Kei Miller is a linguistically inventive and erudite Jamaican poet living and working in the UK, and one of an increasing handful of poets who are producing important UK poetry in dialect. Like Daljit Nagra with Punjabi, he writes about Jamaican culture and the experience of the immigrant; like Liz Berry with her Black Country dialect, he both undercuts and strengthens Standard English by mixing it with patois and Rastafarianism. His latest collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2014. He writes fiction as well as poetry.
Kei Miller was born in 1978 in Kingston, Jamaica. He read English at the University of the West Indies, opting for poetry writing instead of fiction, because the fiction course was full. He dropped out short of graduation but began seeing his work published throughout the Caribbean.
He arrived in England in 2004, to study for an MA in Creative Writing (The Novel) at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has said in an interview, “I thought of poetry as just an exercise that would make me write better fiction but it took over”. He completed his PhD in English Literature at the University of Glasgow.
Miller’s first poetry collection, Kingdom of Empty Bellies, was published in 2006 by Heaventree Press, followed in 2007 by his second, There Is an Anger That Moves (Carcanet Press). His first collection of short stories, A Fear of Stones and Other Stories (Macmillan Caribbean Writers) was also published in 2006, and dealt among other things with Jamaican homophobia. It was shortlisted in 2007 for the Commonwealth Writers First Book Prize.
Since then there have been other novels, a collection of essays ( Writing Down the Vision: Essays & Prophecies, Peepal Tree, 2014) and two more poetry collections. A Light Song of Light was published by Carcanet in 2010, and in 2014 The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, also published by Carcanet, was awarded the Forward Prize for Best Poetry Collection.
Miller’s poetry has been marked from the first by an acute sensitivity to words: their histories and hidden meanings, and also the joy and colour they bring us. His work is rich with both British and Caribbean vernaculars, and his poems are explorations of the roots of these and the meanings they both convey and hide, through etymology and cultural association, as well as wordplay. A prose poem in The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, ‘Place name’, is an example of double meaning at its finest. It begins:
But there are also local, personal interpretations of the place name: ‘when victims live long enough they get their say in history’. Miller puts his faith in words themselves, as a physical force which can actually change things. His poems are full of invocations of the idea of the word. This can have a political importance or a personal one, or both.
In There Is an Anger that Moves, the sections have names like ‘Tongues and Prophecies’ and ‘Testament’. The poem ‘The Book of Genesis’, from ‘Testament’, begins:
let – from whose clipped sound all things began: fir
and firmament, feather, the first whale – and suppose
we could scroll through its pages every day
to find and pronounce a Let meant only for us . . .
in the pub, a woman mocks it.
You want to ignore her but wonder
how many hearts is she being bold for?
Hate in this place
is restrained as the landscape . . .
(‘How We Became Pirates’)
This book contains two sequences based on the word ‘broken’, and a long sequence of poems titled after the Books of the Bible. The word is also The Word, and a sense of the spiritual meanings of things – and the family and heritage we pass those meanings down through – pervades Miller’s work.
The phrase ‘The fear of stones’, from his short story collection, appears again in There Is an Anger that Moves, in a poem called ‘II’, from ‘The Broken (I)’.
If I were to write honestly
. . . I would write about the love
of men and the fear of stones
which in my country is the same thing.
The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion goes further than just testifying. It enacts the cultural split through the linguistic one. Kei told the Forward Prize about how the book grew out of a realisation that, just like language, ‘maps pretend to be innocent, but aren’t’. In the same interview, he quotes the poet Kamau Brathwaite: ‘the hurricane does not roar in pentameters’. The book takes the form of a conversation between two characters, the Cartographer and the Rastaman. These characters embody Babylon and Zion; linear rationality and organic growth; the idea of ‘objectivity’ and the understanding that we are all connected.
The book works in patois and in Standard English, and sometimes in a hybrid mix of both; neither of these characters ‘is’ Kei Miller; or, they both are. In the poem ‘xix’:
in de iya ites of de rastaman’s talk, for consider when
de rastaman I-nunciates something like: Map
was just a land-guage written gainst I&I
who never know fi read it – I&I who born
a Jubilee and grow with I granny and eat crackers
for I tea – I&I who got no talent
and says – every language, even yours,
is a partial map of this world . . .
As well as language, Miller’s work is about people and place and, really, about love. He writes gorgeously about women, especially older women, grandmothers. His work brims with empathy and humanness of the most intelligent kind.
Miller has been a visiting writer at York University in Canada, at the Department of Library Services in the British Virgin Islands and a Vera Rubin Fellow at Yaddo. In 2014, Miller was named as one of the 20 Next Generation Poets, a list compiled every ten years by the Poetry Book Society.
He divides his time between Jamaica and the United Kingdom.
Kingdom of Empty Bellies, Heaventree Press, Coventry, 2006
There Is An Anger That Moves, Carcanet, Manchester, 2007
A Light Song of Light, Carcanet, Manchester, 2010
The Cartographer Tries to Map A Way to Zion, Carcanet, Manchester, 2014
New Caribbean Poetry: An Anthology, editor, Carcanet, Manchester, 2007
Fear of Stones and Other Stories, Macmillan Caribbean, London, 2006
The Same Earth, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2008
The Last Warner Woman, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2010
Writing Down the Vision: Essays & Prophecies, Peepal Tree, Leeds, 2014
Miller’s blog, Under the Saltire Flag
Miller’s author page at Carcanet
Interview with Miller on the Carcanet blog
Miller’s profile at The British Council
Miller’s page at The Poetry Archive
Miller’s page on the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation Poets website
Miller’s page at the Forward Arts Foundation website
Review of The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion on Dave Poems