Aug 9 2011: A Period of Calm: An Interview with Linton Kwesi Johnson (Big Issue in the North, March 2001)

The following interview with Linton Kwesi Johnson took place during an overcast afternoon in late February or early March 2001 (the exact date isn’t recorded, but a piece based on an edited version of the transcript below appeared in The Big Issue in the North during the week of March 12 – 18). We met at a small cafe on Brixton’s Railton Road, and the occasion was a series of five dates Johnson was set to perform a capella, doing a spoken word set, at theatres in Liverpool, Hebden Bridge, Leeds, Manchester and Middesborough, so the brief was to knock together a fairly broad brush overview of the man, his life and work, rather than pursue an in-depth exploration of his music and writing.

Given the oddly serendipitous timing of this transcript being ready to post here – in the midst of events in London (possibly set to spread elsewhere) that echo some of those covered in Johnson’s own writings of the early 1980s, when poems like Di Great Insohreckshan  reflected the temper of the moment perfectly – it may be worth noting that the political context in which this interview took place was during a period that seems, in hindsight, like a brief interregnum of calm between storms. In March 2001, September 11’s attacks had yet to occur in New York and there were still hopes that the Labour government might yet manage to be something more than a mild disappointment.

By the end of the year, it was clear that this was not going to be the case, but at this precise moment – in that cafe on the Railton Road, with talk of social justice being mooted, even if firm action was rather neglected – it was still possible to believe the worst of the 1980s had been put behind us. It will be interesting to see (should Johnson choose to write about current events in London) how his closing comments in this interview might have changed in the light of the return of many of the forces it genuinely seemed had begun to be neutralised in that brief period of relative calm between the 1997 defeat of the Conservatives and New Labour’s fall into Neoliberal reflexes from 2002 onwards.

Wayne Burrows: I suppose the first thing is to ask about is the tour. This is a spoken word series rather than a tour with the band, right?

Linton Kwesi Johnson: Yeah, the last tour I did with the band was in Germany in November and December of last year [2000] and I was glad to come off the road because it can be a bit stressful working with musicians. It is very stressful working with musicians, some of whom don’t have the maturity to make these things go smoothly.

WB: So you’re working with younger musicians?

LKJ: You’d be surprised. Some of the older musicians act like they’re at primary school, you know?

WB: These are people from the band you’ve always used?

LKJ: The Dennis Bovell Band, yeah… But those dates were coming up to Christmas and all that, and I was just glad to get off the road when we finished. Thing is, I’ve always tried to keep my hand in as a poet, because, after all, that’s how I started off, as a poet, rather than as a musician. So I’ve tried to get in as many live poetry events as I can in the new year, this year.

WB: You’ve talked before about the difference between doing the music and the poetry as being like performing a capella, putting the focus back onto the words.

LKJ: Yeah, and I believe that’s important. Because I’m wearing two hats – the poet’s hat and the reggae performer’s hat – the one that gets noticed more is the reggae performer’s hat. So I have to keep trying to remind people that I wear another hat, and also I think that quite a bit of what I want to say gets lost in the music. People come to the band wanting to just enjoy themselves, hear the live music, you know, and doing the poetry live is a way of getting the words across without the distraction of the music.

WB: Do you find you get similar audiences for both kinds of work?

LKJ: No, very different. When I perform with the band, the people who come to hear me I would imagine that 90% of them wouldn’t come to a poetry reading because that’s not their sort of thing, you know? So they come for a night out. So maybe only ten or 20% of my poetry audience would also be the people who come to see me with the live band.

WB: You’ve said before that sometimes the actual words, the content and complexity of your poems, can get a bit lost in the music, but also that as a writer you had felt that the formal demands of writing for music had sometimes placed restrictions on you as a poet…is that still true?

LKJ: Well, yes, but over the years I’ve found various stratagems to deal with that which I won’t go into – that’s like my writer’s trade secrets, you know? – but it’s not as limiting to me as it used to be when I probably said that. What I’ve found now is that I can take a poem, a conventional poem, a poem by T.S. Eliot, say, and if I’m comfortable with the metre I can set it to music. It’s very easy to write The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock to music, and I can do a reggae rendition of that without no problem.

