I Am Nobody's Nigger is the debut poetry collection from London-based spoken word artist Dean Atta.

(image © Naomi Woddis / deanatta.co.uk)

(image © Naomi Woddis / deanatta.co.uk)

I first met Dean Atta at a poetry night in south London. Moments after we had been introduced, the energetic, unruly-haired poet bade me sit on a cracked leather sofa at the foot of the stage while he balanced a metre-tall top hat on my head, insisting that it suited me, that I should wear it to the next show.

A few minutes later he was pressing a copy of his book into my hand and suggesting I review it, on the condition that I passed it on to a mutual friend of ours, also a poet, once I had finished reading it.

I say this by way of background, and also as a declaration of interests because it’s possible that my journalistic integrity has been compromised here…with the book in my hand, before reading a word of Dean Atta’s poetry, I felt strongly predisposed to liking it. (Not to say that I would review a work positively just because I happened to like the author, but it goes to show that in the art world, a little charm goes a long way.)

I Am Nobody’s Nigger is the debut poetry collection from Atta and, judging by the effusive cover quotes from luminaries of the black poetry scene such as Benjamin Zephaniah and Lemn Sissay, his work has been well received by his literary forebears. But to give the impression that this is a collection of poems about black identity and experience would be misleading; in fact, besides the poem from which the book’s title is taken, and the following Young, Black and Gay, blackness is rarely mentioned. As far as ethnic identity is concerned, Atta makes more frequent mention of the Greek Cypriot roots he inherited from his mother, notably in the poignant Mother Tongue in which he laments her failure to transmit the language which would allow him to communicate with his cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents.

The author bio introduces Atta as a ‘writer and performance poet’, and it is apparent straight away that this is poetry that would come into its own when spoken, with a strong sense of rhythm and many instances of rhyme. I should say here that I have never seen Atta perform in the flesh, and I’m sure that doing so would change my perception of his poetry.

Spoken-word artists often make a distinction between ‘writing for the page and for the stage’; the holy grail is to produce work that stands up in both contexts, but it can be notoriously difficult to achieve. If I were to level criticism, it would be that in places this collection feels more ‘stage’ than ‘page’ – I don’t doubt that many of these pieces would come into their own when performed by the artist, but without that frame of reference, the dynamics with which the poems should be read were difficult to infer.

(image Aderonke Oke / deanatta.co.uk)

(image © Aderonke Oke / deanatta.co.uk)

That said, some of my favourite lines stood out for their ability to create resonance through simple honesty: Your broken heart is my greatest achievement (from Forty Things I Never Said), I guess it’s nice to know I can get what I want / But maybe I should want more than this (More Than This), or My love is this; the fifth fucking draft / Of a poem trying to describe my love (My Love).

What is of great value is that this is not poetry made just for ‘people who like poetry’, but a collection of verse that can be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in playfully expressing words and thoughts. It’s a book that I could imagine being brought into an English class by a beleaguered teacher in Tottenham or Tower Hamlets, as a first step in showing students that poetry isn’t just a way for aloof, Bohemian types to show off the their erudition, but is also simply about the sense of making human connections with one other through stories.

Having met Dean Atta and read his work, I intend to see him perform as soon as I get the chance. I look forward to hearing these poems tumble from his mouth as he stands on stage, and having him charm me again – just like that time with the top hat.

——————–

I Am Nobody’s Nigger is available to buy in bookstores now, or from Amazon.