Bruno Cooke profiles Bristol-based poet, writer, performer and slam champion, Vanessa Kisuule
In March this year, British Ugandan poet, playwright and performer Vanessa Kisuule surprised some of her (now just over twenty thousand) Twitter followers by opening up about something that appears to have plagued her for some time. It’s “maddening thinking you’re the only one”, she wrote. “Romantic love is something that eludes some of us for reasons we cannot know or control.” While “many people go in and out of relationships on some miraculous, regular wave, some of us have that happen rarely or not at all.”
She described feeling “alienated” by the idea of partnership, smothering her libido “such that sex reverts back to the slightly silly and gross act it seemed like when you first heard about it as a child”, and becoming “sick with hope” while “pretending not to care”. Longterm singleness has, she added, been “reliably and laughably shitty”: “sad, difficult, ghostly, formative and continually humbling”.
The thread struck a chord with many of its readers. Eleven thousand people have bookmarked it. Nearly three and a half million people have viewed it on Twitter alone. Among them, the most common response is that they feel “seen”. It’s not the first time Kisuule has spoken about her relationship with romance, although it’s not a theme that features much in her work. In the first episode of Burning Eye Books’ Carpool Poetry video series, she spoke at some length about the feeling of intimacy she enjoys with both male and female friends, about how the “intensive” and “caring” dynamic such relationships have renders them, in their own way, romantic. Her recent Twitter splurge goes into much more depth, however, and given the fact that it took place so much closer to the present, it is more relevant to her readers now. But the main reason it’s worth mentioning at all in a study of Kisuule’s work and persona is for its unabashed honesty.
People don’t go to a poetry show to see something (or someone) perfectly crafted; they go because ‘they want to see something they’re not seeing on television or in the cinema or in any of our mass media’: an imperfect artist trying hard to connect with others – a work, or person, in progress
Eight and a half years earlier, at a TEDx event in Vienna, Kisuule stressed that, despite what her recent successes in various poetry slams seemed to suggest, she was fumbling her way through life as cluelessly as the rest of us. But while this should make her a ‘lesser performer’, she said, she utilises it – embraces it – and uses it to her advantage. The reason this works, she argued, is because in spoken word, ‘honesty is the thing that we’re valuing the most’. Honesty comes first. People don’t go to a poetry show to see something (or someone) perfectly crafted; they go because ‘they want to see something they’re not seeing on television or in the cinema or in any of our mass media’: an imperfect artist trying hard to connect with others – a work, or person, in progress.
She emphasised the importance of honesty, too, in her State of the City address, which she made midway through her time as (the second) Bristol City Poet, in October 2019. Caleb Parkin succeeded her the following year. The way she perceives Bristol, she said, is “just one drop in the ocean’” making it her duty (as local laureate) not to “rattle off a load of poems from [her] perspective” but to honour and give voice to the experiences of others. “Poetry is speaking to us in a way that nothing else can”, she said a year later, in conversation with Parkin and Bristol University professor Madhu Krishnan. But for it to speak in a language people understand, it must not hold anything back. Poets connect with audiences by confronting the world as it is, not a world of their own construction.
We must serve all
Not just Clifton folk
It’s the poorest parts
That will feel the choke
– from ‘State of the City’
Throughout her career so far, the dominant theme in Kisuule’s work has been identity and the complications that arise from having multiple overlapping identities. Her one-woman show Sexy, performed in 2018, unpacked the implications of opposing the patriarchy while enjoying slutdrops. In her poem ‘Jjajja’, she explores her relationship with an unnamed ancestor (jjajja can mean ‘grandmother’ or ‘forefather’ more generally, in Luganda, one of the major languages of Uganda). ‘Blessings’ is about family relationships strained by cultural differences. And in ‘A Letter to You’, with which she won the 2014 Roundhouse Poetry Slam, she addresses feminists lusting after “xylophone ribs”, hipsters aching for One Direction, and a “young black girl” who feels more at home in a moshpit than dancing the Dutty Wine. To the people who have at least 16 different responses to the question, ‘Where are you from?'” she says, “we must all play this game of identity jenga”.
You are told to serve her cold juice in
a tall glass, greet her on bent knees
as if seeking blessings or forgiveness.
The oily stew she made when you
stayed at her house for what felt like years
but was a week, your mother stuck or sick
or gone for good, they never said.
She held you like her own that first night,
Both of you heavy with knowing.
– from ‘Blessings’
Then, starting around 2017, she brought nature into the mix. A few years ago, Kisuule delivered a talk on “belonging and un-belonging in the English countryside” during a daylong symposium on the topic at a visual arts gallery in Milton Keynes. She was nature phobic until her twenties, she said, preferring Netflix and WKD to a walk in the park. Since then, however, she has developed an appreciation for octopuses; she draws a line between the complex but misunderstood intelligence of octopuses and the feeling of outsideness that people of colour experience in rural and coastal spaces. She has worked with rural theatre groups around the UK, and begun writing two plays that situate her explorations of identity in natural spaces. Introducing An Uneventful Day at the Beach at the Bristol Old Vic, she questioned why seaside holidays, camping trips and country walks seem so inseparable from white middle class identity. Parakeets in Ealing is about finding ways to commune with nature without having fields on your doorstep or the means to get to a preserve.
She was nature phobic until her twenties, she said, preferring Netflix and WKD to a walk in the park. Since then, however, she has developed an appreciation for octopuses
Running poetry workshops in schools up and down the country, she tells kids: “Poetry doesn’t have to be about daffodils and clouds”. Indeed, the poem she’s best known for may be ‘Hollow’, which she penned in response to protesters toppling the statue of 17th century slaveowner and Tory MP Edward Colston, in Bristol. It has since made it onto various educational syllabi, an inclusion many would celebrate for its recognition of the importance of anti-colonial messaging. Nor is it insignificant that a young black contemporary female poet has been partially canonised, which recalls something she said during her talk on her relationship with nature. Historically, in the West, figures of authority on the natural world have been (“plummy-voiced”) men, mostly white and mostly of the privileged classes. While Kisuule still doesn’t fancy getting sand in her shoes, or walking through stinging nettles, she does think it would be fun to see nature documentaries narrated by people who talk more like her.
“It might sound tokenistic or a little bit gimmicky,” she admits, but “we can afford to play with this stuff. It can all coexist.” It’s worth it for the signalling, she says. In other words, it matters who is telling the story, not just what story they’re telling.
Photograph of Vanessa Kisuule by Jon Aitken