WB: That’s an interesting point, because I suppose a lot of people would tend to talk about your work’s rhythms, its performance aspects, as specifically Black or Jamaican or Caribbean things, but if you can set T.S Eliot to the same rhythms, and perform his poetry in the same way, you’re basically breaking down that distinction in a pretty fundamental way, aren’t you?

LKJ: Yeah, I mean, I’ve done it, I’ve done a rendition of it, composed music for it. But the thing was that Mrs Eliot wouldn’t allow us to use the poem. I tried to get permission from Faber to record it, but they wouldn’t let me, but maybe one day we’ll get the permission I need to release it.

WB: I hope so, because I’d love to hear that sometime…

LKJ: Yeah, but another example is that on my last album [More Time] I did two poems by Martin Carter, Poetry of Shape & Motion: Parts 1 & 2, which are not reggae, but because of the art I’ve learned over the years can be set to reggae music. I can do that because I know how it’s done, so it’s not as difficult as it might seem now, though earlier I guess I had more problems crossing the lines. But now, I understand that’s the great thing about reggae music: its malleability. Because you can transpose any form of music you like into reggae. Jazz, Classical, whatever you like, you can find some way of putting it all into a reggae rhythm and making it work.

WB: I read something a while ago where Kwame Dawes said that poets shouldn’t be thinking about the distinctions between dub poetry, performance poetry, written poetry or whatever, but combine the best bits of all of them. I think his example was bringing together Bob Marley with Gerard Manley Hopkins.

LKJ: Well, Kwame has his own agenda, which is not my agenda, so I don’t really want to talk about him or what he has to say. He has his own agenda, and I don’t have that agenda, because I’ve already established my own lines and ways of working, you know?

WB: The reason I raised that was because you’re the first dub writer…

LKJ: In reggae, yes. But these distinctions that people make about dub poetry and performance poetry and all that are overworked. There are only two kinds of poetry, good poetry and bad poetry, and the rest is just bullshit. Poetry was meant to be read aloud from the very beginning, I mean, can you imagine Chaucer without knowing that he read his stuff aloud? If you read Chaucer now, it reads like something to be read aloud, not dead words written down by somebody in isolation. Poetry has a communal and a social aspect to it, it’s not something that some individual writes down on a piece of paper in the privacy of his bedroom, you know? So all this business about performance poetry – about Gerard Manley Hopkins combined with Bob Marley or whatever – it’s just bollocks, frankly

WB: The reason I asked the question was because as one of the originators of that style in England, I wondered how you felt now it was established, and was a kind of reference point for newer writers coming up?

LKJ: Yeah, but I was first in the Caribbean too, because I started it before they did. Once they discovered what I was doing, they tried to put their own stamp on it by calling it something else, and what they called it was ‘dub poetry’. That was at the Jamaica School of Drama in the late 1970s… I knew all of them, and brought them here to England because it was great discovering that they were doing what I was doing, so I thought ‘yeah, we have a community of people doing the same kind of work’. I brought them all over here – Mikey Smith, before he died, Oku Onuora, Jean Binta Breeze, who’s still here, and Mutabaruka.

WB: They’re one generation, I suppose, but now there’s a younger generation, maybe even two generations have come through since then, so I was interested in how you saw your own influence on all of that?

LKJ: I don’t know if there’s any discernable influence there, but I really don’t know, and I don’t think it’s really for me to say. Other people say I’ve been a role model for them when they were younger, writers like Fred D’Aguiar tell me that, but Fred writes totally different kinds of poetry to anything I’m writing, so in terms of stylistic influence I don’t see that at all. But I think it’s inevitable that the kind of work I’m writing will die out in the long term because the language is dying. As my parents’ generation, and my generation, who are fluent Caribbean speakers, die out, we make way for my children’s generation, who have a kind of polyglot between the Cockney London accent and the Jamaican…although it’s also interesting to see that the London dialect has been Jamaicanised, too. But the Jamaican language that I speak, that my generation speaks, and which I use in my writing, will eventually lose its currency. That just reflects a greater distance between the Caribbean culture and the British culture than there once was.

