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Interview with Nick Makoha about the Obsidian Foundation

Obsidian is a foundation and poetry retreat, launched for Black poets and founded by Nick Makoha. The Retreat is a long-term, sustainable programme, based on the successful model of Cave Canem in the USA. The Foundation provides Black poets—who often face multiple barriers of access to literary resources and professional development—with opportunities to network with agents, publishers and influencers. Below, Nick speaks with Magma Board Member Isabelle Baafi about the origins of Obsidian, the first retreat (held in November-December 2020), and the future of the Foundation. This interview has been transcribed and edited from a recorded conversation.


Isabelle Baafi (I): What inspired you to launch the Obsidian Foundation?

Nick Makoha (N): The Obsidian Foundation is based on Cave Canem. Attending the Cave Canem retreat was transformative for me. It connected me with Black poets in the US, and also reminded me that I matter as a Black writer. The thing about Cave is that it’s such a giving community, and when you graduate in your third year, they tell you all the ways you can give back to the Foundation. A lot of people donate financially, but when I left, I said to myself I can’t just leave this here. I was like, no I have to do something—so I wanted to create Cave Canem UK, and I talked to Ray [Antrobus] about it, and Malika [Booker], and we were talking to all these organisations here… But then life got in the way, you know? Family stuff… I was doing an MA… my book came out. And then last year, COVID happened, and I guess life slowed down for everyone.

But then, witnessing the brutality and violence against Black people in America really kicked things back into gear. The murder of George Floyd really upset me. Ray rang me up two days after, and we ended up speaking for hours that night, and the first question he asked me was “Nick, what’s going on with Cave Canem UK?” I realized in that moment that I could march in a demonstration and it would make me feel good, but actually, I make the most change in my direct community, which is writing. So that night I purchased the website, picked the Twitter handle, and a few weeks later I was calling people, like “Roger [Robinson], you’re gonna be this” or “Ray, you’re gonna do this” or “Terrance [Hayes], you’re gonna do this”—just asking people for stuff. I got loads of great advice from Bernardine Evaristo, and I called on Tobi [Kyeremateng] and Theresa [Lola]; I was like “I need some Black female energy, and you guys are leaders in the community. Are you down?” And they were like “yeah.” So everyone agreed to stuff, even though I hadn’t yet guaranteed them any money. I just said, “Look, I’m gonna try and find some money, but I’d like to do it even if we don’t get it.” And they all just took me at my word.

I didn’t want to talk to too many people, apart from the people I just mentioned, to make it happen. All I wanted was for Black poets to find out about it, because I wanted Black poets to own it. Often, what happens is that we create these initiatives, and then they become institutions, and then the institution leads. But Black poets have to find it; they have to feel like it’s their space. And once they feel like it’s their space they can be like, “Oh, this was made for me.”

I: As someone who attended the Retreat, I can definitely say that that came through. The entire week really felt like a space that Black poets could think of as their own. I’m thinking specifically about some of the things that people said in the opening and closing circles, about why they appreciated it so much, which was often due to bad experiences in other predominantly white spaces. Could you talk a bit more about why retreats such as this one are so important for Black poets?

N: A lot of the success that we’ve seen over the last 25 years, from Black poets nationally and internationally, came as a result of Cave Canem’s generational influence, and the community they’ve built over the years. I’ve never seen 50 Black poets in a room like that. With the Obsidian Foundation, we did it online, but in Cave Canem you’re seeing 50 Black poets physically—and your 50 is just one of many other 50s. And it’s amazing because usually, in most rooms that I step into, I’m the only Black poet, or I’m the only Black man. Whereas when you walk into Cave you’re a priority, and in fact, your Blackness is not an issue. “You’re Black? Really? Well guess what, we’re all Black.” So the thing that’s been stigmatizing us is a non-event. I never understood why every year I’d go there, and when they asked me “Why are you here?” I would weep. And I realised that one of the reasons why I would weep is because I was safe. We’re constantly processing our lives at 100 miles an hour, and so we don’t realise that we always feel under threat, because we’re just so used to it. It’s a daily occurrence. People have been worried about COVID for the last year. Racism is around you your whole like. Even before a baby knows [what race is], they’re experiencing racism: where they live, how people talk to them, how people look at them. If you’re a mixed-race child and they’re thinking “Hmm, who’s your daddy?”… Racism is just playing out. But in Cave Canem, these things were not even concerns, and to be in a safe space for seven days… And then to be able to talk to some of the greatest writers of our generation… You know, my buddy in my first year was Danez Smith—how lucky am I?

