PETITE, but with an extra-large smile, Valerie Bloom has a quiet conversational voice that belies the powerhouse of a performer and poet that she is. Born in Clarendon parish, Jamaica, in 1956, the eldest girl of nine children, Bloom came to England in 1979. She has published several collections of poetry, appeared in more than 300 anthologies, and given thousands of performances and workshops. Known for delighting audiences with her effortless glide from English to patois, she is an eagerly awaited act at this summer’s Greenbelt festival.
We start by talking about her childhood, which she describes as a life of activity, community, and language. “It was very happy — hard, too, because we were not wealthy; so my parents were farmers, and my mom, after she’d had the ninth one, went off to train as a teacher. So [I and] my sister who came after me, we were parents. I was about 12, and my youngest sister was still a baby; so we were mothering her, and looking after the others. I have to say, my sister did most of the work: I just ordered people around.”
The extended family — very much a part of Jamaican life — features strongly both in Bloom’s poetry and in her childhood reminiscences, particularly about her grandmother. “We did spend a lot of time with her in the hills. In the Caribbean, older people always have a hand in bringing up children, because they have a lot of wisdom to impart to younger ones, and because the extended family is important. When we would go and visit, there would be other cousins staying; so we always had lots of people to play with.
”One of the things I used to love was the communal working. All the women would be together, either peeling ginger — I’ve got a poem about that — or cooking together. It’s that community you get round food a lot in the Caribbean; when the men are working, when we have a big field to clear or plant, all the neighbours come to help. And there’s singing, and big pots of food, and all the children running round.”
THE strong oral tradition in Jamaica goes hand in hand with this communal life, and inevitably shaped the performance artist that Bloom was to become. “In the Caribbean, we have sessions of storytelling. So there are different groups of stories: ghost stories, big-boy stories — rude ones — and Anansi stories about the Spider Man. With the ghost stories, the storyteller wants to scare everyone as much as possible. And the one who can scare the most is the ‘champagne’ storyteller.”
Bloom’s experience of poetry in this particular cultural climate was both immediate and vital. “In school, we didn’t analyse poetry. We’d get a poem to go home and memorise, and then come back and recite it to class the next day. And we had the national festival, when schoolchildren would recite and perform poetry and dance and songs.”
This festival was particularly significant for Bloom one year, when one of her poems was chosen to be recited. Seeing her own work performed like that confirmed her sense of what the future might hold.
SHE came to Britain in 1979, and started writing. Her collection Touch Mi! Tell Mi! engaged with the politics of black struggle in the late 1970s and ’80s. She was one of the few women whose poems were anthologised in some of the seminal collections of the time, including Let it Be Told, and News for Babylon.
”I was very trusting, and wasn’t looking for these things. I remember I went into a café to buy a sandwich, and stood at the counter trying to give my order, and she just skipped over me and went to the others. It was the first time I felt invisible, and I’d never experienced that before. It was such a shock.
”We have a saying in Jamaica, ‘Duppy know who fe frighten,’ meaning ‘A ghost knows who they can scare.’ We can only be hurt by people if you allow them to hurt you; so when I got into that situation again, I just confronted people; but they would deny it.”
Fortunately, her new home was also a source of inspiration, and provided rich material for her work. “It was strange more than anything else. That was the first time I’d left Jamaica, and it’s a bit of a cliché, but . . . the weather! I’d had no experience of cold like you have it here. When I was growing up, I used to dream about snow. I remember the first snowfall, I just sat by the window all day looking at it.
”Then I decided I’d like to go out into it, thinking it would be lovely. There was ice on the ground! I wrote to my family and said, ‘You’ll never believe it. . .’ At my grandmother’s, in Jamaica, it was always a big thing on Sunday morning when we’d hear the ice truck coming, and we’d get a big block of ice and wrap it up in lots of burlap, and then bury it in the ground to keep it cool, because there was no refrigeration. Then we’d dig up the sack and break off pieces and put it in drinks.”
ANOTHER difference was that, in Britain, poetry and performance were not joined at the hip as they are in the Caribbean. “When I first came, I was asked by a group of Jamaicans who had been here since the 1940s and ’50s if I would come and teach them some folk songs. They’d heard I’d just come from Jamaica.”