WB: You’ve said before that your first motive for starting to write was because you saw your poetry in terms of a broader campaign for social justice. Is that true?

LKJ: Yes, but of course I also realise that poetry’s bigger than that, even though it has its uses in that way. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all poetry has to be limited to a kind of agitprop role.

WB: In an interview with Mervyn Morris, you talked about the poem ‘Lorraine’, and said that the poem was a response to people, a while ago now, I think, who thought you were only an agitprop poet…that ‘Lorraine’ was an attempt to show you could do kinds of work other than those that people expected from you?

LKJ: Yes, and it was an attempt at humour as well, but a lot of people unfortunately took it seriously and missed that, which I found very amusing.

WB: One thing I notice is that some of the newer poems, like ‘Reggae Fi May Ayim’, are a lot less direct in their political emphasis than the earlier material, maybe more personal and traditionally lyrical?

LKJ: It’s a development in my work that represents a kind of maturity. I look back of some of the earlier stuff in my books and I sometimes cringe with embarrassment, you know? But then you have to start somewhere don’t you? But it’s also in the nature of the earler work that its priorities were different and the politics were very direct, and it was very much of its moment. And a lot of it was also because I was going through my ‘surrealistic’ phase, so a lot of it was verbose and didactic, but there you go, that’s where I started from, and you have to start somewhere.

WB: The poems you’re writing now do seem to integrate the politics with the human dimension or whatever you’d call it in a much more subtle, developed way.

LKJ: They’re more mature, definitely. But then I would say that, innit, because I’m older.

WB: What’s the most recent collection of poems?

LKJ: Tings an’ Times, that’s the last proper book I did. Which a major publisher is interested in doing in paperback, and I’m interested in going with them because I’ve never been entirely happy with Bloodaxe…but that’s another story we won’t go into right now!

WB: Is there new work you’re gathering, maybe towards a new collection sometime soon?

LKJ: I don’t know about ‘soon’, but yeah, you know, a bit at a time, and when there’s enough together I’m happy with and that works together I’ll do another book. I don’t feel I need to rush these things. I’ll wait till it feels right then put it out.

WB: Moving to your background, one thing I’d want to talk about is that in the background notes you sent ahead of our meeting here, it says that when you first came to England you found the experience traumatic. I wondered what you meant by that more specifically?

LKJ: It was the shock of the environment and landscape, just the really extreme difference in landscape between London and Jamaica. London in November of 1963 was so grey, dull and dreary, which in itself was a massive shock to my system. As a child I had expectations, you know, ‘the streets of London are paved with gold’, you know what I mean? Then you come here and see people sweeping the streets, white people sweeping the streets, even. You never saw that in the Caribbean because the whites all lived in big houses, and they were the old Colonials who ran the fucking country, so you didn’t expect to see that. Then as a child I hadn’t expected to be racially abused, not just by other children, but by the teachers. That was what the trauma was all about. Of course, when you’re young you learn to adjust to new situations, and it didn’t take me long to find ways to fit in.

WB: And you were at school up to around the late ’60s?

LKJ: I left in 1970 and that’s when I started at Goldsmith’s studying Sociology.

WB: Was that a subject you chose with any particular career or goal in mind?

LKJ: Well, I wanted to do PPE at the LSE, but my A level grades weren’t good enough. So I thought about what else I could do, and they offered me a course in economics at Queen Mary College because that was my subject. But in that degree they had too much maths, innit, so I opted to do Sociology because at the time I was very naive and I thought that studying Sociology would offer me some insights into the nature of society – which it sort of did, but mainly didn’t. I think I learned more about that from what I did outside the university, really.

WB: You were already involved in politics at this time?

LKJ: Yeah, I’d been involved in Black Radical politics since I was a teenager.

WB: And that was still the Black Panthers at this stage?

LKJ: Yeah.

WB: I wondered how the Black Panthers connect with the material you talked about finding later. Another of the things you’ve talked about before, for example, is the influence that W.E.B DuBois’ book ‘The Souls Of Black Folk’ had on you. I think you even said somewhere that DuBois showed you how you could begin to write in that book.

LKJ: Well, it definitely triggered something for me, no question about that.

WB: What was it about that particular book that had such an impact?

