Given the mixed blessings that black women writers have received over the years, Bittersweet seems like the perfect title for this anthology. Sure, the African-American female voice has made an incredible impact through authors like Alice Walker and Maya Angelou, and in the francophone Caribbean, Maryse Conde is a name to watch. Yet poetry remains one of the most difficult areas in publishing for both men and women, and you have to go back to 1986 to find the last substantial black British women's poetry collection, Merle Collins's Watchers And Seekers. Who sang "I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl"? Wasn't a man, that's for sure.
Bittersweet is an anthology of tremendous depth - it features poets from around the world writing in a series of colourful, eclectic styles. The poetry is of a high standard and covers a lot of thematic ground. It was put together by Karen McCarthy; with 10 years experience in publishing and extensive knowledge of the poetry world through her work with Apples and Snakes, a South London promoter that has been around for some 15 years, McCarthy had the knowledge and contacts to find the femmes with the flavour.
"There are lots of interesting things happening in black women's writing," she declares. "I think that there are lots of experiments with the genre, taking poetry as a starting point and blending it with different media." Ample proof of this is to be found in Bittersweet where the musical metaphors of Akure Wall interact with Stacy Makishi's audio-visual allegories. Then there's Bernadine Evaristo's hybrid "verse-novel" that melds the lyrical and the prosaic. All three couldn't be more different. "Black poetry need not be regarded as just one thing," Karen agrees. "It's usually taken to be performance poetry or rap. It's important that black writers don't have any set expectations placed on them." Poet Bernadine Evaristo knows exactly what McCarthy is talking about. "Black poetry has become synonymous with performance poetry so it's performance poets who are promoted, they're the ones who've come to prominence and there is a sort of ghettoisation going on." The current situation is tough. Publishing verse is not seen as good business sense and the sexiness of performance poetry arguably makes it harder for poets who are concerned first and foremost with the craft of writing. "When I give a reading I'm always billed as a performance poet even though I'm not," Evaristo points out. Few black poets have been published in recent years (only Jackie Kay, Patience Agbabi and Evaristo spring to mind) and to a certain extent, the situation of black British women writers has not been made any easier by the towering presence of their African-American counterparts. Evaristo, who co-edited a collection called Black Women Talk Poetry in 1986, sees a double-edged sword in the success of the Walkers and Angelous. "I think a lot of us were empowered by African- American literature, you know, black women writers in the 1980s, and then it became almost invalidating because although there were commonalities, they weren't actually talking about our experiences. But publishers were stuck by then, they would publish black American books, not black British. …