I subscribed to the Poetry Book Society (The book club for poetry lovers. (poetrybooks.co.uk) last year to widen my understanding of poetry and to introduce me to new writers. This it has done. And one of the poets I have been fortunate to discover is Isabelle Baafi. As soon as I read her poem ‘Plantain’, I wanted more, and ordered her pamphlet Ripe (ignitionpress, 2020). Here is a fizzing cornucopia of poetry in a fresh voice. The mundane is often used to explore emotional depth. The white space on the page is sometimes innovatively employed to underline what the words are expressing. It’s not always an easy read, but it is worth spending time to ponder over and reflect on. I found fascinating how the the first poem of hers I read, ‘Plantain’, took on a different flavour when nestled in the context of the others in the pamphlet.
How grateful am I, then, that Isabelle has agreed to allow me to reproduce here one of her poems and has graciously answered some questions (see below). Thank you Isabelle.
Finding my dad in a can of baked beans
In supermarket aisles, you teach me to need; stacking cans
up to my chin—baked beans, corned beef,
carrots, peas. I heave our trolley against the weight
of a fear you have never unlearned.
At night, your prodigal car lights creep across my bedroom wall,
and I add you to my list of things that come to us tightly sealed.
On school runs, I plant tiny feet in the back
of your driver’s seat—hoping you’ll feel something.
Beanstalk-tall and paraffin-scarred:
Google Translate says your laugh means
And me—your youngest bean. If I knew the way back, I’d bury
scoops of me for you to find: in the Bantustan, near your
mother’s house; the chirp of grasshoppers saturating the bush.
In the tracks on sloping road, made by your father’s dusty Navara.
In the belly of the mine that swallowed your brothers every night.
The first time I hear your language, it’s in the song of a baked beans ad.
White families rush through drizzling streets to huddle in kitchens,
fall into dining room chairs. Uniformed, backpacked kids
drift home to the baritones of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
You’ve played that song on the stereo. I don’t know
the words. But you say it’s about
wise men, who cross the world looking for home
in a man they have always hungered for.
At the table, I nudge beans around my plate, clustering stars;
trying to navigate the miles between us. At the window,
the sides of the curtains shine like the rim of a half-opened can.
In the pauses between ads we chew on silence.
‘Finding my dad in a can of baked beans’ was first published in harana poetry.
It also appears in Ripe, which can be bought from the ignitionpress website, here.
Photo of Isabelle Baafi by Sarah Kiki Nyanzi
Kate: Can you tell us something about your creative process?
Isabelle: I write as often as I can, which is almost every day at this point. I recently started writing full time, and that has been such a rewarding experience. Normally, after going for a run, I’ll write in the morning until lunchtime. For me, writing often involves a lot of free writing, which has allowed me to explore the many associations, memories, random thoughts, and concepts that are trapped within my subconscious. But also, I often think about new things that I want to try, and experimentations with various forms and devices. In the afternoons, I’ll usually do some admin, or work on projects, and then in the evenings I read.
Kate: Looking back, how did you come to write poetry?
Isabelle: The first time I wrote a poem, I was 14. I was very into the Brontës, and I came across the poem ‘High Waving Heather’ by Emily Brontë, and I loved it. So, I wrote a poem after it about a rainstorm. Over the next few years, I wrote more poems. But I didn’t get very far, and I suppose that I lost confidence in it, and I put all my energy into writing fiction and screenwriting. Then, in 2017, I read Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, which reignited my love of poetry. Warsan Shire’s writing is such a force. At the time, I was also writing flash fiction and sharing excerpts of stories online, and gradually the stories became shorter and shorter, and increasingly poetic, until eventually I realised that I was writing poems. I had always wanted to be a writer, and yet I never really pictured myself as a poet. But poetry is a great form. There is so much that only a poem can do, and so it’s a really cool genre to work with.
Kate: Where does the title ‘Ripe’ come from?
Isabelle: At its core, Ripe is about the desires that propel us through life, control our actions, and define us as human beings. The pamphlet grapples with permutations of physical hunger, sexual desire, spiritual curiosity, and relational need, and how they all overlap and inform each other. The poems explore pubescence, trauma, submission, reclamation, and self-discovery, and so, what I think the title captures is a sense of allure and temptation, and the sensation of existing on the verge: on the verge of knowledge, the verge of beauty, and the verge of destruction.
Kate: In many of your poems you use the white space and the placement of the words on the page in an innovative way. Can you explain how this came about and your thinking around this?
Isabelle: For me, the form of a poem is as much a part of the poem as the words themselves. Also, I think one of the greatest things that literature can do is encourage empathy — and so, when I write a poem, I want the reader to feel what the speaker is feeling. For that reason, I will sometimes try to convey the speaker’s experience through the form. For instance, a poem in which the speaker feels trapped might have a justified alignment to convey a sense of rigidity and external control. However, it’s something that I try not to do too often – and only when it serves and enhances the poem. I think anything that you do too often can become predictable and gimmicky. But experimenting with form is something that I really enjoy doing.
Kate: What are your future plans?
Isabelle: At the moment, I’m preparing to start a Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford in September, and I’m also looking forward to some editing opportunities that I have lined up for later this year. Plus, I’m gradually writing towards my first collection, and I’m hoping to put that together next year.
Kate: The question you wish I’d asked?
Isabelle: Your questions have been great, Kate!
I suppose, one thing that I haven’t talked much about is how the pamphlet has changed my relationship with my work. Nowadays, whenever I write anything, I consider it as a piece of a puzzle, and I’ll think about its place within a body of work or larger narrative. Every choice that I make will take into account every other poem that I’ve written, as well as the end result that I have in mind; the ideological framework that I’m building. These days, I’m holding onto poems longer, and waiting for them to speak to each other before I send any of them out into the world.
Isabelle Baafi is a writer, poet, and critic from London. Her debut pamphlet, Ripe (ignitionpress, 2020), was the Poetry Book Society’s Pamphlet Choice for Spring 2021. She was the winner of the 2019 Vincent Cooper Literary Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2021 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, the 2020 Bridport Prize for Poetry, and the 2019 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition. Her poems have been published in The Poetry Review, Magma, Anthropocene, Tentacular, and elsewhere. She is a Ledbury Poetry Critic, an Obsidian Foundation Fellow, and a Board Member at Magma. She is currently working on her debut poetry collection.