Dean Atta is a writer and performance poet. He has been commissioned to write poems for the Damilola Taylor Trust, Keats House Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Atta won the 2012 London Poetry Award and was named as one of the most influential LGBT people by the Independent on Sunday Pink List 2012. His debut poetry collection I Am Nobody's Nigger was published in 2013 by The Westbourne Press. Atta lives in London and performs internationally.
What does being creative mean to you?
For most of my life, being creative has been what made life worth living; it’s been an escape, a way to express myself, a way to meet people, it’s even been a way to make money. Now that it’s become my job there’s this added pressure of not just being creative but being productive. Getting stuff done. Working hard at it.
‘I Am Nobody’s Nigger’, can you explained what provoked you to write this?
It was provoked by 28 years living as a person of colour in country with very limited portrayals of people of colour in mainstream media but with Hip Hop becoming so mainstream I felt frustrated at the chosen few Hip Hop artists getting most attention and how carless I felt they were being with their fame. To borrow a phrase from Dead Prez, “It’s bigger than hip hop”, but that is what provoked it.
Dean, tell us about yourself, who is Dean Atta?
Dean Atta is a man who lives in London, with roots in Cyprus and Jamaica, who writes, performs and teaches poetry. My biggest achievements to date have been getting my BA in Philosophy and English (University of Sussex), getting my MA Writer/Teacher (Goldsmiths College, University of London) and publishing my debut poetry collection I Am Nobody’s Nigger (The Westbourne Press).
Why poetry, and what are you trying to communicate with your work?
I am trying to communicate my own humanity and the humanity of others. That might sound a bit vague but what I’m trying to say in my work is simply: I’m a person, you’re a person and they are people too, so why can’t we all just get along?
Do you remember the first poem you wrote, if so, what was it, and can you remember why you wrote it?
I remember writing a poem in primary school that won a competition and was displayed in a bus shelter in one of those advertising panels. I don’t remember what the poem was about now (maybe it was about buses?) but I just remember feeling really proud that it was on display where lots of people would see it.
What is a measure of success as a poet for you?
For me, it is simply to find the right words to say what I think and feel. Many people will see you as successful if you make money, get your work published and win awards. However, when you’re working on a poem and you can’t find the write words, none of your past achievements matter, it’s just you and that poem. So, for me, every poem I write is it’s own individual success.
Who are some of your favourite poets, and why?
I like different poets for different reasons, I love the rawness of Gil Scott-Heron and the defiance of Dr Maya Angelou and both of these qualities can be found of the work of Ursula Rucker, who was one of my very first inspirations to write spoken word poetry when I heard her poem “The Return to Innocence Lost” on The Roots album Things Fall Apart in 1999. Other poets I have been enjoying recently include Nayyirah Waheed, Shailja Patel and Warsan Shire.
Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?
Read more than you write. Always be reading poetry collections but also read fiction and non-fiction books too. Finish a book even when you don’t particularly like it. Try to understand what the writer was trying to achieve and if they were successful in doing it. Look for what you can learn or borrow from writers whose work you do like and what to avoid doing from ones you don’t.
What is in the future for Dean Atta?
I’m currently working on my second poetry collection, which will be illustrated by an artist called Ben Connors. Ben designed the first book cover and since then our collaborations have become really important to the way I want to present my poems. We have had our collaborations shared in print and digitally for Dazed and Confused, Geeked Magazine, Hysteria and in a performance for TEDxBrixton.