Shirley May‘s poetry collection She Wrote Her Own Eulogy, published by Wrecking Ball Press, takes the reader on a journey, the landscape of Kent and Manchester brought to vibrancy via Jamaica. It is a twisting road, the displaced lives making new communities on strange soil, the stories kept and told and shared. It is wisdom, it is memory, and it is future and hope.
This Friday (January 31), at a Uniqlo Tate Lates event at Tate Modern presented by Apples & Snakes, Shirley will read from She Wrote Her Own Eulogy. The reading will be followed by a Q&A and book signing (see details on how to attend the event for free at the foot of this email).
We caught up with Shirley to find out where the book came from, more about her work mentoring and supporting young poets and the importance of writers finding their voice, and then going on to use their voices in order to change the world.
How do you feel about the response towards the book?
I feel overwhelmed and blessed. I have had some great feedback. One reader wrote: “Brilliant read, poetry at its most powerful, exciting and informative. Loved it.” Another reader wrote: “A rich and shimmering tapestry – profound and evocative throughout. Wonderful poetry.”
A neighbour bought the book for her mother, having seen it on my artist page on Facebook. Her mother bought it for her sister in America and then bought it for two of her friends. She then sent a message to her daughter saying she wanted one more for a gift for her friend’s birthday. That same neighbour has bought the book to auction at an event that is about raising awareness of inequality. That tells me that the book has an impact – this is heartwarming. I believe the narrative voice within the poems, which cuts across cultures, has struck a chord within the readers. Hence, she wanted to share it with others; we come from very different cultural backgrounds but we share this UK history. This shows me the book is universal in its exploration of place, movement and family.
The response has come from people of different walks of life. You need only to go onto my Instagram where people from all over the world have sent me pictures of themselves with the book. What has been surprising is how many have been sold in America. Old work colleagues, strangers and friends have sent me photos of themselves with the book. It has become quite an Instagram phenomenon for me.
Tell us something of your background and how important this is to what you do?
I was born in Manchester. My parents sold a house in London and moved up north; even then you got more for your money living outside the capital. They were able to buy three houses with what they had made from the sale of the one property in London. We lived in Whalley Range which at the time was, and still is, a beautiful area to live. The house in Moss Side that features in She Wrote Her Own Eulogy was where my mother and father worked; it was where I became Jamaican and Caribbean. My mother rented rooms and sold food to the Island peoples who came to the cafe. It was a place of vibrant people who came from Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, Africa and Ireland; they all ate her food, spoke, laughed and told stories of homelands. My parents also ran the local shebeen, an after-hours drink and dancing place. It was here where people could meet people like themselves. The house was where I developed my imitation Jamaican accent, that was synonymous with children of migrants looking to identify with their parents and the communities.
The patrons came to the cafe and shebeen and spoke about their homelands with such love and affection, and they dreamt of going home. They lived in a place of remembrance and loving stories; I listened and lived there with them. I imagined it all. They would say England was not home; I suppose that is where my love comes for the Caribbean.
My formative years were laced with folk stories. I am between two worlds – an old Caribbean and England. The world I visited when I finally got to Jamaica did not exist. In She Wrote Her Own Eulogy I write about the black bottom and the Charleston because this was the era that my mother was a teenager. So, you can only imagine when I got to Jamaica, it was a world of Dance Hall, girls in Battyrider shorts and boys who wanted to sing like Buju Banton. Jamaica will always be a place of intrigue and mystery. I was glad I fell in love with the place, people and its nuances long before I got there.
Why do you write?
First and foremost, I wrote the book for myself. I wanted to leave a legacy for my children and grandchildren. I feel compelled to write the stories about friends and community because I do not want those stories to die.
I wanted to bring people back to life; to bring those people who are now part of the missing back to the present. I tell authentic stories, through narrative poetry, and of course there is some poetic licence used, and some poems come from a place of discovery, opinion and observation. I write without trying to be a preacher.
I loved Jackanory, which was the BBC Storytime for children. I was an avid fan. I craved stories and that is why I tell them now. People seem to think I have the right temperament to listen to them and sometimes I feel like a priest taking confession.
What experience do you want your readers to have with your work?
I want readers to imagine and see the places I write about and empathise with the people they might encounter through the poetry. For instance, the man who had no sentences left in him was real. I hope people understand the pain that can come from losing the love of your life, the place of silence that it took him to. My intention is for the reader to find commonality within the poems and short stories. At the very heart of me is a teacher, a mentor and I also want to be a genealogist. I hope in the writing you will also discover a place where you might find help and strength and a belief that you can do it.
Tell us a bit about your process? Are you disciplined when you sit down and start writing?
I would love to say I get up every morning and write. However, I don’t have that luxury of being able to do it. I live in the real world, and that comes with real pressures. I’m in the same universe as the rest of the population, one where the clock is always ticking. The government wants its bit of you, so no, I write when I can. I write when the young people I teach are writing. I write in the middle of the night, which is the wrong time for me as nothing makes sense when I am fully awake in the morning. In the middle of the night, often creative ideas invade my slumber and I get some fantastic one-liners – that’s how I got the title of the book.
