Sitting cross-legged on the carpet in a library, like children except for the wine, we craned our necks to the stage.
Poet, playwright, performer. Graphic artist. Hip-hop lover. Wannabe basketball player. Feminist. The coolest man in the world is real. As Inua Ellams appeared, he sort of giggled.
This was the launch of #Afterhours, Ellams’s year-long project to reconstruct his youth by writing response poems based on original works published between 1984 (the year he was born) and 2002 (when he turned 18). Staying close to the originals in topic, structure and syntax, Ellams “reset” each poem to tell a story about his childhood.
He read aloud Writ in Water & Blood (based on Charles Boyles’ Writ in Water, in the #Afterhours anthology) about his little sister’s birth. “So beautifully observant,” said my friend. When he read Not the Furniture Game – a portrait of his mother with malaria – we fell silent. Both were beautiful and fluid; we understood them. Because isn’t poetry supposed to be hard? A bit elitist?
Certainly not the latter. Instapoet Rupi Kaur and spoken-word star Hollie McNish are reaching a wide audience. Ben Okri read his poem about Grenfell Tower on Channel 4 News. There are countless interviews with Kate Tempest.
Nigerian-born Ellams moved to London aged 12. He likens himself to guerrilla gardeners, “who navigate their own paths, who beautify them”. He says: “What it means to be a poet is to do that with language, to localise it, to represent your spirit. To create an island of space around words, and call it art. A poet friend of mine says that each age creates a new language. What currency do you have in an age; in an age of fake news, Donald Trump, where language is being eroded, where lexicon is changing, where young people create new words – in an image-led world?”
It is language that sets Ellams apart from many of his contemporaries, who, by their own admission, put subject matter before words. Ellams’s approach is different. “I like poetry that has the appearance of simplicity, but isn’t. I’m a fan of complex language,” he says. Using basketball as an analogy, he adds: “I was watching Steph Curry play in the NBA. He was twisting and turning, putting his body into all sorts of shapes. But he made it look so easy, like butter. You can only get to that level of simplicity through years of deep practice. Poetry is like that. When a poem is just sentences with line breaks… that annoys me.”
It was this outlook that attracted Jigsaw to Ellams. We asked him to write a poem, which we have used as a print on a silk top and a coat lining. “I consider myself a feminist,” he says. “The poem is about a young woman trying to figure out her destiny. It was a chance for me to deepen and crystallise ideas around the female characters I’d been creating in my head.”
So if you buy the Storm coat this season, look inside. You’ll see how The Child-God of Chaos saved us all.
The Child-God of Chaos
Her first scream split the midwife’s ring
And cut the defibrillator’s wires to confetti.
Her giggling drove nursery schools to hysterics
And her breaststroke rose tidal waves each lap.
Her baking pillowed the whole house in clouds
And dancing threatened its concrete foundations.
Her singing caused the male choir’s discord
And stuttered the organist’s fingers to stop.
Her driving lessons gave highways nightmares
And her brake lights discoed traffic lights dead.
Her kisses caused murmurs in her lover’s heart
And her love-making crushed hip bones to flour.
Her runaway-from-home sparked a black hole
And it grew to completely consume her friends.
Her mood-swings ruptured weather patterns
And her merest indifference iced over lakes.
She heard of a hurricane making for the city
And entering quietly, she swallowed the storm
And found her life’s calling. And saved us all.
By Ana Santi