Poet Puzzlers – Emily Zobel Marshall

This week’s special guest in the hottest of poetry seats (note to self – Dragon’s Den idea… Hot poetry seats) is the very wonderful Emily Zobel Marshall. You may recall Emily as the wry-smiling, quick-quipping individual who single-handedly thwarted a criminal plot one Christmas in New York. Only there for the Holidays, Emily fortunately brought her gun and, despite minor damage to her own feet and several hundred thousand dollars of required repairs, Nakatomi Plaza was saved. It was a whole thing. Read on to find out more, and trust me when I tell you that this one is definitely ‘profound’…

  • What would you like to be reincarnated as?

I would like to be reincarnated as a wild horse. I’d have to be left running free with my herd in the deserts of Arizona, though. No metal bits and saddles and all of that malarkey.

  • What did you want to be when you were at school?

I wanted to train horses, horse-whisperer style, or be a writer like my Dad. I imagined myself writing tortured novels like Emily Bronte (my namesake), although I had very few tortured experiences to tap into back then.

  • What was/were the last good poetry book/s you read?

The last great poetry book I read was by Jamaican poet Tanya Shirley called The Merchant of Feathers. It’s such a sensual and rhythmic collection – you can feel bodily heat and dub baselines rising up from the pages. It’s also fiercely feminist.

  • Do you have a favourite word? And could you tell us what it is? (and maybe why?)

I like the word ‘profound’. It’s a bit of a bullshiter’s word really, but when you add it into a sentence you can kid people that your saying something really…profound.

  • Do you have a hidden skill or talent?

I can turn my eyelids inside out. It’s brilliant and totally gross. I do it to scare small children and to gain their admiration.

  • Is it fair to say that cultural heritage is an important aspect of your work? And if so, how do you perceive the influence of that heritage in your writing?

It is a very important part of my work. My father is white British and my mother is black Caribbean. I have both the colonised and colonisers in my bloodline. My grandfather was born on a sugar cane plantation on the French Caribbean island of Martinique and was able to attend college because his grandmother worked as a laundry maid and in the cane fields to save enough money to send him to school. He became a very well-known writer and poet (Joseph Zobel). My Caribbean heritage is central to my work as is my mixed-race identity – I like to examine ‘betwixt and between’ identities in my academic and creative work. My dad is also a big influence on me, he’s a philosopher and an anarchist. He taught me to always challenge accepted truths. We argue all the time.

  • What would be your preferred way to dispose of a body?

Bury it in my allotment. A nice soil enricher. I’d choose the brassica bed.

  • Is Steve Nash as big a pain to work with in a University setting as he is organise poetry events with?

Steve (of-the-nifty-eyebrow-piercing, as the student’s call him) is as loved for his teaching skills as he is for his style at uni. So a pleasure to work with, never a pain.

  • (This question comes from John Foggin) Clive James said that we live in a in a time when almost everyone writes poetry, but scarcely anyone can write a poem. He writes about ‘slim volumes by the thousand…full of poetry…but few….with even a single real poem in them’. Wotcher think about that?

I think this is a snobbish statement  – people say things like this to try and sound highbrow. It makes poetry seem elite – that only those with some kind of magic skill can write. I think everyone can write poetry – if you spend your time worrying about whether it’s bad or good you’ll never even put the pen to the page. Write – pour your heart out. Being honest on the page is what is important.

  • Do you have a book, event, project, invention, armadillo, anything you’d like to tell us about?

No armadillos (hard to source in lockdown) – but I have a great online event that I’m organising with the poet Khadijah Ibrahim and the Geraldine Conner Foundation coming up on windrush day on June 22 to celebrate the Windrush generation and Caribbean culture. It will soon be announced here: https://www.gcfoundation.co.uk

There will be lots of poetry.

Dr Emily Zobel Marshall is a Lecturer in Postcolonial Literature at the School of Cultural Studies at Leeds Beckett University. She teaches courses on African-American, Caribbean, African and Black British literature. Her research specialisms are Caribbean literature and Caribbean carnival cultures. She is an expert on the trickster figure in the folklore, oral cultures and literature of the African Diaspora and has published widely in these fields. She has also established a Caribbean Carnival Cultures research platform and network that aims to bring the critical, creative, academic and artistic aspects of carnival into dialogue with one another.

Emily hosts and chairs literary events and has organised international conferences on the literature and cultures of the African diaspora. She is a regular contributor to BBC radio discussions on racial politics and Caribbean culture. Her books focus on the role of the trickster in Caribbean and African American cultures; her first book, Anansi’s Journey: A Story of Jamaican Cultural Resistance (2012) was published by the University of the West Indies Press and her second book, American Trickster: Trauma Tradition and Brer Rabbit, was published by Rowman and Littlefield in 2019.

Emily has written poetry since she was a child and enjoys developing her creative work alongside her academic writing. She has had poems published in the Peepal Tree Press Inscribe Anthology (2019), Magma (‘The Loss’, Issue 75, 2019), Smoke Magazine (Issue 67, 2020), The Caribbean Writer (Vol 32, 2020).

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