Bloom could not have foreseen how this unexpected request would introduce her and her poems to the British stage.
”They wanted to sing folk songs, but they’d forgotten them. They were nurses, and magistrates, and in their work they couldn’t use patois; so they’d forgotten it. I thought: you can’t forget your language. But they had. But it all came back to them, and they travelled all over the country performing these songs, and it went down a storm. I would go with them, and I’d intersperse their singing with poetry, and then people started asking me if I’d go back.
”The other thing I did when I first came was in a local primary school as a volunteer, in Manchester. I taught the children to sing folk songs and recite poems. They were little tiny ones, they were wonderful: Chinese, Indian. There was only one girl who was not allowed to take part, and she was of Jamaican heritage — her mother said she was ‘too young to chat patois’.
”This prejudice had come to them from slavery time, when people had told them over and over that their language was broken English, and it was no good — just like anything black was no good — and so they had left the Caribbean with that mentality. While they had been gone, there was this upsurge in national pride; so the language was being spoken on the radio, and everyone was proud to be Jamaican and of what they had come through, but these people had missed it all.”
BLOOM says that her poems tell her whether they want to be written in English or patois. She does both well. Undeniably, though, her readings in patois enchant and inspire the children she performs to, whatever their ethnic background, and the crash course in patois with which she opens her shows is renowned.
”When I first performed, I didn’t do the crash course; but then I thought I would, to get the children to be a part of it, so they’d know what they were talking about. It’s only a short, five-minute lesson, but I think it helps people understand. When I started in schools, so many thought it was just broken English — I realised I needed to enlighten them.”
I return to the summary she gave of her childhood — activity, community, and language — and reflect that this is what she is recreating on stage. “Yes. I want to reach people emotionally. I want to move them, either to laugh or cry. I want to show them things in a different light, [to enable them] to think, to gain something. Poetry brings people together, to belong to one family. I want people to feel that. This is one of the reasons I do the patois poems, for people to feel they can connect.
”Poetry is a universal language. I remember going to St Lucia from Britain, thinking I was going home, but I felt so alienated. St Lucia patois is different — it’s French-based — but Jamaican patois is English-based. I couldn’t understand it, but we went to a play and a poetry reading, all in patois. I found I was laughing in the right places. I was enjoying it so much, even though I didn’t understand a thing. And I thought: this is how people feel when they listen to me. I do the patois so they can feel a part of it.
”When I’ve done my patois poems, I usually do a workshop afterwards. I often do an exercise where I get kids to write something about their family — what they feed you, and so on, what food they associate with their families — so all their cultures come out, and it’s wonderful. So many times the English kids ask to write their poems in patois.
”It wasn’t until someone said to me, ‘You write a lot about food,’ that I realised, I do! I have a poem called ‘Granny Is’. It talks about food, what she does, and how she does it:
fried dumplin’ an’ run-dung,
coconut drops an’ grater cake,
fresh ground coffee smell in the
when we wake.
BLOOM has also written two novels, and is planning a third. This requires different things from her as a writer, and she is glad of a recently built garden room.
”It’s a completely different process, and when I’m writing a novel I can’t write poetry at the same time. A door shuts somewhere. I need more time for a novel, and more space. A poem — I can write it in the bathroom, or the kitchen. The first novel took me about 18 months, but the second took four years.”
An established, acclaimed writer of more than 30 years’ standing in Britain, whose Caribbean heritage feeds her work and fuels her performance, Bloom now feels at home in both countries. “I love Jamaica, but I couldn’t have done all this there. I don’t go back as much as I used to, because both my parents are dead; so the ties are not so strong. This is home, too. What would be perfect would be to spend the summers here, and the winters in Jamaica.”
From the long list of prizes, awards, and accolades, I ask her to choose one thing of which she is most proud. “It would have to be the MBE. It’s given my family so much kudos,” she says, laughing. “It’s more for them, and for the other writers from the Caribbean. It’s a validation of their work. It’s not just mine.”
Valerie Bloom is performing at Greenbelt, 26-29 August.