Jenny Mitchell

Jenny Mitchell

Jenny Mitchell is a winner of the Bread and Roses Poetry Award, the Poetry Book Awards 2021 and a joint winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Prize 2019. She also won the inaugural Ironbridge Prize, the Bedford Prize and the Gloucester Poetry Society Open Competition. The best-selling debut collection, Her Lost Language, is one of 44 Poetry Books for 2019 (Poetry Wales), and a second collection, Map of a Plantation, is an Irish Independent ‘Literary Find’ and on the syllabus at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her latest collection is called Resurrection of a Black Man.

British History is Black: The Queen Turned Black
Monday, 30 October 2023 11:28

British History is Black: The Queen Turned Black

Published in Poetry

Below is the last of the four new poems by Jenny Mitchell to mark Black History Month. For some background to the poem, see here and here.

The Queen Turned Black

by Jenny Mitchell

When granny dies, her skin transforms,
not limb by limb but all at once –
dark brown becomes red, white and blue.

Her hair has lost its kink, becomes a stately crown.
I’m not surprised. She loved Great Britain
even when in ’56 a turd slipped

through her letterbox. Neighbours called police
in ’58 to say her bible class – loud prayers
to a blond-haired Jesus – sent them mad.

More than once in ’63, the local press reported
that her house became a den of vice – Black
Madame Must Be Stopped!

She used the settlements to build a large extension.
Most recently, the man next door, caped
in a Union Jack, ordered her to go back home

with the other immigrants. Home was called
the Mother Country where the Queen
once welcomed her, waving from a balcony.

Now ever since she died, the Queen has been
transformed, her skin turned black,
her hair a tall, soft afro. She lies

next to my granny in a special plot, white
roses planted close. Are they holding
hands, having shared so much?

British History is Black: Plantation Yard to Council Flat
Sunday, 22 October 2023 14:31

British History is Black: Plantation Yard to Council Flat

Published in Poetry

Plantation Yard to Council Flat

by Jenny Mitchell

Once there was a slaving house battered by the sun, rays
like golden fists, blood oozing through the floors, women
forced to breed a child, sold by master with a whip.

Now there is a tower block beneath harsh clouds, unemployed
in damp-filled flats. Torn curtains take the place of bars, cracked
open by a breeze wending through the sink estate.

Walls quake with noise from lifts used as urinals, graffitied
stairs a chance you have to take, running for your own front door,
pounded by the sound of feet. Voices from the past echo

down communal stairs. Loud music thumps through ceilings,
infiltrates the skin like war is on the march in hobnailed boots,
taking a deep breath. Slaves once trudged through fields

where tenants cross the rec – a roundabout that does not turn –
stopping at the food bank, hands held out, mumbling thanks,
made to crock a knee as if a bag of food resembles God.

Once there was a hanging tree to stretch the runaways, bodies
left to twist all night, pulling down the stars. Rent long
overdue can’t be called the same, but think of bailiffs at your door.

Across the street, a large white house is owned by whites, blind
drawn up to point at blacks, skin all that can be seen as they
walk to the flats, heads high, still enslaved by need.

British History is Black: Black Hair
Wednesday, 11 October 2023 10:00

British History is Black: Black Hair

Published in Poetry

Black Hair

by Jenny Mitchell

Entering the gallery, you’ll see it in a case,
dark strands gathered close, size of a fist,
taken from a Negroid head. Long-denigrated
in the West
a sign explains – Known in the past
by several names
Bush, Wool, Nest.

Nothing indicates why it was kept,
low temperature maintained, no air
beyond the seal, light so dim I must bend down
in order to look close. Did hair fall from a head
blighted by disease, gathered up like gold?

Was the owner male or female – afro worn as crown
or Black Power sign? Did a master pull it out,
punishment for burning crop? At night,
a woman screamed, scalp alarmed,
forced to make this sacrifice.

Is she screaming still, running through the woods,
bald patch covered up? Or standing firm
in jail, blood trickling down her face?
Does she demand her hair returned,
placed back on her head, a self-made wig?

People shuffle past the case to see
much grander sights – Turner’s painting
of the Zong – black hands raised above the foam.
Who cares to contemplate the hair
that could be mine – Bush, Wool, Nest.

British History is Black – Black Hair

Writing about Black hair is like using a language I barely understand, one that speaks of culture, status and the unbearable loss and legacies of British transatlantic enslavement.

Haircare for Black people can take time and includes, at its best, an aspect that is meditative and bonding, allowing for stories to be created and histories shared. However, time (or free time) to enjoy this process was one of the many things stolen from the enslaved ancestors who survived enforced labour on Caribbean plantations for only seven years, on average. It seems clear that in such harsh circumstances there would have been very little time for leisurely haircare and familial bonding.

Was a whole language and map of well-braided hair destroyed? Was damage also done to the contents of the mind, leading to chaos and confusion about self-esteem? Does this destruction still impact Black people/family dynamics? How can financial reparations for enslavement, even if it ever became available, take this into account?

