It came up that Lee Nelson had been taught Michael Smith’s poetry at A level, so I asked him to write about it.
As a fairly standard sixteen year old pretentious bell-end I decided that I wouldn’t do English Literature as one of my A-Levels at Luton VIth Form College because it would ‘destroy the magic’ of literature for me. I didn’t want to know, I said, how books ‘worked’ I just wanted them to be magical and that . . . So I did English Language instead and ended up anatomising words and the pauses in between words and got nowhere near an actual sentence until the second year . . . Still, we did a lot of stuff about prescriptive and descriptive approaches, slang and dialect and so we ended up watching a video of Mikey Smith performing ‘Mi Cyaan Believe It’ and being asked to look at it from that perspective; dialect, pidgin, ‘Bad English’.
What I remember is hearing it, and really liking it and bits of it sticking in my head almost immediately and ever since. I am now typing from a memory formed in 1989. I haven’t read the poem in between then and now . . . so please forgive the attempts at the spelling.
Room dem a rent, me apply widdin, but as me go in cockroach, rat and scorpion also go in
One good nose haffi run but me no go siddung pon high wall like Humpty Dumpty, me a face a mi reality
Fire to plate claat…
And the line that maybe I recognise most clearly now:
an me remember how mi four bwoy picni fell victim to the tricks dem call partisan politricks
It all sounded like nothing I’d heard (beyond some sixteen year old bell-end notions about Bob Marley) and then we had some of the dialect translated and we talked about what we thought the poem was about and what we thought poetry was (I was writing some pretty standard sixteen year old pretentious bell-end ‘free verse’ at the time, wanna read some . . .?) and what it was for and I was so glad to have this rhythm presented to me, like a song I could learn and sing, that carried the thing through and strung the thoughts together as you heard them, there and then . . . I didn’t have the patience to read poems then, and so this was just what I needed to hear. It was definitely about something and something I think I began to recognise then and that I see growing everywhere now.
We didn’t spend that long on the poem, we moved onto some tapes of interviews with dialect speakers and marking the distinctions between accent and dialect. I loved that A-Level, completely shaped the way I look at the world . . . but we didn’t do any more poetry, so the rolling magic stayed intact.
Then I saw John Hegley twice on home turf in 1990, then I went off to Crewe and Alsager College of Higher Education and saw Henry Normal and then I saw Lemn Sissay in Manchester and Joolz and Benjamin Zephaniah and I listened and was delighted and excited and wanted to do it too and, when I wanted to go and talk to them afterwards, I had something to talk about as I was getting my book signed; ‘Have you seen that video of Mikey Smith?’ And Benji told me to stand firm in the downturn and I started to think that maybe what I was taught might not all be true, and I went on marches and found that the news wasn’t true either and so I kept asking irritating questions and telling other students off for being apolitical posh kids and got more and more angry that things were so unfair, and I was never really cool about it, I was frantic and thought I would change things in England by asking questions and knowing the difference between right and wrong and surely everybody who was doing the horrible stuff just needed to remember about fair play and all that stuff. And, when the cool old lecturers I wanted to argue with tried to be all cool and play Linton Kwesi Johnson records about what a bitch England was, I could go ‘Yeah, but what about Mikey Smith, have you seen that video?’ and be all cool too.
So, that’s what I think this poem was; a way in. A way out of one thing I might have been, a more solipsistic thing, and a way into another, something that I have now been doing for 25 years; hearing words, speaking words, picking them apart to find out what’s inside and assembling them just so to carry my own meanings. And always hoping to be carried and liberated by rhythm and the often dark laughter of connection. And being angry and wanting to share that anger, not just for its own sake, but in the hope of communicating it in a way that people will get and share in and maybe then we can go on to do something with that anger.
So, still a bit of the pretentious sixteen year old bell-end lingering about then…
Lee Nelson remains the biggest Seething Wells fan in the world.