Back in 2021, Poets in the Archives met for a session to engage with material from Alo-Wa, a black women’s Oral History group in Southwark which formed in January 1990 and ran until 1991. Members of the group were seven women in total, all from African and Caribbean descent, and all living or working in Southwark.
During the poetry session, we looked through Alo-Wa material and then participants came up with questions to ask one another to inspire what would eventually be the writing of new poetry. These were:
- What does the phrase ‘back home’ mean to me?
- What does my family history look like?
- What are my childhood memories / how do I re-connect to a country I saw years ago?
- Why did my father / mother never teach me…
- What do I wish I knew more about my family?
Below are the poems the group produced in response.
Stories by Nirma de Silva
Embraced in the Alo-Wa spirit
they were brought together.
A sense of purpose,
warmed by community air.
Reminiscing about sun filled days and swaying palms
the sweet smell of the earth
the taste of tamarind, fried plantain, sweet potato
vibrant patterned kaftan fabric and
shimmering blue waters
they connected to others, to the community
in a celebration of culture
by sharing food, experiences,
their own stories.
It began as storytelling
voices from the past of
grandparents, an aunt, family ‘back home’
why they came to Southwark
challenges they faced
stories of courage and resilience
that amaze, inspire and stay with you.
Writing their own histories
like threads woven into a rich tapestry
of a community’s heritage
in a new home.
Back D’Home (dom) by Joanna Cielecka
One goes to the country
Misty evenings amongst the fields
Of corn, kukurydza, coucou rice
The sun is friendly
Even though I ignore it, typing
Ferociously these words.
The other slithers through Southwark
From jaunty Elephant’s Cheap Street
Crosses at George’s Circus
And swings back to watery Bankside
To sit on the slimy steps
And laugh with the rabbles.
How loudly was it sang
By guys climbing onto buses
In July twenty eighteen,
While twelve of us women
Sat quietly with herbs
In Prostitutes’ Graveyard?
How muted now it feels
Being alone with a Weegee
In a dreicht Polish village.
Estranged by Brexitannia
Speaking in the dialect of
Dogs, children and angels:
The prayer of hope.
Hope for home
Where we all belong.
Gentle like a sway of breath
Like mother’s heart
Like moth’s wings.
Gentle yet powerful
Like St Paul’s bell
Let Hope ring
Let the forked tongues
While I thank you, dziekuje
For joining me here
As if nothing else existed
I feel our union.
Not on paper
But above it.
Not a blur,
Nor a flicker.
No memory of this place.
Yet now it enthralls me
Now it entices me
The paanwallah’s potion
Invites me to submit
To breathe its scent
To taste its touch
To smell its air.
The sun clogs my skin
The dust clouds my lungs.
I’ve entered its body
I live its life
Surrender my mind.
Soon it will have my soul.
No Shoes by Eugenia Sestini
Or washing machines
Across the ocean
A language to be learned
And one to be forgotten
Do we choose what we want to remember?
My grandparents moved from Italy to Argentina after WWII, and my dad was born in Argentina. When he was in school, the teachers told my grandparents not to speak Italian because it was confusing him, so they never spoke Italian at home, and they never returned to Italy. I think they were worried that things would still look like they did when they had left. They both wanted to remember and wanted to forget.Eugenia Sestini
Prediction by Colleen Cameron
Poverty, plucked from peaty ash,
Petals my rosey-cheekbones,
Inherited from women scrubbing
A cleanliness privilege grants me now.
They, unknown, behind my looks
Look out –
History, marked by rows of wind-battered tombstones
Etch a line of youth dead before their Time,
Birthing generations of men more fruitful than they
Who look out –
Hills, rolling like our shape, shadowed by
Scottish Pine, high, like our legs made for walking
Miles, and the stamina of a population
Striving to survive –
But that –
Still, they look out –
Sighs of déjà-vu echo now, green
Guttural – the harshness
Palpable – the silence
Comfort keeps History an unanswerable prediction
Yet, they look out –
They see the world now through my eyes
And the world holds them still –
A Long Story by Barbara Robson
Oh do not ask me about my family history
unless you are ready for a tale of woe
told from the very pit of existence.
Would it were different, but my heart
tells me that now, coming up ninety-two,
honesty matters most to me.
Gone is the time I needed to impress
or please others. What have I left to lose?
You see, I come from a long line of poor
suckers from foreign parts. To survive their
daily grind, they resorted to secret fantasies
to keep hope alive. But like a sand castle,
this could not withstand the in-coming tide.
This unfortunate habit was passed on to me
willy-nilly. Although this may seem extremely
silly to you, it has all but cost me my life. For
assuming fantasy is safe when kept secret,
combined with a smile plus stiff upper lip,
is the stuff of a horror story. So it has proved.
For suddenly I seem to have a choice: to let
go the illusion that my forbears bequeathed.
Many were the stories both my parents told.
Not least being the one about my birth.
How the midwives prophesized over me
‘This one will become the lady of the family.’
They also named me ‘Rosebud’ due to my
my dainty, pursed mouth. But try as I might,
all this has proved rubbish down to this very day.
Now I can only attempt to count my blessings,
few though they seem. But maybe I am mistaken.
The gist of my story is that, though I come from a
long line of dupes, undoubtedly well intended but
truly f—ed, I am, in fact, no more or less so than others.
Mi yard in peace by Andrew Akpenyi
I was having a stroll in Southwark Park away from my yard
To take time to think to be solely away from everyone
To take time to think to be in a location that’s not common
To take time to think to be under a tree that’s providing me shelter when it hammers down with rain
To take time to think to be in a place as though I’m Chris Tucker laughing on stage
After that I skedaddled to Walworth Road library on the bus because I wanted to find a book on nature
To take time to think if I live in a real abode
To take time to think if I need to move to a different type of housing
To take time to think if my roots are factual
My next destination was a walk along Southwark Bridge to view the River Thames
To take time to think about the boats that pass under and when they’re gonna return
To take time to think about residing in a place around that area
In the end I got the bus back to my real home to just kick back and unwind
To take time to think and…