Literary Spotlight with Sue Burge: Poet Roy McFarlane Leads Us through Troubled Waters


Sue Burge: I’m very excited to be interviewing Roy McFarlane for this issue of WordCity Literary Journal.  Roy is primarily a poet, although he turns his considerable talents to other genres too.  He is a spellbinding performer of his poetry and uses his wordsmithery to explore the big issues of our time to great effect.

Roy, in your bio you say that “in a former life” you were a Community Youth and Play Worker.  How did you incorporate writing into this life and did your work influence your writing at this stage?  I suppose what I’m asking is how you became a poet and at what point you thought “I’m a poet”!

Roy McFarlane: I’ve always been a holder/giver of words, from a young boy being led by my mother to read and recite Psalms, to a young man dabbling with love poems inspired by the lyrics of George Benson, to being a young minister of the gospel developing my craft by listening to recorded sermons and the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. But the turning point of actually writing poetry was working with young people, who were excluded or on the point of joining local gangs, who lived and devoured the texts of Tupac and Biggie, who revelled in the misogynist and violent banter.  In response to that schooling we encouraged them to write positive lyrics, write their lived reality through poetry and put music to it. This is where I began writing poetry. A few years later I was studying Black theology, or Black Liberation theology, famously coined by the African American theologian James H. Cone (simply put, whether God is on the side of the oppressed or the oppressor). In this sanctuary of studying, I wrote my first poem Are you looking at me? A normal day in the life of a black man who seemed to have people looking at him wherever he goes; a poem I later performed with the New October Poets, led by the enigmatic Dreadlock Alien where a band of diverse poets from Birmingham and the surrounding area formed a spoken word community, creating a space to hone our craft and opportunities to tour across the UK

This sounds like an amazing apprenticeship to becoming a wordsmith!  What advice would you give to poets just starting out?  Do you have a particular process when you write?

Write, write, write, sometimes the blank page can be so daunting, we overthink things, we imagine what we’re writing has no relevance, or, more damning, it’s no good, but until we put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard and release the words, we become captives to hesitation and doubt.

I write for the joy and love of it, the spark that troubles you in the midnight hour, the thought that follows you into a dream, the ache that wakes you up, the inspiration that makes you write on the margins of a newspaper.

Roy, you have had several quite starry poetry roles including Birmingham Poet Laureate and Starbucks Poet in Residence – what did these roles entail and what were the highlights?

Birmingham Poet Laureate will always be the turning point in my journey as a poet. The accolade, the space and support from Birmingham Libraries and Writing West Midlands enabled me to be creative and fly. The day it was announced was a day of interviews on radio and tv, being escorted and being treated like a VIP at the Birmingham Lit festival and receiving a trophy which stands proudly on my book shelf.  Later in that year I was invited out to Amsterdam to perform and work with communities and local poets.

Starbucks Poet in Residence wasn’t as financially rewarding as it would seem but I got the opportunity to take over Birmingham Starbucks Café in Martineau Place. Once a month in the evening with a DJ, mic and speakers the space became a place for poetry performances, paying guest poets with a bit of money, a coffee cup and coffee beans. The focus was on local talents such as Spoz, Polar Bear, Moqapi, Sue Brown and many more who were established or starting out and who have now become pillars of the poetry community.

Currently, you are Canal Poet Laureate which sounds like an amazing role!  Could you talk us through what this entails and what kind of projects you have been engaged in throughout this Laureateship?  I envisage lots of chilly walks with pauses for observation and chats to passers-by but I’m sure there’s much more to it than this!


The Canal Poet Laureate is a joint initiative with the Canal & River Trust and The Poetry Society, and what was beautiful is that I was given a blank canvas, (a poet’s dream) to write with a theme of canals and waters.

I’d only been on a boat once on a school trip through the tunnels of Tipton canal, so I wanted to talk about the communities that border this beautiful terrain, these hidden green and blue strips of wonderland found in the busy bustle and hustle of urban cities. I wanted to explore the histories of the common people who worked, lived and made these waterways. And herons, the love of these beautiful creatures that I encountered on my walks along Tipton canal during lockdown.

My first year was full of many adventures and writings, it began with a 10-year celebratory poem for the Canal & River Trust. Many of my adventures included working with young people, like a group in Burnley who I helped to write the history of this place and their stories of belonging; or primary school children from Walsall experiencing their first encounter with canals. Or the joy of working with an elderly community in Leeds, hearing their lived experience around the waterways of Leeds; or the first time Caribbean, Polish and local elders stepped on a boat and travelled along a canal that cut through the Tottenham Hale neighbourhood and the stories they told of living through good and bad times.

Working at the oldest working boatyard in Ellesmere was a great experience as I talked to a third generation of engineers and boatyard experts who told me their amazing stories from rescuing individuals from aqueducts or sheep stuck in water, to boats that have gone adrift or drunken revellers sinking a boat; from removing fallen trees or mourning the loss of a comrade sucked underwater whilst fixing canals in the midst of a flood.  A blessing to encounter these great men of which little is known. And a residency on a boat for four days where I started to understand the nudge of water accompanied by the constant banging of my head on a low lintel.

