Wed | Jan 29, 2020

Yashika Graham: ‘Summoned by poetry’

Published:Sunday | March 8, 2015 | 12:00 AMRuth Howard
Yashika Graham reads at the Watershed in Bristol, United Kingdom, in mid-October.
Yashika Graham during a presentation at the Drama School Amphitheatre, Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, during a Poetry Society of Jamaica’s monthly fellowship last year.
Yashika Graham during a presentation at the Drama School Amphitheatre, Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, during a Poetry Society of Jamaica’s monthly fellowship last year.

How often do you hear anyone outside of arts circles talking about poetry? How often do you hear them mention young up-and-coming female poets? For International Women's Day, Arts & Education has decided to turn the spotlight on Yashika Graham, a wordsmith by trade and at heart.

Her stature is small and petite. She carries a smile as unassuming and disarming as her quiet demeanour. Yet, when she hits the stage, or expresses herself through poetry, her words carry a force and power that resonates.

A lover of the arts, 26-year-old Yashika Graham has had a lifelong romance with words.

"I loved writing early on," she shares. "I grew up in Westmoreland. I had a journal most of that time and would write everything - even the most mundane. That evolved into experimenting with writing poems when I was maybe 10. I heard a poem being read on the radio and decided to write another in the same style. I would continue my experiments, choosing my own style and rhythm, but the curiosity basically started there."

Over the years, this curiosity and need for self-expression has evolved into a full-time occupation, and a craft with which Graham keenly identifies; so much so, it could be said that her process of self-discovery closely parallels her growth as a poet/writer.

"In a way, it [poetry] appeared - or I appeared at its feet," she explains. "And what started out as my 'expression' - something I controlled, is now a thing I don't go without on a daily basis, but in a different way. It is like my language now, or the lens through which I perceive the world. I don't know that I consciously activated that, but I do give it allowances with me and do put effort into bettering it each time."

Speaking specifically to her writing style, Graham shares that she has moved from sometimes disordered rhyming to simpler, more effective use of language: "My work is less wordy today. It is more sensitive, I think; searching always for meaning and understanding in simple, strong forms, as well as in the overlooked elements of life.

"Much of what I write now goes into close interactions, rural life; the rich language, traditions, meanings, and how we as a people colour things. I find my senses are more open and receptive to the richness that is us very readily now, as I rediscover what is important."

This journey of rediscovery has led Graham into several organisations. She holds the post of administrator in the Jamaica Poetry Society, and serves as moderator for its monthly poetry fellowships. She is also affiliated with the Literary Art umbrella of Manifesto Jamaica, and has worked with the Jamaican arm of 100Thousand Poets and Musicians for Change since it began in 2011.

Her journey has also taken her to foreign lands: to the United States and the United Kingdom as part of Jamaica Rising, and the Bristol Festival of Literature. She has shared the stage with Jamaica's poet laureate Mervyn Morris, and other heavyweights such as Richard 'Dingo' Dingwall and Mel Cooke.

Jamaica rising

Of the Bristol experience, she says: "It was exciting and an eye-opener for me. I was made to think and see wider, and got to experience some more the impact of Jamaican culture on the world stage and on members of the diaspora, which was refreshing and inspiring." She adds that the exposure she got as an artist was "especially significant for me as a young writer ... to make contacts and see the potential of art, and poetry in particular, since I was stepping out into writing full-time".

Graham, who will read "anything Lorna Goodison and most things Derek Walcott", pulls inspiration from her mother and younger brother. She describes her mother as "strong, resilient, hardworking, always smiling and a true roots/bush woman; unafraid of digging a yam, speaking her mind or walking her own path".

Of her little brother, who died late last year, she says: "He was a beautiful person. He showed me what humility is, and what a quiet spirit could do. He was driven, quietly hard-working and, like most of my family, solid but richly jovial and playful."

With this inspiration, Graham continues to pursue her passion for poetry.

"Writing is deeply interwoven into my life," she reiterates. As a result, when she faces challenges or obstacles along the writing journey, she welcomes them as "conversations" that help her to understand herself, her surroundings, and the value and place of poetry.

As an administrator, she says she has a deep desire to see others grow and experience "the manifestation" of writing. Regarding her own work, she shares: "I always go into writing because I feel things differently now and want to discover, to unravel something. I'll hear something for instance, say a bit of a passing conversation, find it fascinating and become curious and want to discover its other layers. I go into a poem to do that.

"That's a mark of my work and thinking having changed, too; that I'm not as sure about the poems now as I used to be. I rarely go to poetry knowing, it is always a discovery for me. I thought I knew too much in the earlier years ... now, I realise that I'm sort of a catchment for the poems and my work is to be sensitive to the things around me, to allow them access, and to keep writing and editing."

So, did she choose poetry, or did poetry choose her?

"In different ways, it has been both," Graham says, "but primarily, poetry summoned me."