Spelt Two, the Summer Issue, is now out and is making its way into the world as we speak. I was very lucky to have the opportunity to interview Jason Allen-Paisant for the magazine, about his new book, Thinking with Trees withCarcanet. The interview was fascinating, Jason’s life story is incredible and as you will see when you read the interview, I can’t wait to read his memoir. Alas, the size of the print magazine limits how much of the interview we could print, and because we covered such a wide range of topics and in particular the print industry and black and other under represented voices in nature writing, we thought is was important that we made the whole thing available, for free. Enjoy.
The Spelt Interview
With Jason Allen-Paisant and Spelt Editor Wendy Pratt
Jason’s book Thinking with Trees is published with Carcanet
Wendy: Good morning, thanks for taking time out of your busy life for a Spelt interview. I’ve read your book and I think it’s brilliant. I especially liked the way you go into the forest, but it’s not like taking the reader and saying, Look, this is the forest, this is a tree here, this is this…. This is like the reader is right next to you, it’s almost like a 3d experience. It is quite beautiful. And the poems that focus on the feeling of other within nature are exceptional. I read it from start to finish, in one sitting.
Jason: Thank you so much. I appreciate that. Yeah, it’s about the body and you know, a lot my work has to do with the body; thinking about the body, both in performance and on the page.
Wendy: I watched a couple of your readings on YouTube and loved them. Sometimes there’s a big difference between the poem on the page and the poem performed. But you are sort of inside that poem, a wonderful performance.
Wendy: Can I ask you how the landscape that you live in, and the landscape of your childhood, affects and informs the work that you do as a poet?
Jason: So, I’m from Jamaica, I’m from a small rural district called Coffee Grove, in central Jamaica, in a parish, (we have 14 parishes in Jamaica), called Manchester. When people ask me where I’m from, and I say Manchester, if I don’t say Manchester, Jamaica, you know, there’s confusion! I’m from Coffee Grove, Manchester, Jamaica. It’s a hilly district. It’s quite elevated, with limestone geology, there’s the ocean and it’s a mountainous landscape, which has always fascinated me. I grew up with my grandmother, who was a farmer, for the first five years of my life. My grandfather was still alive at that time was also a farmer. The district of Coffee Grove was a farming district where they grew yams and potatoes, among other crops, but I remember the yams because that’s what most people used to plant. It was a different time. I was born in 1980. While I was growing up, we didn’t have electricity. We didn’t have running water and that district still doesn’t have pipe water. Electricity came later. By that time, I had moved to the small town called Porus, about an hour away. Coffee Grove was concentrated around the land, literally speaking. Most people in the district were farmers, and their children grew up to be farmers. And if you didn’t want to be a farmer, you had to move away.
Wendy: So, you decided not to be a farmer?
Jason: I didn’t decide as such; my mother sent for me at the age of five. She was a primary school teacher, in the small town of Porus. My grandmother had been a teacher as well, in a previous life, but not an official teacher. She was a basic school teacher. She started a little basic school in a very small room there in Coffee Grove. She took in the children from the village, and she taught them because she was perhaps the most educated person in the village. She came from a neighbouring parish called St. Elizabeth. She must have been very smart. She taught children from primary right up to absolute highest that you could go at the time, if you weren’t the type that go on to college or university.
Wendy: Did she teach you?
Jason: She taught me to read, write, she taught me to read right there on the veranda of the small house that we used to live in. My book is dedicated to my grandmother. Her name was Keturah. Because for up until I was five, and I went to live with my actual mother, I thought that she was my mother.
Wendy: How was it then when you went to live with your actual mother? What was the relationship like? Did you just go into this house with this woman who you never knew as your mother?
Jason: I find myself probably remembering sensations more than actual events. I’m writing about this in a piece that’s going to come out in Granta in November. In that piece I discuss that moment where I go to live with my mother, and the shock, because I wasn’t told that it was going to happen. I was taken there, and my grandmother left. It’s quite a trauma. But I didn’t allow myself to think of it like that, or to put those words on it. The purpose of the move was that I was now going to go to school, the official school called the ‘infant school’. The piece that’s coming out in Granta is part of a memoir that I’m writing around this whole thing; the tentative title is Primitive Child. And I’m obviously playing on the word primitive here because of all the connotations around the word; the negativity, if you go back to ethnography and travel writing. But then you have Mary Oliver, American Primitive, and then you have all the modern romantic kind of notions around the primitive where people are trying to recuperate this sense of deep connection, and so on. Yeah, so that’s where I grew up.
