On Poets Against Racism With Manjit Sahota

Fatima Bobboyi

Manjit Sahota is a poet and the co-founder of Poets Against Racism. In this interview, Fatima talks to Manjit about the inspiration and mission of Poets Against Racism, his recent climate change performance and some of his work.

My interview with Mr Sahota didn’t quite go as I planned it. I was to set the scene in the foyer of the Music Building, it would be warm with some soft music coming from the recital hall across the room and the magnificent canvas trio mounted on the wall right in the middle of the room would create the perfect atmosphere to interview this amazing poet.

However, the interview started on our way to the Music Building in what was apparently 5-degree weather, though I could have sworn it was much colder than that. We kicked off the interview from the noisy streets with talks about Islamophobia awareness month and how it was such a shame we didn’t have this earlier.

the use of poetry as an art form but also a political tool

Mr Sahota went on to tell me of one of his recent performances, the one through which I learnt of Poets Against Racism. He said the demonstration at the Old Market Square on Climate Change following COP26 had “over a thousand people in attendance” with “all sorts of groups involved in wanting to see true change.” He states that his poem was “specifically written around climate change but also about the right to protest” because of a policing bill that’s going through parliament which limits the right to protest. 

Bobboyi: What is Poets Against Racism about?

Sahota: Poetry says things clearly and more distinctly than any long speech. That’s what PAR is about; use of poetry to impact, to call out. It’s the use of poetry as an art form but also a political tool. In 2016 there was a rise of racist attacks and racism so the need to bring diverse poets together and celebrate our differences was important and that was partly how we started. People go ‘would you perform a poem’ and I say yes, as long as we’ll get into what the poem is about. Performance art is also quite great for expression and also for your mental health.

people find it scary talking about racism and bigotry 

Bobboyi: How can students and the rest of the community get involved?

Sahota: There’s no membership fee and you can host a PAR event at UON as well- set it up and collaborate with us! People find it scary talking about racism and bigotry cause they think they’re going to get a lecture or just get it wrong, but the point is you’re not born perfect, and you can talk and listen and have a safe space that brings people together and builds them to be better for their communities.

Bobboyi: What was the process for your poem “Empire Calling” like? I listened to it on my way here and I absolutely loved how apt it was!

Sahota: Being an Indian who was born in England, growing up, I was embarrassed of being ‘the other’ and it has definitely been a painful experience. I’m always so many things at once: English, British, Asian, and Indian and that cocktail is historical.

So, the poem starts with me in an Indian restaurant eating an Indian meal thinking wait a minute, ‘how did I get here?’. I used the simple point of having a meal to trigger off the whole History of the Empire. Because the British Empire has dragged people around the world when it’s needed labour, so we’re here by a deliberate act of government and sometimes you fight against that trying to find home or trying to find England as home.

being okay with being in that third space

In that moment I wanted to be able to say, relax, this is part of 500 years of Imperial and Colonial history. The whole view of home is a big issue, and there’s a debate now in poetry and writing about “The third space” where you’re neither going back to your homeland nor looking at England to be welcoming. Being okay with being in that third space. I tried to condense so much History in it and to sum up also how Empire was built on the back of the poor.

At the end of the interview, I asked if he could perform ‘a moving piece’ and Mr Sahota performed “My Flag”. The poem addressed how Nationalism and, in extension, flags are used to divide people. He ended the poem with beautiful lines stating:

“My flag is an open heart, there’s room for everyone…My flag is here to set you free.”

Fatima Bobboyi

Featured image courtesy of @iamtru via Unsplash. Image licence found here. No changes were made to this image.

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