Besides all this there are huge fortunes to be made as a result of the dysfunction unleased on Black hair by an outrageous history. The fake hair industry is worth billions worldwide, and so we have the situation where Black women buy the hair of Asian women from predominantly white-owned companies, whilst patriarchal armies of white officials seek to ensure Black people do not wear their natural hair to school or in the workplace.

My poem Black Hair tries to bear witness to this historical chaos, and to honour a natural source of power, connection and love.

The poem is in the forthcoming pamphlet Family Name, published by Nine Pens.

British History is Black: four poems from Jenny Mitchell
Thursday, 05 October 2023 11:42

British History is Black: four poems from Jenny Mitchell

Published in Poetry

Culture Matters is proud to commemorate Black History Month 2023 and mark National Poetry Day with the first of four new poems by the award-winning writer Jenny Mitchell, under the heading British History is Black. This work examines the legacies of British transatlantic enslavement, looking at the impact on shared identities, ambition, personal safety and home.

Why four poems? Because Black History Month can often seem like a tick box exercise, and Culture Matters is committed to publishing work all year round that aims to challenge outmoded notions of ‘race’ and equity.

These poems have been written to stimulate new thoughts and lead to new questions. Culture Matters will post one poem a week during October; feedback from readers is welcome on Twitter/X at #Culturematters and on Facebook at Culturematters2019.

Great British Voice

by Jenny Mitchell

When mother sails to England – 1958 –
chin higher than a ship’s carved figurehead –
she’s followed by a huddled mob, white

faces coming close as if a dozen moons have
dropped, fists clenched, breath thick with beer,
each spit-stained curse shadowing the hospital

where she works at night, sun rising like a coin,
earning measly pay to be sent home, as she called
Jamaica then – aging mouths to feed. The mob

tears at her clothes, grabbing for the pay, coins
spinning on the road, but she stands her ground.
I is a British citizen. Me passport have a stamp.

You want to see me cry eye water? Never.
Not for you. Me farder fight in World War One.
Two bruder fight in World War Two. What medals

do you have? Men kick her to the ground, shout
above her screams, Listen to the monkey grunt!
They cough up phlegm, shower her with thick

contempt, running as she stands, limping to the
small bedsit shared with all those mice, crying
as she bathes the wounds, thinking it’s her voice

that has to change as skin cannot be white.
She puts Jamaica in a box, accent jailed for life,
no more haitches dropped. Adding them

to oranges doesn’t really help, still a victim
of attack walking down the streets, even when
she cries for help, using her Queen’s English.

Saturday, 16 September 2023 14:57


Published in Poetry


by Jenny Mitchell, with above image by Chad McCail

This is not a campus for the poor. The posh,
in drab designer clothes, labels on the outside –
wealth flapping in the sun. A coddled generation,
prepared to have it all, held up as leaders
of the world, when I hail from a council flat –
the first child in my family to ever sit exams.

The rich must sense I do not know my arse
from elbow – how to cook a bechamel.
Is it the same as a white sauce? Black girl
begins to hide her voice – How now brown cow?
Call me Eliza Doolittle. Who knows about
the rain in Spain? I’ve never been abroard.

Debt is accrued by lounging in a coffee shop –
scones filled with cream and jam, hot chocolate
poured up to the brim. I’m awed by silver spoons
between thin lips. The upper one is always stiff.
Money sharpens vowels – a cut-glass voice,
words I long to speak trapped down my throat.

First published by Poetry Wales.

Poetry, publishers and paltry payments
Tuesday, 01 August 2023 10:14

Poetry, publishers and paltry payments

Published in Cultural Commentary

The poetry world hates poor poets. Discuss if you’ve ever been told your poem has been accepted for publication (hurrah!) but there’s no fee (how do I afford the time to write more poems and pay the rent?). Does your publisher receive the majority share of any, often-paltry, royalties but refuse to buy three bottles of wine for a launch party? Discuss further if you’ve been asked to pay £10 to go to a poetry reading, or £14 to enter a poetry competition. The latter is not mandatory but without a win or two, a poet with a so-so publisher may go unnoticed. In other words, competitions are a way up if you’re ambitious.

Well, I hear an imaginary reader say, get a better publisher. Good idea, but have you noticed the field is crowded with Very Young poets who get to be published by Very Big publishers with their first joined-up collection? I wonder how many of these lucky poets have an academic background, or parents who are poets/writers? In other words, is the Old Boys’ Network alive and kicking in the poetry world? What does this mean in terms of poetic originality? Why would you write poetry that challenges the status quo if it’s working for you? Following on, do we carry inherited, internalised ideas around money?

If your family was exploited by the rich does this fill you with fear about poverty in the future? Could this lead you to do the Sensible Thing and get a Proper Job which, as many of us know, means there’s very little time/headspace for writing anything at all, much less for processing/learning/digging deep until you reach your power as a poet. It sounds gloomy. I can offer ideas, but you’ll have to pay me first.

Coda: After finishing the above Poetry Wales were kind enough to offer me some extra money to set out my ideas so here goes: Could every poetry competition offer ten free submissions, with no proof needed? I know some do already but if it was standard would it be an incentive for people on limited budgets to seek out competitions they might have dismissed as too expensive?