Wendy: How old were you when you moved to England?
Jason: I was 30. That was in 2011. I moved to England to go to uni, to Oxford, because I got a scholarship.
Wendy: Did you want to study from like an early age? Was it in your life plan?
Jason: No, it was by the time I got to the end of my first degree, I realised that I enjoyed doing research and studying, that I wanted to do a Master’s and by the time I did the Masters, I figured that I might as well carry on and do a PhD. There was a big gap between the Master’s and the PhD because at the end of my Master’s I had to work to pay back my student loan. I worked for quite a few years. I applied, got into several universities and I got a scholarship to go to Oxford. No brainer. It’s a dream. It’s this magical place.
Wendy: When did you start writing poetry?
Jason: I started writing seriously in Oxford, I started considering myself as a poet, when I was in Oxford, because the space was so generative. I think it was because of the very unusual, surprising situation that I’ve found myself in being there in Oxford. That distance, both spatially and emotionally, made me start to think back about my life, to delve into memory. My first poems were about, unsurprisingly, memory about the hillside district of Coffee Grove, about my grandmother, about the red sun in the evening, about sitting on the barbecue, as we call it, the place where the coffee is dried. I think all those poems come out of the shock of realising where I was and where I came from.
Wendy: Besides a big step is huge. This is a real, life-journey, isn’t it? To go from a place with no electricity or running water, to Oxford University, which is like the hallowed ground of writers and artists. Isn’t it? Amazing. Can I ask what it was like to be black at Oxford? Because, well, it appears to me to be quite an elitist community, a community built on white English families, and, forgive me if I’m wrong, you don’t see that many black people in that community?
J: It’s changed quite a bit since I’ve been there. I’m coming up to 10 years now. I realise a lot about my experience of being black at Oxford is seen retrospectively. There are two things really: there’s something about people who come from a black majority countries and how they experience racism and how that’s different from a black person who comes from a white majority Aryan country; with a kind of expectation that you’ll be treated well. My own experience is that I knew about racism, of course, and colourism too, being from Jamaica. But the thing is, you’re not as on guard about it; what I’d experienced in Jamaica is nothing like the racism one experiences in Britain. British racism is something you grow to see.
I want to say that Oxford, in so many ways, was a great experience. And I think it was primarily a great experience for me and people were great to me. I think about Alistair, the porter and Ian the porter and I think about so many of my friends, because that’s what I call them, who served in the dining hall. And professors and academics and so many great people I met there. It was a major growing experience for me, and it opened a lot of doors. So, I want to emphasise that. But I also have to say that it was very racist. I realised, under all the goodness, that this was a system that was primarily addressed to people of privilege. And there’s a lot about this system that prevents you from being a part of a lot of conversations. But you know, Oxford being Oxford, you create your space. And there are and were people like me who came from working class backgrounds. And there were also international students from Africa, and from the Caribbean, like me. Obviously, we’re very, very close, very close knit; we did parties together, we did our West Indian traditions together, we cooked for each other. And so we created our own community. Oh, yes, community. And I must stress that I’m a very open person. And I take the bull by the horns, I go out there and I create my world. Yeah. And I take people on their own terms. I meet people and I’m a hungry spirit. I meet people from all over the world, and I meet very rich people. I meet people who are more like me, and I become friends with all of them. And I meet them on their level. And I suppose that’s what my life has done for me, you know, moving through different spaces. I definitely made the most out of Oxford. And yeah, great experience.
Wendy: This feeling of othering, of being outside of a community runs through your collection, your poetry book, and I just wanted to talk about that a little bit, because one of the things that I picked up in the poems was this sense of questioning ownership of space, specifically forestry, the space that you’re walking in, and the differences between a forest as, essentially, a resource, and how we view forests as a place to visit for peace. There’s a sense in your collection that even when visiting peacefully, there’s a feeling of danger, of not being able to own the space that the body inhabits. I want to ask you where this these poems have come from? And what your experiences are, of being in nature, in the forest walking, going out and walking and just enjoying nature? How has this continued feeling of otherness impacted your enjoyment?
