Jason Allen-Paisant:
Walk this way

The pastoral scenes of Jason Allen-Paisant’s poetry contain a radical examination of who gets to go to the countryside

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When Jason Allen-Paisant wrote Thinking with Trees he had a decision to make.

“I’m not diminishing poets who write about anger and rage, and there will always be poets doing that, but I decided that if I feel like I have to write about anger and rage, somebody’s stealing something from me.”

“The writing which is worthwhile is the kind which makes you uncomfortable.”

On the surface you would think he has succeeded in his debut collection. There are trees from his birthplace, Coffee Grove – a small village in Jamaica: logwood, guango, cotton. Allen-Paisant also writes about the trees near his current home in Leeds: oak, maple and birch. It’s also a collection full of birds, flowers and streams – a collection full of natural beauty. Yet speaking to him in his office at Leeds University, it’s clear the decision to eschew rage was not an easy one.

“Hearing about racism is very different from experiencing it on a day-to-day basis,” says Allen-Paisant. “You grow to see racism in this country. You don’t just understand right away what it is.

“I’m trying to make this as clear possible, because I think it’s something that a lot of white people who live in this country might not understand. I came here with a very open attitude and very open spirit. I didn’t see racism when I think it was there. But there comes a point when you have your first confrontation with your body, and from that point onward, there’s no turning back.”

These confrontations he had in the UK, after he moved from Coffee Grove (with a brief stint in Montreal), were not necessarily explicit instances of bigotry. Initially, he was inclined to dismiss them. But when a man went to life-endangering lengths to avoid Allen-Paisant by stepping out into oncoming traffic, hastily crossing the road, he realised people were avoiding him because of the colour of his skin.

Thinking with Trees is not merely another series of pastoral poems about finding beauty in the world, then. What elevates this collection is how Allen-Paisant channels his feelings about the injustices he and others experience into a radical examination of who gets to access nature – even if he does find beauty in his surroundings such as Roundhay Woods and Malham. This results in a subtle but incisive critique of what the natural world means to people, and poems that centre on rather benign-sounding ideas like who gets to go walking.

“I discovered walking when I came to live in this country,” says Allen-Paisant, laughing. “One of the things was discovering what was behind going walking. There is this idea of leisure and there’s this idea of space, and there are certain people who get to go walking.
I go walking, I’m middle class, bourgeois, a lecturer at the University of Leeds, let’s face it. That little boy from Coffee Grove is somebody who went to Oxford University and got a PhD.” Crossing the Threshold the first poem in the collection begins: “I am walking/I am not going.” To go walking seems to embody the pursuit as Allen-Paisant said – the wealth and privilege entailed in having the leisure time to treat walking as a hobby.

“You’ll notice I’m always thinking about time. The problem is, a lot of people don’t get to go walking because they don’t have time. You can’t go walking when you’re balancing three jobs. Walking is only something you can do when you can take your time. You need time on your hands.”

He sits straight in his chair. “This is a question which cuts across race and skin colour but, by and large, it’s race and class that shape these realities.”

It would seem they also cut across the history of poetry. His poem Daffodils (Speculation on Future Blackness) responds to Wordsworth’s famous, canonised poem I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud and closes with the lines:

Well you must

Try to imagine daffodils

in the black hands of a black family

on a black walk

in spring

Characteristic of Allen-Paisant is to write in unpunctuated stanzas that give the effect of lines running into and folding over one another, as though he is inextricably a part of this world. Here, it gives the poem a slower, declarative edge, and challenges you to imagine a different reality for Wordsworth’s poem.

“We were taught Wordsworth’s poem in school,” Allen-Paisant says after reciting the poem. “And even I, a black person, couldn’t imagine a black family wandering lonely as a cloud, or looking at daffodils!” he says, imitating a sense of incredulity. Does Allen-Paisant worry he might have left too much anger at the door? Could his message be missed by readers? Where does success lie with this book?

“I consider this book an intervention I’ve done into the field of nature writing. That’s my political intervention in the field. This book has a lot of risks. But the writing which is worthwhile is the kind which makes you uncomfortable.”

The reception for Thinking with Trees has been positive, receiving reviews and coverage in the broadsheets; no minor feat for a debut collection of poetry. But the discomfort we as readers feel is only because Allen-Paisant feels it too. Whether or not he will continue to decide to write without anger and rage in the future, he knows racism is not going to disappear overnight.

“You get paranoid, which is one of the byproducts of racism, and that’s when I started to understand black people who grew up in this country. Because you are suddenly unable to identify what is an innocent occurrence and what is not.”

He speaks directly, solemnly.

“You’re always asking what is there. But for me, real life is about wellbeing. It’s about love. It’s about exchange and connection with people, the natural world, with non-living things.”

That little boy from Coffee Grove always appears to be in Allen-Paisant’s mind – that boy who might have peered up into the boughs of guango trees dreaming, blissfully unaware he would one day write poems about them.

“Going out into Roundhay Woods, the association I make when I look at the trees and when I hear the birds, find myself in the soil – I make associations with the woodland where I grew up in Coffee Grove. My memory always travels to that place.”

Jason Allen-Paisant’s Thinking with Trees is published by Carcanet Press

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