Performance or writing?
I have a strong attachment to both writing and performance. However, I have two very taxing auto-immune illnesses – Sarcoidosis and Fibromyalgia. Hence, performing is less and less now, and I think in the end writing will win the day, with other people performing the work. When writing is lifted from the page to the stage and can live again through the performer understanding and interpreting the text it excites me because I love live literature.
How important is it that we share and tell our stories?
We make the world smaller when we share our stories. It enables us to see our commonalities, strengths and vulnerabilities. It builds empathy with people who you might not believe you could find camaraderie with, outside your circle of friends and family. It’s a way of sharing histories, and cultural stories, that pinpoint you to a particular time, especially if you are writing as though you are in a decade that you were not born in or a time-lapse in history.
Your work with Young Identity, Inna Voice, and others, has supported the nurturing, mentoring and discovery of new voices and talent and you’ve dedicated so many years, weeks, days and hours to making people aware of the power of poetry. Why did you take this role on?
According to my son and daughter, I “live, breathe and eat poetry.” I am truly passionate about poetry and literature and the access this gives young people, and helping them find a unique voice that cuts through the noise. Young Identity, Inna Voice and teaching others is fundamental to my ethos. I encourage people never to give up no matter who tries to stand in your way. I suppose this role has come naturally to me and I find peace in nurturing and watching others grow.
Do you have any thoughts about your experience of independent publishers?
I have had a great experience with Wrecking Ball Press, mainly because it feels like home. Thanks go out to Elle Grice being massively encouraging throughout, as the book went back and forth between Wrecking Ball and myself. Elle said it was a privilege to read the book and work on the text and that she had really enjoyed the read – that is what you need from those who are helping you to establish your voice as a writer and to distribute your book. Thanks go out to the whole team at Wrecking Ball. When Shane said he would publish the book by a specific date I was overwhelmed as this meant the launch would coincide with the centenary of my late mother’s birth, so that was a great accomplishment for me.
What’s the importance of place in your writing?
Place writing is essential, allow me to conjugate the themes of my work. Place inspires me to write from my observation of people I encounter, helping me when reminiscing and creating a new fictional narrative. My imagination can run when I place my narrative writing in fixed places. For example, in She Wrote Her Own Eulogy – Miss Immigration takes you to the shores of Jamaica. Big Shirley – Red Truck to a hospital room and diagnose of Cancer, Delilah’s House Monton Street to the local brothel. Place is important in my writing.
When can we expect the next collection?
My next collection will be very different to She Wrote Her Own Eulogy. I am working on something right now. I am hoping it will be ready by the end of this year or early next year. I don’t want to reveal themes or what the collection will be. I have years of poetry and spoken word writing that deserves archiving in a book – I intend it to be like a script; it will come with instructions about the thought that went with the performance.
There is a snobbery about page and performance poetry. I want to help to eliminate and change people’s mindset in the same way that has been achieved with song lyrics; spoken word should be allowed to live again in books. Picasso was a draughtsman who knew all the conventions of painting. I teach people “you need to know form to break form and establish something new.” Isaiah Hull is a prime example of this so you should check out his book Nosebleeds which was also published by Wrecking Ball Press.
I have about seven other collections in folders. Picasso inspires me to break form. My new collection may come out as a mixture of freestyle poetry and pieces of prose.
What’s the future hold for Shirley May?
More Young Identity. I love working with young people who come to our organisation either as poets or musicians. I enjoy helping them reach their potential. For myself, I would like to write a radio play or a film script, very different from poetry or workshop facilitation, and I intend to make more time to do this.
My mother used to say, “we are a long time dead, so make every day count and enjoy yourself if you can while you are doing life.” I did not know what she meant until I was visiting her grave; I was strolling back to my car, having left her, my dad and brother flowers. It struck me that my brother had been dead 30 years or more and he was 26 when he passed. He had been in the ground a lot longer than he had lived; this was true of many more people as I started reading headstones. I know it’s a bit morbid to end this interview this way. However, I hope it’s a reminder to live life and throw caution and inhibition to the wind and, lastly, enjoy yourself while you are doing just that! Thank you!
Check out Shirley May’s AndWhat TVs:
My Mama’s Suitcase
Not All Of Us Came On The Windrush
Sue Roberts, BBC Producer, on She Wrote Her Own Eulogy: “Blazing with emotion, challenging all the senses, this life-affirming collection demands to be read. Charting a journey from Jamaica, these beautifully crafted poems offer a fresh, detailed insight into the experience of migration.”
Buy She Wrote Her Own Eulogy direct from Wrecking Ball Press at https://wreckingballpress.com/product/she-wrote-her-own-eulogy/