Poetry, Spoken Word and the Shared Experience of Celebration:
Bobba Cass grew up in the United States and was in the Peace Corps in Nigeria in the 1960s. An academic whose advanced degrees were in English Literature and Cultural Studies, he has been an activist in struggles against apartheid, racism in schools, nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. Bobba came out in his late 40s following a police entrapment arrest. He organises Pinggg…K! a poetry event that meets monthly in Leicester for an evening of metrosexual open mic verse and a performance by a featured poet.
You are often described as a literary activist. What forms does this activism take? And, how has it been received?
When I began coming out in the late 1980’s and I experienced and welcomed the gentleness of other men, I began what I can only describe as ‘hearing’ a poetry which, in its intensity, was much more open about sensuality and sexuality than was then being published (much of this has changed today with poets being recognised for their intensity of detail, especially openly gay poets). I theorised this as metasexual verse.
After I retired from university lecturing in 2003, I got involved in open mic poetry events in Leicester. I noticed that there were no poets other than myself at that time (2006) who were speaking their sexuality. I began my performances with ‘Hi. I’m Bobba Cass, a gay grey poet.’
I wanted to have an open mic poetry event that was personal and safe enough for those struggling with and exploring their sexuality, to be more direct. In 2011, I began Pinggg…K! which advertised itself as celebrating ‘metrosexual verse’ (the term, metrosexual based on Rikki Beadle-Blair’s television soap, ‘Metrosexuality’). Pinggg…K! is now in its seventh year and has seen a growing number of poets of all ages, genders, ethnicities, social backgrounds and mental and physical challenges, come forward and share their sexualities in monthly events, and this has in turn impacted on the wider poetry communities in Leicester.
In addition to Pinggg…K! events I have organised larger events that have brought together Leicester people from many backgrounds. I love Leicester, and am an advocate for its inclusivity. Although I set out here what I have done, there are many others who have been crucial to the growth that has taken place.
To celebrate five years of Pinggg…K! you published a limited edition book, four and twenty. How did the book come about?
Each month there had been a call and response couplet that worked humour out of the relationship of blackbird to earthworm, a humour that was free of the attitudes towards women, working people, black people, the disabled, the LGBT communities so often found at poetry events, especially those in pubs.
From the ranks of Pinggg…K! attenders (women and men, black and white, young and old, gay and straight, physically challenged and not, working class background and middle class, international and English), cartoons were produced to give visual energy to twenty of these couplets. And also four of the blackbird / earthworm genre best poems were included hence the four and twenty title of blackbird nursery rhyme fame.
four and twenty is a brief volume but encapsulates an activist energy that makes evident Leicester at its best.
I have occasional verse in other publications such as Welcome to Leicester (Dahlia Publishing, 2016), and several poems that can be seen and heard online. These internet poems I treasure because they are there as the result of other poet activists who have taken the time to record and post them in the ether.
When did you start writing?
Although I see myself mainly as a performer, especially as a poet, I have also written two novels, and they are part of a sequence which I hope one day will be published, especially in the Pacific Northwest of the United States where I grew up.
I am 78 years of age. I began writing as a child in school, especially poetry. The greatest energy for writing came when I began coming out as a gay man in my late 40s.
My poetry, in its passion, is very sporadic and instantaneous – I am hearing phrases and responding to feelings and reflections. My novel writing is shaped by my interest in readability, something that can be enjoyed in a day for some or a week for others. The novels are no longer than 10 chapters.
I have lived in Leicester now most of my life. My poetry as performance has come about through the vitality of spoken word events in our city. My novels imagine more the audiences of my upbringing and experiences, for instance, living in Nigeria for four years in the 1960s and residing in countries different from that of my birth as well as where I grew up in Seattle. Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again. Once we begin to hear ourselves, the stories we tell, as if from different paths in life and different places of disposition, we struggle to find a joy. When that joy is found it fills our hearts with wanting to share it with others.
Which authors influenced you most?
Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare are key influences on my poetry – Dickenson because of her brevity and intensity, Shakespeare because of his sonnets. The novels of Thornton Wilder (Bridge of San Luis Ray) and Laura Ingalls Wilder (House on the Prairie sequence) are paradigmatic.
What are the biggest challenges that you face? And, how do you deal with them?
I had been longing for someone who would love me and allow me to love them for a long time – desperate for that. By chance such a person has come into my life. There is a huge challenge around this commitment. I am still growing within myself.
I was on the stage as a child and that has informed my energy around performance. I had a mental breakdown at the end of my four years in Nigeria. I came out after 20 years of marriage and raising three sons. I have been an activist around peace, environmental, race and gender issues. These experiences have been formative.
I feel most passionate about wanting young people to have experiences in their lives that take them beyond their childhood environments so that they can sense what others’ lives might be like. I would like everyone to have some part of their childhood sheltered / regaled by the unconditional love of an elder close to them. For example, my grandmother lived with us when I was a child. Her love for me saw me through the most difficult moments of my early adult life when I had what was then called ‘a mental breakdown’. I always hope that there will be someone like my grandmother, in everyone’s life.
Do you write everyday?
The poetry is spontaneous. It happens in moments. The novels I set out to do and they are written within three to four months and then revised many times.
I am preparing to write my third novel, Nigeria! Nigeria! I was in Nigeria at the time of Biafra. I lived where the war first broke out.
This particular book will draw heavily on the letters I wrote home at the time, and will be epistolary. The underlying narrative will be an expansion of the life of a character, Donny, in the first two novels, and one of his friends.
Which are the most difficult aspects of the work you do?
With the poetry, the forms have been most various, and have required a lot of reworking in some instances. All of the poems are memorised and that by way of reworking. With the novels, the diction and dialogue have required many revisions. As with the poetry, I find hearing the writing aloud crucial.
Which aspects of the work do you enjoy most?
For the poetry, recalling particular moments that have an integrity in emotional relationships gives me a vitality and sense of achievement. For the novels realising conjunctions in the relationships of the characters that go beyond initial imaginings always seems miraculous.
What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer and as a literary activist?
For the poetry, my greatest of achievement has been the interaction with other writers in Leicester, and my part in bringing this about. For the novels, I hope that my persistence in working on the narratives over a long period of time in my late adult life will be regarded as a big achievement.
My greatest joy as a literary activist is the shared experience of celebration. To me this is live. It is spontaneous. It is what we can all bring to an event. It is primarily spoken. We attempt to capture it in words. And that is a great challenge. But the greater challenge is allowing ourselves to be wise in each other.
Oscar Frank is one of our spoken word community – a wonderful oral tradition poet. One afternoon as I was rushing to get a train to Nottingham, Oscar saw me near the train station. He was eating from a cob, but he had to say to me what was uppermost in his mind, “Time is longer than a rope, Bobba. Time is longer than a rope!” That night, in recollection, the meaning and this poem was in my heart. (‘Farrels’ is my word for the muscles either side of the urethra in the phallus):
time is longer than the rope
that farrels through our dreams
that wrinkles with a bartered hope
that lithes with peril beams
when that ourselves eventuates
to dust galactic streams
the time that was
more likely still
a carnal apple gleams