After the first Breaking Ground excursion to the USA in November 2015 we asked the Black British writers who were part of the tour to write a short piece about their experience of being part of it. Roger Robinson reflects on a hectic Breaking Ground schedule:
The first stop of the tour was Chicago. I was hosted by Peter Kahn, a writer, educator and friend whom I have a long term relationship with so I pretty much knew what he expected from me. His whole world is about the power of poetry to change young people’s lives. His focus is even more acutely focused on students with emotional and environmental trauma. Peter Kahn is the kind of writer and educator who reminds me that there is no value in holding back and not giving all of yourself and skills every time you have a platform to teach.
The schedule was pretty hectic but along with Nick Makoha (a poet and friend from England) our joint goal was to make the maximum difference in the lives of the students we taught that we were able. It was hectic and emotional and in the night we could barely have a conversation without nodding off, but I think that we created genuine change in the lives of some of the students we taught as well as them creating change in us. The Chicago leg bought me back to the teaching side of my practice in a good way and the feedback from the schools was positive.
From Chicago we flew to South Carolina for the Aswad conference. Charleston felt like a film you had already seen about the south. The hotel accommodation was lush and the Speaking Volumes team were always on hand to answer any questions we had. While I was there I had the opportunity to connect with the other eight writers on the tour over dinner and breakfast and attend the conference of diasporic academics before our reading. The talks were amazing. I definitely would not have had access to or even hear about lectures on such diverse and relevant topics. Even more interesting was the very real access you had to people who presented to ask further questions.
I realised that in England academia didn’t seem as diverse as America and this was a great opportunity to hear their interests and experiences. Then came the night of our reading and I think all the British writers on tour read really well and at times I felt myself being entertained as if I was an attending audience member till my name was called and I had to quickly get myself together to read. Then on to the celebrations and chats in the hotel lobby where a good time was had by all.
The next day I was off to Pittsburgh to perform a dub poetry set at the university. I followed all the instructions to get to the Wyndham Hotel which again was lush but also posh. I was met by the academic Jerome Branche and taken to the venue to set up the sound and was surprised to see dinner tables, full silver service, a ballroom, with waiters in waistcoats.
The sub bass was being set up with mics, all watched on with a raised eyebrow by the venue manager and serving staff. It wasn’t ready the time the audience started streaming in and due to the technical problems I switched to just reading poems without the music, which I think the audience appreciated much more. Then I sat down on a table of older West Indian academics which I enjoyed a lot.
So my days on the tour were in conversation, discussion observation and more importantly adaptation. I slowed down and didn’t rush. I faced problems without a grimace. I laughed with people from another culture. I marvelled at the attention that was given to my work and got more of a sense of how I’m viewed within an American context. I’m very grateful to all at Speaking Volumes for giving me the access and opportunities.