with applications for grants so I can receive mentoring from established writers. I’m pretty much self-taught, and feel that I have got as far as I can alone, and would benefit from support to really ‘learn my craft’. I want to understand why I do something, instead of just doing it. I also think some professional support would improve the tutoring side of my writing.
I’m currently working on two novels – one is almost finished but it’s taken a lot of work and I’m still making changes to it. The second one is proving much easier to write and I’m over halfway through it. I want to publish my second full-length poetry collection, and am working on my first short story collection. I will also be doing a number of poetry and fiction readings around the South West and beyond. Overall I aim to take my work to the next level, and a wider audience, so watch this space!
Thank you, Louisa!