Burning Pens | Of Rage & Desire

As a continuation of Whose Wor(l)d is This? Diverse Voices in Urban Literature in The UK and Italy, a project created in collaboration with Inua Ellams and Orbita Spellbound, and part of the artistic programme REFRACTIONS, two of the published poets, Val Wandja and Cora Dessalines, return with SPAZIO GRIOT at Palazzo delle Esposizioni via EXP in a new format, an artist on artist talk in which they reveal their relationship with spoken word and untold feelings.

by S. Himasha Weerappulige - Published on 09/07/2023
Val Wandja (left) and Cora Dessalines (right). COURTESY Spazio GRIOT. Photo: Andrea Pizzalis

“I started writing poems as a kid. My dad would pay me an euro per poem. He was a poet. And by the end of the week I had made 20 euros” Val tenderly says to Cora, giggling. The two artists start exploring their relationship to poetry and words.

Val was born in Rome, in an Italian Cameroonian family. Theatre was where they discovered their love for words. During covid, when theatres were temporarily not viable anymore, in the quest for a new arena where to channel the strong emotions they felt at the time, they discovered poetry. Cora is a queer, non-binary afrofuturist poet and writer, their work mainly focuses on the themes of love, loss, and rage. Drawing from the imagery and the language of the natural world and the cosmos, both their poetry and their writing is a channel to invigorate their community, to galvanise it and materially create the liberating worlds that afrofuturism allows us to imagine.

“Poetry is like vomiting. I just regurgitate things on paper. I exorcise a demon and let it out” Cora expands. Poetry is an instinctive act, that in a way can be seen as selfish, detached and independent from what comes before and what comes after. “Sometimes I don’t even think about the performance itself, whereas my prose is thought to be clear and to be understood. My poetry is generally just very conversational”.

The poetic process is however not linear nor easy. “What structures are you inspired by? Which language to use?”. These are some of the questions the artists ask themselves. “The pervasiveness of English is quite an interesting theme” says Cora. Coming from a British-Italian-Caribbean background, and having been schooled in the UK, English has always been the most familiar language to Cora. That does lead them to question however how to decolonise a colonial language, that happens to be the system one knows best. Poetry is however also about kindness towards oneself, and about discovery of one’s own structures. Languages, even when imposed, mutate from within and can be reappropriated. Many forms of dialects and creole languages are a result of such a process.  Truth be told, reconnecting with language is also a slow process that deserves its time. As diasporic figures one may also reclaim the porosity of one’s Broca area, that part of the brain that deals with speech.

And that leads to the next thought on language and poetry. Despite being very intimate and personal the two artists both reach the conclusion that poetry is also a community-building endeavour.

Photo: Andrea Pizzalis

The act of reading poetry to an audience, with an audience, sharing intimate parts of oneself, inherently activates a process of care that is essential to community. “I write in my head, to myself, but I do it because I want to say something to someone” says Val. “Often I don’t even edit it, because I know that as I read it, it will change in front of my eyes. It transforms as I recite it”.

Val and Cora then start focusing on an underlying red thread that connects the poems they are about to recite: rage and desire, love and fury.  For Cora, these  feelings are two sides of the same medal. They grew up with a very quiet rage. A boiling kettle, with an energy they didn’t know how to channel. Poetry helped them to transform it into something regenerative. Val as well confesses that they had “always been an almost annoyingly well behaved kid… I gaslighted myself about how I felt about things. I’m a late bloomer when it comes to rage”.

As racialised people, as marginalised communities, we are often asked to contain our strongest feelings. To behave, to temper strong emotions. In order to survive, we are asked to be less of us. These social regulations of anger are a powerful way to enforce inequality and buttress status quo hierarchies. Poetry goes against such systemic requests, and forces you to look at yourself and express what you feel, may that be more or less clear in words, as long as it resonates with the speaker’s feelings. Poetry hence becomes a place of power that dissolves systemic oppression. Such Anger warns us, as humans, that something is wrong and needs to change, and in that sense it becomes regenerative.  As per Audre Lorde, “Anger transformed into action is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification”. 

As the flow of consciousness on poetry and the consciousness hidden within it continues, realising the time passing the two artists stop for a second. They decide to read out loud their poems. Val’s poem is very concrete and physical. It starts from fragments of images sprouting from a running train. It centres the body and it explores its reactions. They come from acting after all. Diametrically opposed but yet very aligned with Val’s poem is Cora’s. It’s a poem that attains to space, and dematerializes the body into its most celestial form, in search for love and rage

Val and Cora look at the audience, and speak their words.

