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Poet Linton Kwesi Johnson performs at UEL's 'Write Now' event

students in class

'EastLife' book also launched at showcase for creative writing

Acclaimed poet Linton Kwesi Johnson headlined the University of East London’s (UEL) showcase of creative writing at Stratford Circus Arts Centre in May. 

Mr Johnson, the first black poet and the second living poet to appear in the Penguin Modern Classics series, performed a series of pieces from Selected Poems, a collection of his best work from over three decades. The topics ranged from protests against police brutality to a eulogy for his father and the impact that new technology has on the way we work and communicate. 

“I’ve always been attracted to lyrical poetry and it’s always been my interest to try and find the music in speech and language,” Mr Johnson told the audience. 

UEL’s Write Now showcase also celebrated the launch of EastLife: An Anthology of Life Writing, a book written by UEL students that is based on the lives and experiences of older members of east London’s communities. 

"EastLife is a UEL civic engagement project featuring University writers and community elders. They met, they exchanged stories, and they were changed by the encounters,” said project leader Tessa McWatt, a novelist and lecturer in creative writing.

Mr Johnson told attendees during a question-and-answer session that he considers himself a reggae poet and not the dub poet - dub poetry consists of spoken word over reggae music - that he is so often labelled. Unlike dub, reggae poetry begins with words and he has always been fascinated by the musicality of language.  

“It can be problematic when you have to write from oral tradition so sometimes I make up my own words and spell them as they sound. For some reasons, I felt that if I could put my poetry to reggae maybe I could reach a wider audience.”

Mr Johnson was born in 1952 in Chapelton, a small town in Jamaica, but moved to London in 1963. In 1970, while still at school, he joined the British Black Panthers and helped organise a poetry workshop within the movement. 

Freedom, equality and justice have always been dear to the poet’s heart, as much as describing and sharing his personal experience of being an African-Caribbean in London, he said.

“I wanted to be politically conscious and write about black people’s experience in Britain and use a language that we all understand, without following the traditional canon,” said Mr Johnson.

Mr Johnson said his passion for writing started when he was very young and still lived in Jamaica. 

“I was inspired by some books I read as a youngster. I didn’t know any black authors back then and when I read those books written by black people, I identified with the content so I wanted to write,” said Mr Johnson. 

In London, Mr Johnson met John La Rose, a mentor who introduced him to the Caribbean Artists Movement - a movement that focused on the work produced by Caribbean writers, poets, film makers, visual artists, musicians and actors - and decided to use Jamaican Creole as a vehicle for his poetry.

“I’m glad I came early so that I had a chance to watch the students performing. Every single one has something going for them. It was a very fun event,” said Mr Johnson. 

The EastLife project, meanwhile, explored themes such as memory, culture and change. Using their own unique styles, perspectives and voices, the students turned each story into a creative interpretation of the elders’ memories. 

Ms McWatt created the EastLife project with Stephen Maddison, Principal Lecturer in Cultural Studies, and Sam Dodd, Creative and Professional Writing alumna, after being inspired by the high-quality autobiographical pieces her final year students produced for her ‘Life Writing’ module.

“Ultimately we wanted to tell stories about humans and represent their story to give them justice. In doing so, we had to make sure that we, as writers, didn’t change their stories in a way that could make the elders feel uncomfortable,” said Ms Dodd. 

All the proceeds from EastLife went to Richard House Children’s Hospice.

Write Now also featured readings from graduating students as well as the unveiling of the 2016 edition of The Gallion - UEL’s creative writing magazine.