Jason: There’s a sense of being simultaneously safe and not safe at the same time. The sense of being where you’re supposed to be, being where you’re meant to be. And that comes from self-affirmation. And at the same time, the real feeling of wondering, you know, will something happen to you? Or are you truly physically safe here, in these spaces? So, I find that I’ve always found that an odd and puzzling, an interesting space to dwell in. I constantly am asking myself, who tells you to go into the woods? You know, why? Why are you going there? You know, and there’s a poem in the collection called, What are These Woods Anyway, where the refrain is, ‘I don’t want my mother to say I told you so’. I wanted to give a sense of ‘why come in, then, if there are these threats, and if you see these people that make you uneasy?’
Wendy: The image of aggressive dogs, and aggressive owners are right through this collection. Are these metaphorical dogs? Or are they real dogs? Are these dogs that you come across in the woods?
They’re all dogs that I come across. Lots of dogs that I meet are just regular dogs, but there are some dogs, you know, who are working as a symbol with a particular tribe. There is a thing with black people and dogs, which goes back to the days of slavery. And the fact that dogs were one of the ways by which black people were coerced and terrorised on the slave plantations. Dogs brought over from Europe were used as watchdogs and for tracking slaves who attempted to run away. Slaves were literally hunted by dogs. And that is something that lives on in the psyche. And you’ve got examples running through history, and not just in the Americas.
Wendy: One of the poems in the collection refers to a well-known incident, which was shared a lot on social media, in which a woman in New York called the cops on a black man who had asked her to put her dog on a lead. She’s filmed screaming down the phone saying ‘he’s attacking me, he’s attacking me’ when he was clearly just standing there trying to request she put her dog on a lead. I felt using that image was such a brilliant way of bringing the situation into a modern representation, into lived experience.
Jason: And the point of a lot of those questionings is, really about dogs and personhood. It’s still there, you know, the fussing over the dog, or the ownership of dogs and so on, sheds light on the status of black people, their personhood. Like the way black people are often put down to a level beneath that which is afforded to these animals, I like to think about this juxtaposition, how it allows us to look at different lives and who gets to be a human and who gets to be loved, who gets to be in the space, who gets to have access to space; having a right to be there. This scenario with a woman in the park really brings home a lot of these ideas because she is out walking with her dog, which is something a lot of people do. But here she is, being the master of the space, in a sense, because all that this man asked her to do, very politely actually, which you can see that in the video, is to put her dog on a lead, but in her view, he just didn’t have a right to do that. He’s out of his place. And what does she do? Because he’s out of his place, she calls the cops on him, but she’s not just calling the cops on him. She performs hysterically. My life is being threatened! I am in danger here, because of a black man! And she pulls on that thread that she knows, historically, that that’s the thread she needs to pull on. Because that’s how it works in America. The dog figures in that poem. It allows us to look at history, and bodies and space, in a panoramic way. And I think that’s what the dogs are doing in these poems. Dogs can be great, I have nothing against dogs. It’s not about liking or not liking dogs, but it’s about the history and the system of values that has developed around them.
Wendy: I want to know what nature is to you as a person and also as a poet? Is nature something you seek out to unwind in, to empty your head in? Or is it a source of material for you for your writing? What is nature to you? And where do you go, because you live in Leeds, don’t you? Where do you go in Leeds? Where is your place where you go to find nature?
Jason: I go into Roundhay park a lot, just because of where I live. I live on the edge of the park. I go into the park and I go into the woods. My favourite part is the woodland sections. Because they remind me of woodlands that I knew growing up. I go into the woods, the woodland because they’re quieter. I’m not hearing engines of cars. It’s a different kind of sound. You hear trees swaying, you hear rippling, the rippling of water, you hear streams, you hear twigs falling, those sounds are nature sounds, birds. That sense of connection is important with the world, you know, with the natural world. It’s a way out of the humdrum of the everyday as well, which can be so stressful. And it can be aggressive as well.
Wendy: So it’s just a mindful activity, meditative?
Jason: Yeah, it is. It is, I would say.