Kings Cross to Camden is one of many walks I had along the British Waterways and Canals, the poem below was written on Spring Equinox as part of a series of canal walks during the times of Equinox and Solstice, there’s something sacred, surreal and magical about these walks during these celebrations that connect us to a time we were in tuned and reverent to the world around us.

Birmingham was the host city for the Commonwealth Games in 2022 and the Queen’s Baton Relay is a tradition that starts its journey from Buckingham Palace, travelling across the Commonwealth countries and returning to Birmingham for the opening of the games. I was commissioned to write and perform from a balcony as the baton was carried on a boat travelling along a stretch of the Birmingham canal.


I’ve also found myself part of global heron community due to @every_heron sharing To the Heron who stood with me in the ruins of another Black man’s life on Twitter. I imagine 50% of the poems I’ve written regarding canals and waterway have been in conversation with herons.

Your poetry books really engage with hefty issues such as institutional racism (The Healing Next Time) and, in your third collection, Living by Troubled Waters, you explore slavery, colonialism and their troubling aftermath in today’s world.  Living by Troubled Waters uses very innovative and experimental techniques to engage with its subject matter, such as erasure, inclusion and a really profound drawing on archival material.  How do you approach the ideas behind each of your collections, and, above all, how do you look after yourself and your wellbeing when tackling such difficult subjects?

First of all, thank you for bringing up the idea of well-being whilst writing.  Whether it’s personal, grief, trauma or the greater subjects of injustice, inclusivism, the environment, etc., writers are fortunate to engage in this practice to explore, bring light and draw witness to all things human, but are naturally affected by the process of writing it.

One of the schools of thoughts is duende, which I think will help to understand how we survive the process. Duende, or “black sounds” as Federico Garcia Lorca put it, is a spirit that inhabits your writing, the pain, the sorrow, and translates into the reading and performance of it. I recognise that duende is in my cry for justice, giving voice to those at the margin, and even comes into my love poems.

As for the experimental poems, the way they look on the page is down to each individual poem, they have a life of their own, forming into words on the page and then wearing sonnets or broken sonnets, villanelles, pantoum or free verse, they put on the clothes that best suits them.

The erasure and inclusion poems were found within the texts of archives.  Like a Rubik’s cube you’re working with limited text, line by line, word by word until something clicks into place, until you find that emotional intent within that arena, you find the soul of a poem within this limited space illuminating the page.

I also noticed that Living By Troubled Waters also focuses a great deal on the idea of motherhood/womanhood and wondered if we could explore that a little more?  It’s such a strong thread throughout your work.

Living by Troubled Waters cover(1)

Living by Troubled Waters is a celebration of Black motherhood, of womanhood that fights against tyranny and injustice worldwide. I realised I kept returning back to the subject of my mothers – I was adopted at six months – and the love of both women that brought me into this world and nurtured me to be the man that I am.

My first collection Beginning With Your Last Breath was written in celebration of my life mother who passed away after losing her 10-year battle with cancer. A loving and gracious mother, who had an open-door policy for all the diverse people in the neighbourhood to walk on in and dine at her table. In writing the collection I couldn’t ignore my birth mother, who brought me into this world, a single mother already struggling to look after a two-year-old daughter, now pregnant with me.

She was part of a Jamaican migrant community, invited to Britain post-World War II, who found things tough in a hostile environment of racism.  Her Pentecostal sponsors frowned upon her behaviour, and, with a new lover offering her hope of a better life in Winnipeg Canada, she had to make the choice of leaving a child behind. Twenty-five years later I made a trip to Winnipeg and found my birth mother.  This is the story which can be found in Beginning with your Last Breath.

The stories continue in the first part of Living by Troubled Waters, the stories that my life mother passed down to me; the stories of resistance from Mother Beckford who was a key presence in my life, like a god mother: she sneaked sweets in my pocket and was full of belly laughs; a village of mothers who showered me with love and the continuing desire to know my birth mother, to understand her struggle and to appreciate it …a child finds himself in the company of women: two mothers and a sister. A love supreme.

Such a beautiful response, Roy, thank you.  You grew up in Birmingham and Wolverhampton and your poetry really engages with a sense of the UK’s black heritage.  Do you feel that exploring and acknowledging this heritage is getting easier and that there is a more universal acknowledgement of this aspect of the UK’s history?  Do you feel part of a strong community in terms of being supported in this exploration?  Does poetry help to tackle racism and if so, how do you feel it does this?  I know you are also a performance poet and playwright and I wonder if this aspect of your work has a wider reach?


Interesting question.  Looking back at my journey as a writer around the Birmingham and Wolverhampton area, I seemed to be always writing in times of tragedy. I was there walking through the Wolverhampton Manda Centre when Clinton McCurbin (1987) a young black man, died whilst being arrested for alleged shoplifting in Next.  This is my lived experience, this is my writing experience.

