A city that boasts some 35 languages spoken in our streets deserves an on-line Gallery of Writers to give voice to that clamour of stories and cultures. Grassroutes is a project hosted by the University of Leicester which 'is designed to foster local, national and international appreciation – as well as critical recognition - for the best of Leicestershire's writing.' They have sought out examples of 'transcultural writing from the 1980s to the present ...' and their website is well worth a look, featuring many faces familiar to me but so many discoveries too. It makes you realise how the city is positively buzzing with literary inspiration. We are fortunate to have a number publicly funded organisations that promote literature and writers and one of these, WritingEast Midlands, collaborated with Grassroutes on a commission which went to the talented AnitaSivakumaran.
The resulting poetry sequence of 'FiveVoices Leicester' are not so much dramatic monologues as poetic dialogues. I really enjoyed the strong sense of diverse Leicester voices - these poems have the wonderful immediacy of conversations overheard on a bus or in a queue. And Sivakumaran reveals that as a new arrival to the city, she would 'chat to the locals' and this gave her the idea for their form. My favourite poem is probably Auntie from the Nuffield Sauna.
On first reading I found the use of indirect as well as quoted speech a little confusing as to who was saying what. But it repays a second reading or better still reading aloud. One voice, that of the self-declared 'Auntie', rattles along, gathering up the poet's brief answers into her own torrent of conversation.
'Call me Auntie,' she says. 'Come sit down.'
She comes here every day. Keeps her fit.
Should she pour more water? I will?'
Sivakumaran has a great ear for the idioms of this kindly, bossy voice with its tag questions: 'I must be Gujerati no? No?' English phrasing with an Indian twist from a British Asian who's 'never been' to the subcontinent she speaks so much of. The listing conveys the older woman's curiosity and the barrage of questions with which she gently bullies her newly adopted 'niece':
My family, fortune, friends?
My height, weight, sun, moon and stars and their respective houses?
My expectations of matrimony?
There is a very winning humour here: 'she needs good girls in her family'. But more than that, the recurring lines about adding water to fire up the sauna deftly reveal an underlying theme:
'Closest she gets to tropical heat ...
Ooo baba, the heat is now roasting.
It must be like this all the time, no, over there?'
I found this quite haunting - a Leicester woman who apparently longs to connect to that lost 'homeland' by re-creating its tropical heat in an English sauna. It's a typical throwaway comment from a second or third-generation child of immigrants whose identity is still referenced by a faraway, never-visited place. Instead, place names and foodstuffs locate her cultural belonging: 'Eat ghar ka khana ... good for baby'.
As the 'Auntie' bustles about, ready to return 'to some cool English weather', I was left wondering about the implied relationship of the younger woman who sits quietly, towel-wrapped, in the background of the conversation. This poet's persona is somewhat reluctant ('Before I can back out') when she's snared in the intimate space of the sauna but something passes between them that goes beyond family credentials. And now I liked that Sivakumaran has held herself back in the dialogue and left that space for the reader to sense out the subtlety of this exchange.
Equally engaging are The Butcher on Queen's Road ('A good strong cleaver like this ... chops clean'), The Neighbour reclaiming her cat ( 'a bit of a stray myself') and two others poems that feature local writers reminiscing and aspiring to be part of a 'centre of the arts for the New England'. While you're at it, take a look on the Gallery page at Sivakumaran's powerful poem Citizens which particularly resonates after recent events in India. I cannot get over the image of a man in the street cupping his penis 'as if holding a chick'.