LKJ: It was the beauty of the prose, which is very poetic, and DuBois is a great writer. There was also the way that he described the conditions of existence of Black Americans in the post-emancipation America, the struggles they had, and their fight against Apartheid. People think apartheid was something the South Africans invented, but in fact the Americans invented it, and the British practised it too. The Boers just sort of perfected it, if you can use that word of something like Apartheid. So a lot of The Souls of Black Folk was speaking to me about that experience, and I could also identify with the things he was writing about in other ways, so when DuBois writes about the red hills of Georgia, it reminded me immediately of the hills of Clarendon in Jamaica which I knew well. So even though I’d not been to Georgia, his book was open to me, and I felt I knew a lot of that landscape and situation he was describing. Some of it was personal, like that, but mostly it was about his writing and the view of the world he put across for me at that time.

WB: I’d assume at that time that there was also very little writing about this kind of experience available in England? Was it necessary to turn to America as a way of finding the means to describe Black British experience?

LKJ: At first, probably yes. I mean, I’d just discovered Black literature, which at that time was the Black Power period, and so there was a lot of Black Power literature being published even in the relative mainstream sometimes. Things like Soul On Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, novels like Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. Books like those, which were American, mostly. It was only subsequently that I discovered the body of Carribbean literature, and discovered that a lot of the pioneering generation of Caribbean writers were living in this country then, people like VS Naipaul and Andrew Salkey, who was my mentor.

WB: James Berry?

LKJ: Yeah, James was here, I knew James from way back when. Also people like George Lamming and Sam Selvon. I was very lucky because I caught the tail end of the Caribbean Artists Movement, which was one of the most influential organisations around – it didn’t last more than four or five years, but it was one of the most influential organisations in terms of stimulating Caribbean literature and art in general. It brought all of the disparate people together, and it was very inspiring to be around that, a part of that. You’d go along to one of their sessions at the West Indian Student Centre in Earl’s Court, or to the Keskedee centre in Finsbury Park in North London, and you could be suddenly hearing George Lamming give a talk, or hearing Sam Selvon reading his poetry, or Andrew Salkey reading his poetry…whatever. Amazing stuff. It was a very stimulating time.

WB: These were, I suppose, the generation above yours?

LKJ: Yeah, and a lot of those people have died over the last few years…Sam Selvon and Andrew Salkey among them. I read at Andrew’s funeral, in fact – me and Trevor MacDonald gave readings there. He’s a good friend, too – Trevor who does the news, you know? So yes, Andrew died, who was very important to me personally, and a lot of other writers of my generation, and Sam Selvon died a couple of years ago, too – but George Lamming is still very much around, thankfully. But, yeah, getting back to that question, I read American poetry before I really discovered Caribbean poetry, and the thing about the Caribbean novelists in England then is that they were still writing about the Caribbean, mostly. When they did write about England, they were basically doing so as writers in exile. They wrote about being in a home away from home. What I had to do was find a way of writing about an England that was my home, despite everything.

WB: One thing I’ve felt sometimes is that your poetry seems to have a similar place in the British context to that of someone like Leroi Jones, or Amiri Baraka as he now is, in the States. It’s a very radical voice, never quite in the mainstream, but always there, exerting its influence.

LKJ: Well, he’s a good friend of mine, and I take that as a compliment. But Baraka’s poetry is far more complex than mine. Putting it one way, I write reggae, he writes jazz, and the structure of jazz is far more complex than the structure of reggae.

WB: Perhaps that marks one of the distinctions between American and British poets, since when you read Baraka or someone like Jayne Cortez there is that powerful jazz influence.

LKJ: Well, there was a kind of Beat movement here, with people like Michael Horovitz writing Jazz… but I’d agree that it wasn’t as successful here as it was in America.

WB: In this country, the influence of pop and reggae have been more defining, perhaps? I know that you toured with Brian Patten a few years ago, and I suppose between the two of you there is that connection right away between those Pop and Reggae influences.

LKJ: Yeah, well we did a gig together somewhere and it worked well, so we decided to go on the road with it. But the Beat poets, the Liverpudlian poets like Roger McGough, Brian Patten, Adrian Henri, who died recently – those guys helped to prepare the way for someone like me, I think, because what they did was to take poetry out of its ivory tower and make it more accessible to ordinary people. Was it Roger McGough who said that line about ‘most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people’?

