Published for The Bristol Magazine
Performance poet Malaika Kegode is one of the brightest lights to recently ascend Bristol’s performance scene.Brittle and brutal shots of honesty mixed into a formidable cocktail characterise her work. Somehow, in the short space of a few lines, it’s easy to start breathing the same air as Malaika’s protagonists. She says, “In the same way as feelings and emotions, poems should be accessible but that does not necessarily mean that they can’t be difficult.” Many of us picture poetry as something unobtainable, but by framing chewy emotions with the mundane and everyday, she irresistibly pulls you into her orbit.
In an online age overwhelmed with up-to-the-minute everything – news, opinions, pictures, videos and memes – this young writer is championing one of the most ancient literary forms as a way to cut through the white noise of our busy digital world, writing about what some are afraid to confront. Her first collection of poems published this year(‘Requite’) speaks of what it is to be a young woman finding her way amongst people: from growing up between sleepy, bucolic Devon to moving to a big city;from addiction to heartbreak; from friendships to race. She is totally unafraid: smart, sassy and incredibly real.
Despite sometimes using social media as a stage for her work, which is undoubtedly important when you are now almost as likely to bump into poetry on a daily scroll over a morning coffee as when walking through the aisles of a bookshop, Malaika is keen to disassociate her poetry from the ‘likes culture’. “There’s an element between some modern poets of point-scoring and in desperation, hitting on a popular idea and therefore not having true belief in what they’re saying. Unfortunately, that sort of poetry is straying into the territory of those ‘inspirational’ quotes on sepia landscape backgrounds – all those incredibly simple, reductive messages about smiling, going outside, and therefore everything working out forthe best. Life isn’t like that! Poetry has so much more to it.”
From modest beginnings, Malaika has undoubtedly had a significant impact on Bristol’s literary landscape, founding Milk Poetry in 2015, which is fast becoming one of the UK’s leading spoken word events. She performs at festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe, Boomtown and Womad. She has also performed for Roundhouse and BBC 1Xtra, at the Tobacco Factory Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic.
Mentioning Bristol has the same effect on Malaika as flicking a switch on in a darkened room. “I’d wanted to move to Bristol for ages, it was the dream city - and the opportunity landed when a job at the Tobacco Factory Theatre Box Office popped up; I tried it and got it. The majority of people who are my friends have specifically moved from places to be in Bristol – I think that’s hugely inspiring and meaningful.”
“I’ve been working with theatres for the past six years since finishing A-Levels. I didn’t go to university or anything like that, just got stuck into being creative.
“I’ve always wanted to be a writer;I’ve always been crafting stories and making things up, even before I could write them down on the page.”
Performing a poem is intrinsic to Malaika, right from the conception of the idea. “I always have my best ideas at the most annoying, inconvenient times – when I’m in the shower and have no pen to hand, or when I’m walking in a hurry… In these moments, I tend to repeat the poem over and over to myself until I can get near a notepad or a computer to start jotting it down.
I perform the poem to myself first,and I think by doing it in this way it helps me to see if it’s going to work ornot. I try not to ever rubbish ideas; if they’re not perfect for right now,they could be perfect in a month, a year’s time.”
Milk Poetry nights were started off by Malaika a couple of years ago, “I spoke to the Tobacco Factory enough about poetry that they let me have the theatre to myself for a little bit, after a lot of bending their ear about how great poetry is! The nights quickly snowballed in popularity and now Milk happens on every third Monday of the month at The Room Above, The White Bear pub on St Michael’s Hill and also at other times in The Tobacco Factory.”
For audience members wanting to speak poetry as well as listen, the microphone is also bookable: absolutely anyone can step up and share their words. As well as being a poetry night for anyone and everyone, Malaika takes care to book a variety of exciting performance poetry artists. These are no ordinary poets either; think of world slam champions, poetry commissioned for national papers, national museums, galleries and festivals. At a fiver on the door, you can’t go far wrong.
“Poems and stories existed long before the written word, and I think that performing poems as well as reading them is important, it deserves to be heard. I don’t think there is a poem existing that doesn’t warrant a reason to be spoken and heard.
“My favourite poets are people who play around with that format; poetry on the page can seem incredibly dense and difficult to get a grip of, and then when spoken, it becomes a living thing.”
Perhaps most importantly, in a world full of rush, crush and frenetic busyness, spaces to connect and therefore disconnect are important. Events like Milk are vital for preserving and nurturing community as well as talent. Malaika calls them places to have‘deep chats’ where anything and everything can be discussed face-to-face, faraway from the smothering load of social media, where anxiety can be a natural by-product of overuse.
Poetry has the power to reverberate through time, speaking to us in a way that prose can’t; if prose did the full job, there would be no need for poetry. Poetry is still alive and kicking, always malleable and changing, matching our modern needs more than ever.