Cora Dessalines. COURTESY Spazio Griot. Photo: Andrea Pizzalis

the red planet (for mars)
by Cora Dessalines

in the time it took to reach you
earth began to breathe
new beginnings to life.
unfurled leaves cupped
babies’ cries and i,
still drifting in the dark,
let it disappear behind me
my body floating
in a space
too cold and void
to feel it was you
i was hurtling to.
if i’d known, i would’ve
plucked the sound
from its stem & sent it
to you on the radio
ahead of space & time.
but you were smiling
as you saw me land,
had already seen it
was no coincidence that
my planet birthed a new cycle
on the day we met.
your voice, muffled in
rusted mist, whispered
my welcome into you
my red planet
and i panicked at the sound,
too used to caging my heart
in a clamshell at the bottom
of the seabed,
too blinded
by the bullet holes
i thought were stars.
so i plant my love in increments now.
best believe, you and i
are gonna be glorious
but this wicked cosmos
has almost punished me
beyond repair
my skin still scarred
by constellations that
wrapped around my wrists
like thorns each time
i lifted my head to the heavens,
with no helmet lined in gold
for when i came too close
to the sun’s glare.
but i wanna let my guard down for you.
i’m gonna let my guard down for you.
cos we got the kind of love
that brings stars
back from the dead
the kind of love that
reshapes solar systems
blocks scheming planets
and crochets broken hearts
back together again.
you make it easy to admit
that i’m in competition
with moons
to gravitate around you.
there’s billions of years
lining your waist
my love
and each curve
is too irresistible
not to orbit,
not to trace polygons
with my fingers
and push in
until i touch the waves
below your surface.
i want spring tides
to rise in our glory
and ripple beneath you
like i did.
softened by a smile
so bright
that light beams shine
through your teeth.
you’ve been pulling
me to you
again & again
until we’ve aligned
at right angles
until you’ve filled
each half phase
of mine with warm water.
i wanna bring you back to earth with me.
and prove to humanity
that our meeting
was a natural destiny
the inevitability of us
sacred enough
to be carved
into a daisy’s disc
into leaves on a stem
into an ocean conch
interlinked across the universe
in an infinite sequence
with nothing to fear
because we begin again.
so i take your hand in mine,
thumb caressing
the royal blue of your skin
as we board the ship,
and in the time it takes
to reach earth
green petals begin
to curl back into themselves
dew droplets have crystallised
and somehow
my friends already know
that i’ve fallen in love
with a martian
long before i did

Val Wandja. Photo: Andrea Pizzalis

di Val Wandja

It’s funny how
sitting on this regional train
I feel I have to look for words
To tell you that I am upset
I am upset.
The window is a cel
frames of hills
snapshots carved in light
green flowing outside
I hunch over to vomit.
Regular rhythm
the train inhales
and exhales
in my eyes
tap my shoulders
a Chinese torture
That night
we were eating
steamed dumplings
When I told you
That it scares me
that it scares you to see me cry
It reminds me of how often
I feel the need
to justify
It reminds me that
there is not soundtrack
for most moments in life
It frightens me that emptiness
is never talked about
really talked about
Let’s talk about it
But how do I explain it
with words
That those tingles under the skin
And unspoken truths
And heat in the belly
And void in the ventricles
And held breaths
And sealed sobs
They are what we are made of
is what we consist of
and I won’t insist if
it compresses you
But I feel oppressed
by how protection feels
frames of hills
snapshots carved in light
green flowing outside
The window
into a thousand pieces
of cellulose
That I will put back together
in no particular order
in this orderly world
In the liminal dimension
Between sleepless ceilings
“I’m doing a little better”
Interpersonal chaos
Clamoring over the speakers
internal movements
We look at each other
we’re embarrassed
one in front of the other
at the table
with wooden chopsticks
in my hand I
clutch them like wands
hoping for magic
But silence is not one of your topics
And so I run away
On the first departing train
And I apologize if I’m leaving but
I am
too many generations


Promoted by | Assesorato alla Cultura di Roma Capitale and Azienda Speciale Palaexpo
Curated by | SPAZIO GRIOT
Co-produced and co-organized by | SPAZIO GRIOT and Azienda Speciale Palaexpo
Main Sponsor | Gucci
Supported by | British Council
In collaboration with | American Academy in Rome, Fondazione Polo del ‘900, EXP

Find out more about REFRACTIONS and Whose Wor(l)d is This? Diverse Voices in Utban Literrarure In The UK and Italy.

Visit Cora Dessalines and Val Wandja

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S. Himasha Weerappulige
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Opero nel cinema, tra casting, sviluppo, ricerca archiviale e programmazione nell’ambiente festival. Il mio background è però legale, e mi ha permesso di sviluppare un metodo di analisi decoloniale che mi porto appresso nell'audiovisivo e nelle arti. Curo diverse piattaforme diasporiche, e per GRIOT sono una contributor.