WB: Adrian Mitchell.

LKJ: Yeah, that’s right. Anyway, yes, they tried to do something about that. By the time I arrived, I’d read my poems with people like John Cooper Clarke. People like him and John Hegley have done a very great deal to broaden the interest in poetry. I love John Hegley. I think he’s mad.

WB: He does dissolve that boundary between poetry and stand-up, so you’re not sure whether it’s poetry or something else.

LKJ: Yeah, exactly. It shows that these are artificial barriers. But another thing I like is poets who write with humour, which is missing from a lot of modern poetry. A lot of it is dry, drab, opaque, inaccessible, you know what I mean? People looking up their arses and stuff like that, which can put people off reading it and listening to it. I also go for poetry that sings, poetry where you can hear the music in it. Perhaps in that way I’m a bit old-fashioned. But poetry should sing when you hear it, and you should hear it even on a page.

WB: That brings us back to the combination of poetry and music, which is pretty much where we began…

LKJ: I think that poets who have difficulty with music have that difficulty because they can’t hear the music that is already in language. All language inherently has music in it, and speech is musical. You hear the tones, rhythms, pauses even in ordinary speech, like when you hear people on the bus or at the market, just talking with no thought about poetry. If anyone has a problem with that when you do it in a poem it’s because they can’t really hear that music in everyday speech.

WB: I suppose, drawing things to a close, there are a couple of last points I’d like to talk about, and one of them is that in articles and interviews you’ve talked about the Lawrence case, things like that, and there’s a quote where you say: ‘taking all these things into account, Inglan is still a bitch’. I suppose I wondered whether you thought England was more or less of a bitch than when you first wrote that line in the late 70s? Or maybe just a different kind of bitch?

LKJ: Less of a bitch now, I would say. When I wrote that, the police refused to accept that there was any such thing as a racially motivated crime, and even if a National Front guy was kicking in the head of an Asian, and they arrested him, the charge would be assault, and they would say there was no evidence that the attack was racially motivated. That’s changed now, after the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and the MacPherson report. That’s the kind of thing that makes this country a lot less of a bitch. Even if a lot of this, at the end of the day, will be empty rhetoric, at least the Labour Party are talking about social justice and stamping out racial discrimination, as opposed to 1968, when Enoch Powell was talking about Rivers of Blood and they had an election in Birmingham where the Tory candidate had the slogan: “If you want a Nigger for a Neigbour, vote Labour”, which is hard to believe now, but that kind of thing wasn’t unusual then. That was the kind of thing that was going on pretty much everywhere you went when I first wrote that line.

WB: So things have got better in those kinds of terms?

LKJ: One thing that is not going to change for a very long time is the attitude of the police. Racism is so institutionalised, so ingrained in some elements within the police force that changes will take a very long time to achieve. Some very nasty people join the police force, you know, and some of them probably wouldn’t get jobs anywhere else, in any other civilised social sector. There will always be a few types like those, and even if it’s only a small number they will work to undermine progress.

WB: I suppose the last question would be to ask what your plans are once this tour is over?

LKJ: One step at a time, mate. I’m middle aged now, I’ve got no big goals left to achieve, which is a good feeling, and I take it one day at a time. I’d like to make a new record, but I haven’t got enough material together yet, and when I do, I will. After this poetry tour is over, I’ll be going out again with the band because that’s how I earn my living. I mean, I don’t survive just on my poetry, you know?

WB: You said somewhere that you’re enjoying the simple things these days.

LKJ: Yeah, I’ll go to my local and have a few pints, play a game of dominoes, put a bit on the races, you know? That’s what it’s all about. Life doesn’t get any longer as you go on so you have to make the most of it.

WB: That sounds like you’ve mellowed?

LKJ: Well, yeah, I mean there’d be something wrong with me if I hadn’t, wouldn’t there? I’ve got grandchildren now, I’m a middle age geezer now and some of the work people remember me for I made when I was 19 years old. So, yeah, I’ve mellowed since I was 19. Hasn’t everybody?

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