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Jay Bernard: “I’m haunted by history but I also haunt it back”

Croydon-born poet Jay Bernard will be at Poetry Night this evening at the ILB. We spoke about their powerful collection Surge, which combines archive material to understand the New Cross Fire of 1981.

Jay Bernard. Photo: Lemn Sissay

Jay Bernard is one of the UK’s most exciting young poets. With an artistic output that is queer, multidisciplinary and critical in nature, they have earned a range of accolades including the 2017 the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, and being selected in 2019 by Jackie Kay as one of Britain’s ten best BAME writers for the British Council and National Centre for Writing’s International Literature Showcase. In 2020, Bernard received the prestigious 2020 Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award. They are currently a DAAD fellow in Berlin.

Their poetry collection Surge is an emotionally powerful and formally innovative investigation of the New Cross Fire of 1981, a tragedy where thirteen Black teenagers died in a fire during a birthday party and the UK state responded with indifference. Beginning with this event – a vital moment in the development of Black British activism – Bernard’s remarkable book opens up to take in the longer past and present of Britain’s social and political terrain. We caught up with Bernard ahead of their appearance at the Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin (ILB) tomorrow.

Welcome to Berlin! Have you been here much in the past?

Oh yeah, loads. But I find that every time I’m here, I don’t really recognise anything. That might be because it’s quite a sprawling place, and it’s quite spread out – unlike in London where you have the center and then everything else.

Your book Surge is the product of a vast amount of research, including in archives. What was the research process like?

This “city”, this system, cannot serve us, and we must create the city to come.

The research began with lived experience. The New Cross Fire catalysed Black British politics, and that’s the political consciousness I grew up with – so a lot of this stuff was always there, under the surface; the sound and the feel of it is the sound and the feel of Black Britain. In terms of the more focussed research, I didn’t know that much about the New Cross Fire, and that created a kind of dissonance – why didn’t I know this before? –  because I’d heard something about a fire at a birthday party, but I didn’t really get the true history of it until I started to dig. Writing a book that’s so heavily researched is a process of discovery. It’s a process of self-inquiry. And it always poses questions about how and why we know things, how knowledge is both an inevitable cultural boundary – because you just can’t know everything – but also an oppressive tool, since some things are so much easier to know than others.

The book really artfully combines this process of self-inquiry with a process of inquiry into the wider world…

Yes, I think an inquiry into yourself necessarily has to also be a question about the world around you, and where you fit into it. I don’t think you can investigate the external world without investigating yourself, and vice versa. I think Surge kind of did that. I couldn’t examine this fire, in which a young 16-year-old Black girl dies on her birthday, and where her death, as well as the other twelve, catalyses a political movement – there is something so kind of mythical and holy about that – without also asking: who am I in relation to this? Who am I to be looking at this material? How does my engagement change how I view myself? And then how do I, in turn, re-engage with the political moment that I’m in? I think a lot of poets write poetry specifically because of this inner excavation.

Surge is centered on one historical moment, but clearly Britain has not solved its problems with race and class since. Why turn to history, in this context?

Well, yes – there are protests right now because of the police shooting of Chris Kaba. History is how you can come to an understanding of where we are now and how we got there. It’s not possible to make sense of the world without knowing what happened before, it makes no sense otherwise, since we don’t operate in strictly logical or rational ways. So yeah, I think engagement with history is paramount. But equally, you’ve got to be critical. Part of the reason I wrote Surge as I did was that I didn’t want anyone to think I was trying to Write History, with capital letters. Because I’m not an historian – but I do live in the world. And I am a poet. I think that famous line that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world is true, because how else do people come to know who they are, and what their situation is, if not through song, poetry, music and rituals? So, if anything, this book is about writing to history and allowing it to write back. There’s a line in the introduction: “I’m haunted by this history but I also haunt it back.” I don’t think you can talk about history as something gone and done, because there is always the eternal present, the eternal negotiation.

One of the epigraphs to the book is a Bible quote: “For here have not an enduring city, but we are looking for the city to come.” What did that mean to you?

Writing a book that’s so heavily researched is a process of discovery. It’s a process of self-inquiry.

Well, I’d been reading the diary of John Evelyn – he lived in Deptford in the 17th century, and was one of the diarists alongside Samuel Pepys. He witnessed the Great Fire of London from the South Bank and, in writing about it, he referenced that quote, Hebrews 13:14. It’s just such a powerful thing because, you know, the Bible is so much about people who are persecuted wanderers, looking for a homeland. But there was also something about him watching a fire, which linked to Grenfell in 2017. There has still been no accountability for that. So there’s a sense in which this “city”, this system, cannot serve us, and we must create the city to come, the city in which those people who died in the fire, both in 1981 and 2017, will not be disposable second-class citizens.

You will be appearing live at this event – do you enjoy reading your poems out loud?

Yes, it’s crucial to my practice as a poet. I’m going to be doing three pieces from Surge that are very much about speech, and about that question of how can you get across what is important in a story to people who might not know the name of a judge or a prosecutor or a particular law, but they will understand the essence of the story and why it was important. It’s also been fascinating having them translated into German – one of the poems is written in Jamaican Patois, and having that translated into German has been its own very special kettle of fish. It’s interesting what happens, how much is illuminated, in the interplay of dominant and marginal languages. I’ve had my work translated several times, and love hearing them in someone else’s voice, in a different context, with a different audience. It isn’t always easy, or even comfortable, but it certainly renders them anew.

Jay Bernard will appear will appear alongside Margaret Atwood, Paul Muldoon and Haris Vlavianos at the ILB’s live poetry night on Friday, September 16, at 19:30pm.