Several decades later and I’m still writing about the violence visited upon black bodies and until we change the narrative about the other, we will always demonise the outsider, make them the scapegoats of poverty, or pandemics, use them as political pawns to gain more votes. Even in the writing of these answers, the British government is hell bent on criminalising, detaining and deporting refugees, and scheming to renege on the ECHR promise to protect the human rights and fundamental freedoms of every person. Has anything changed? Not really, we’ve just become more astute in what we say.

Poetry bears witness to the humanity of these people, and asks the timeless question, are we not each other’s keeper? Dylan Thomas said, Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle. This is my eternal aim, to make people laugh and cry, to ride on the emotional wave of a poem, to know that we all inhabit the space of being human and if your toenails twinkle in the journey, then my job is done.

On a positive note, speaking from the perspective of the poetry world, the community of poets has become, and continues to be, more diverse. Leading publishers are taking on more diverse voices, independent publishers are creating spaces on the page and on the stage for the margin to come to the centre of our reading and of our experience of what it is to be British in the 21st Century.

As a writer of different genres, you can only put pen to paper and see what happens, sometimes the words lend themselves to a dialogue, a play, at other times it might be an essay or prose, but whatever happens a writer has to write.  Where it lands, is left in the laps of the gods, a good agent and a publisher.

What’s next for you Roy?  Any interesting projects coming up that you can share with us?

I don’t want to say too much but certainly the possibility of a live performance of Living by Troubled Waters, another year as National Canal Laureate and numerous festivals through the year, one of which is Poet in Residence for the Brighton Book Festival 20-25 June 2023.  If you are in the UK, come along and have a chat during the festival!

You left in between the snowdrops that fell lightly

In a world of floppy-disks and hard drives, with Christmas
around the corner. I get a phone call, ‘you need to come to the hospital.’
The day before, you were supposed to be coming home,
you heard my mother struggle to move you from bed to chair;
a practice run for what life would be, moving your stroke-hit body
like a mighty oak; you were leaning, heavy, struck by lightning.
I see mum at the entrance of the ward, Roy, daddy gone, daddy gone.
I hold mum to the mumbling of nurses and I’m trying to compute.
And there you are behind a closed curtain, unbelievably still.
So, you gone old man, you really gone, I touch your chest
something solid about your chest, something absolute,
the lack of movement and I know you’re not coming back.
I make a pillow of your chest and lie there; tears trickle
on to this rock. It’s only been an hour since they called me
warmth still resides in you like in the morning; the heat left over
from the coal fire you made the evening before, fires I’ll have to make.
Mum stirs me, Roy I was here all the time, I only popped out,
I come back and im head lean, mout open, mi touch him and he head…
I’m holding my mum as she cries, bawls, she who never left your side,
imagines she has failed you, but you knew what you were doing.
Outside, Christmas draws near, and time falls
lightly like snow as the world programs itself for celebrations


To the Heron who stood with me in the ruins of another Black man’s life
        after Gwendolyn Brooks & Gil Scott-Heron

To the Heron long and lean standing still on the corners
where the water’s bend; to the Heron gracefully grey
poised at the water’s edge; to the Heron painted
in the tapestry of reeds, waiting, waiting – I want
to learn the art of waiting in these dread-full times,
thick engulfing, choking times; to the Heron
long-limbed, taking one, two steps, stretching
those wings, leaping like Jordon – to rise
in brilliance; to all Herons from the lineage
of Bennu He who came into being by himself.
To all the Herons left school, real cool;
to the Heron lurking late in summertime;
to the Heron with the slow wing beats
of a double-bass on a Jazz June evening;
to the Heron motionless, still standing still;
to Gil Scott-Heron whilst I’m here standing
in the ruins of another Black man’s life… I am Death
cried the Vulture for the people of the light, yet, here
we stand on the muddy banks alive, longing for change;
to all those gliding towards the sunset, beautiful is your name.


Roy McFarlane is a Poet, Playwright and former Youth & Community Worker born in Birmingham of Jamaican parentage, living in Brighton. He’s the National Canal Laureate, as well as being former Birmingham Poet Laureate and Starbucks Poet in Residence

Roy was one of the Bards of Brum performing in the Opening Ceremony for Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022 and has performed internationally sharing his passion for social justice, equality, identity, love and the healing power of poetry as a witness to our times.

His debut collection, Beginning With Your Last Breath, was followed by The Healing Next Time, (Nine Arches Press 2018) shortlisted for the Ted Hughes award and longlisted for the Jhalak Prize. His third collection Living by Troubled Waters (Nine Arches Press 2022) is now available.  He loves Jazz and walking with Herons.

Twitter: @rmcfarlane63

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Published by darcie friesen hossack

Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. Her short story collection, Mennonites Don’t Dance, was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ontario Library Association's Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Adult Fiction. Citing irreverence, the book was banned by the LaCrete Public Library in Northern Alberta. Having mentored with Giller finalists Sandra Birdsell (The Russlander) and Gail Anderson Dargatz (Spawning Grounds, The Cure for Death by Lightening), Darcie's first novel, Stillwater, will be released in the spring of 2023. Darcie is also a four time judge of the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and a career food writer. She lives in Northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, international award-winning chef, Dean Hossack.

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