Zoom events are often free but could live events offer a number of free places for all open miccers and a few audience members? Also, if events ended earlier more people might be prepared to walk to and from them, therefore saving on transportation costs. This only seems petty if you’re earning a fairly decent wage.

The bigger publishers could actively scout for new poets in places like libraries by offering regular workshops. Also, every publisher worth its salt could offer at least one paid mentorship a year to a promising poet who identifies as working class. The poet would not have to edit or judge but just write and be given the enormous confidence boost of regular feedback.

Finally, might there be deep, internal, emotional work on self-worth and value that has to be done by poets in order to shift blocks around money?

This article is republished from On Value, Pay and Problems of Capitalism: Poets Talk About the Challenge of Economic Stress, in Poetry Wales, issue 59:1


The Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Brueghel
Monday, 14 November 2022 09:37

After Auden

Published in Poetry

After Auden

by Jenny Mitchell

About suffering they were never wrong,
the slave masters: how hard they whipped
until the humans, trapped, were made to kneel;
how it all takes place hidden in the Caribbean
whilst Great Britain – rolling hills, dappled fields
placed in front of dread machines – calls itself enlightened,
the revered dead carved in stone placed in city squares
where those descended from the once-enslaved
are forced to do the service jobs, children trapped
in failing schools, piled on a heap of unemployed.
Where dogs in Parliament go on with their doggy lives,
scratching their arses with what should be a helping hand.

On Question Time, for instance, how they turn away
quite leisurely from disasters of their own making – foodbanks
emptied out. A refugee has heard the splash, forsaken cry
behind him, hardly daring to look back. As the sun sets
in blue water ambitious blacks and browns pull up the ladder.
No one sees the people falling from an island
sailing calmly on before it sinks.

Levelling Up
Wednesday, 08 June 2022 21:20

Levelling Up

Published in Poetry

Levelling Up

by Jenny Mitchell, with image by Martin Gollan

They will not show this on the evening news –
our mother kneeling down at Number Ten –
a place of work and routine bacchanals –
to scrub red wine stains from the office carpet.
As vomit hits the wall above her head,
the PM wipes his chin, glass held in the air.

Spit flies out of his mouth, pollutes the air,
with yet another garbled toast to A new
day – just like the old, him standing at the head,
to help his chosen people keep control. Ten
men and women dance around the carpet,
close to mother’s arm, to cheer the bacchanal.

The PM sees her then, mouths Bacchanal,
shouting that A cleaner’s head is full of air!
He explains the word, feet spread on the carpet,
followed by You’ve missed a spot, old girl. New
crates of wine are plonked onto the table, ten
bottles still with dregs, music coming to a head.

Our PM starts a waddling dance, nods his head,
wine spilling from the glass to toast the bacchanal
as he sings out of tune The Winner Takes It All, ten
times, louder-still as Abba fades into the fetid air.
Mother tries to crawl away but cat-calls are renewed
for her to polish shoes, kneeling on the carpet.

The PM joins in with this call, offers her ten
pounds to lick his leather clean. He shouts The carpet
has to be made new, aims a kick close to her head,
falling in a heap, demanding to be helped. The air
is filled with threats they won’t show on the news,
even when we know about the many bacchanals.

Ten people and the PM break the law – a bacchanal
for the law-makers, sore-headed the next day, air
rank with sick still on a carpet mother must renew.

Here's the link to How Being a Girl Poet Saved My Life, an extract from an article by Jenny Mitchell, first commissioned and published by Poetry Wales.

And you can hear Jenny reading a poem from her latest award-winning book, Map of a Plantation, in a short and very moving film here.

Slave Trade, by George Morland
Sunday, 15 August 2021 13:21

Black Rapunzel

Published in Poetry

Black Rapunzel

by Jenny Mitchell

Family gathers in these plaits,
each parting like a grave
for people forced to work
the cane, colour of my scalp,
sun beating on their crowns.

I’ll twist the strands into a rope,
de-colonising hair, a diaspora
wending back to help
the ones in chains
escape the transatlantic.

Black Rapunzel, I’ll uncoil my locks
in prison yards, urge those on SUS
or sectioned, deep ancestor
voices trapped in too-loose plaits,
to shimmy over walls,

hide beneath my headwrap,
floral length of Africa before the trade.
I’ll carry them to safety,
woven in my braids. We’ll grieve
till loss flies out, unbound at last.

The Burden of Ownership
Tuesday, 15 September 2020 12:17

The Burden of Ownership

Published in Poetry

The Burden of Ownership

by Jenny Mitchell

He measures cost in body parts. A head pays
for a month of food; two eyes a week of drink.
Christmas adds a throat. Carved out with care
the neck still holds a yoke if the chin is firm
weight evenly proportioned.

Four breasts pay for his wife's new car, a mad
extravagance she must not think will be the norm.
Her furs demand a score of navels.
One manly chest is paid for every house –
he only wants the very best.

A waist is worth the price of land: an acre for two wombs.
Twelve manhoods buy a gushing stream
to serve his many fields. A sack of feet placed
in a bank account, maintains his balance
and the boast: he's always in the black.

Listen to Jenny reading the poem