I: As well as Magma, Obsidian has many partners, including the Poetry Society, the Arvon Foundation, the Royal Society of Literature, King’s College, Poetry London, Granta, Wasafiri, and others. Why was partnering with these organisations a priority for you, and how are you hoping to work with them in future?

N: Often, when Black poets see these organisations, they don’t see them as places that are welcoming to them. There’s a lot of subliminal things that are saying to them you’re not welcome, but the organisation doesn’t perceive that. They think that they’re doing initiatives. And so I wanted to make sure that [Black poets] see that every door is open—or that there’s a possibility of entering ever door—so they know that if they work on their poems and present themselves professionally, there’s a space for them. I wanted the Obsidian Foundation to be like the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, so that every time someone enters it, it’s a brand new world, full of possibility. And the Magma door is different from the Poetry London door, and so on. I said to these organisations that we have to move in a way that makes you seem welcoming to the writers we’re developing, because they’re working on their craft in order to share their poems. They want to grow as writers, so we have to create fertile ground for them to grow.

I: It seems like the response from these organisations has been positive, which is great. And I’ve only recently joined the Board of Magma, but in recent months there has been a lot of discussion about moving forward in ways that unearth new possibilities—that is, in terms of creating new opportunities, and diversifying the voices we amplify and the connections we make. So the partnership is exciting for us as well, and I’m sure that the other partners would agree. Also, I can definitely attest to the effect of the support and after-care packages (or ‘plantain’!) that Fellows have received. They’ve really encouraged me to submit to journals that I wouldn’t have imagined submitting to before, and to take my writing more seriously. Is that part of how you envision Obsidian fitting into the British and international poetry landscape?

N: That confidence is what I want to instil in the writers, because it’s not easy. There’s a lot of rejection. But then, what happens is that [with more possibilities] your world gets bigger. My main focus is on how to create a space where we keep growing like that, because initiatives like this rarely last more than 3-5 years at most, so my success criteria is, how can we last a minimum of ten? And then when we get to ten, I would hope that the Obsidian Foundation has reached a state of perpetual motion, so that even after I stop doing it, its legacy goes on.

I’m not trying to think of the few that may rise to the top in each generation. I’m trying to think of a canon of Black writers. There’s only one you, but imagine many writers like yourself having that same thought—I think I will apply—you know? All of a sudden there’s a different echo in the literature. Right now, what we’re seeing from just one retreat is that when Black writers start, they’re switched on, and they’re activated, and they’re mobilized. My thinking is, what can two retreats do? What can three do? What can four do?

I: Speaking of which, how did you find the retreat, personally? What was your experience of working with the faculty, the participants? Did anything surprise you, and do you feel like it was a success?

N: I think it was a great success. The opening circle was amazing, and it really meant a lot that Cornelius [Eady, the cofounder of Cave Canem] came to the closing circle. We were online but the retreat achieved a lot of the things that the offline programme does, and that amazed me. I was also amazed by the discipline that people put on themselves. Most people weren’t late, they handed in their poems on time. The community that was building really touched me. And the poetry kept improving every day, which showed me that in many ways as poets we’d been starved. It’s not that people aren’t developing because they’re reluctant to; it’s because they don’t have access to the necessary tools and support. But once you give them access, they soar. What surprised me is how hungry they were to learn, and I really enjoyed that I was exhausted every night. You know, in many ways I was scared that it wouldn’t happen, but it did, and it was just a piece of magic every day.

I: Amazing! So what’s next for the Foundation?

N: At the moment, we’re trying to get the second retreat up and running, so we’re trying to get the funding for that, and to build those relationships. Because you know, it’s a two-way street. It’s about re-educating the literature world about the variation and the complexity of Blackness, because once that’s understand it, it’ll be welcomed. I think the reason why we often don’t get into places is that we’re homogenized, and also, they don’t really understand our literature. We understand their literature, but they don’t understand ours. And we need to understand our own literature as well, so that when they act confused, we can shed light.

Ironically, if it was really successful, we wouldn’t need the Obsidian Foundation. When you ask me, is it successful? Yes it is, but in many ways I’m sad that it’s successful because it means that the problem I thought was out there is very real: the Black poet is struggling. And I don’t mean that in a self-pitying way, I mean that they don’t have the opportunities they deserve—and that’s why they came, and that’s why it was so successful. I think people take for granted the need for safe spaces for Black writers, and I hope this is not the only safe space that will be provided. This is a legacy project, so it’s just the catalyst. It’s only the beginning.

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