Wendy: Can I ask you about your collection and how you want it to be received? What do you want it to do? What do you want it to do when it goes out into the world? Because, as poets we write collections, but they’re rarely just observations, they’re rarely just observations of our own lives. We don’t send them out into the world just to exist in the world, we hope that they are going to do something; perhaps inform conversation or connect to readers in a specific way. What do you hope for your collection? How do you see it connecting to readers?
Jason: That’s a darn good question. I hope, first, that people see this as a different kind of nature writing. And that they see the need to, in nature writing, imagine bodies that look like mine. The bodies of dark-skinned people and of the working class as well, because a lot of it’s about race, but it’s also about class. I’m black, so I write from that perspective. But I do hope that it opens up that conversation about nature writing, and how we need to think about these different experiences, the different people who get excluded from the canon of nature writing. I hope it makes people think about exclusion and how we write about that, because that’s what I’m also writing about. And it’s not always exclusion, it’s sometimes just the problem of being in a space, and that security/insecurity that we spoke about. So, black faces in green spaces as people say? Yeah, exactly. Absolutely. I’d like to see more nature writing that’s about different nature writing, that’s not just from privileged people going hiking or going into the woods or going, you know, into the spaces because for them, it’s never questioned, because they’ve always imagined themselves able to do these kind of things.
I think probably there’s a place for editors, or writers who commission people to write, you need to get more voices, more diverse voices. I write a poem about planting and logwood and my grandmother planting yams and so on, and I enter it into a nature writing competition. Is it going to get shortlisted? Who knows? I don’t know. That’s the question I’m asking. The point is that you don’t see this type of poetry winning nature writing competitions, right. And then, I mean, somebody is probably going to say like, people like me aren’t entering them. But I’ve entered poems in nature writing competitions. I’m not sure these poems are the ones that get shortlisted for that kind of stuff. My poems are about, you know, people digging the land, you know, living with the soil, that kind of experience. But above all, it’s nature poetry that has the body and embodiment at the heart of it. Because when a black poet interrogates nature poetry in the West, it has to be done like that.
Wendy: It’s one of the things that we are trying to do with the magazine, I’m uncomfortable with the fact that our first issue was very white. The submissions were from white people from the white community, a lot of submissions were poems about using the rural landscape as a park to visit on your days off. And what I wanted was more people writing about their lived experience within the rural landscape. We’ve got good poems, really good poems, but not diverse poems, we had very few poems from black people, people of colour, people from different backgrounds. We are hoping, as the magazine grows and expands into wider audiences, that will change. But I was quite disappointed and am still struggling to know how to reach black voices, the non-white nature community.
Jason: That’s a fantastic way of thinking, and I’ll add this as well, perhaps it might be said, and I don’t know one way or the other if this is true or not true. But some people might say that you haven’t got enough black people and people of colour submitting nature poems to these magazines. But it’s also a chicken and egg scenario where it’s a symptom, isn’t it? Because I’ve spoken to some fellow poets, and a lot of the feedback you get is that that’s not our space, what are we doing in that space? Because their experiences of reading nature poems is of things that do not reflect their existences, their lives. That’s the view, that it’s not my space, because he’s not speaking to me. So, it’s also, my hope that one of the things that my collection will do is to give a wider palette of what nature writing can look like. To see that our concerns about nature and our experiences of nature are worth being written about. And documented as well.
Wendy: So, last question, then, what’s next? What are you working on? Now? What do you plan on doing next?
Jason: Working on the memoir. I am actually speaking with an agent currently. I have another collection, which is poems that I’ve been writing for the last 10 years or so before I started writing this book. That’s what readers might be interested in, that I had all those poems that I started writing from when I was in Oxford, and that’s going to be a book as well. So I’m going to be working on putting that out.
Wendy: I would absolutely love to read it. I can’t wait to read it. I hope your collection gets on all the best shortlists and wins awards and brings these ideas out into the world. And I wish you absolutely every bit of luck with it, it’s just brilliant. And thank you again.
Jason’s book is available from Carcanet
Jason Allen-Paisant is a Jamaican poet. He’s also an academic who works as a lecturer in the School of English and the School of Languages, Cultures & Societies at the University of Leeds. He’s the author of Thinking with Trees (Carcanet Press, 2021) and is currently at work on a non-fiction book entitled Primitive Child: On Blackness, Landscape, and Reclaiming Time. He lives in Leeds with his partner and two daughters.