Afua Cooper brings the Copper Woman to York

On Sept. 21, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented poet Afua Cooper. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

Our women wear copper for love
Or to draw poison from the blood
To heal the joints and make them supple

-from Copper Woman
by Afua Cooper

As Afua Cooper (left) finished reading her first poem, an awkward silence filled the lecture hall in York’s new Accolade West building. The students, gathered to hear her speak as the first writer in the Canadian Writers in Person series, perhaps didn’t know how one should respond to someone so apparently serious as a poet. With tongue in cheek, Cooper gave them an idea: “You may clap.”

With laughter loosening the room, it became clear that any notions of poetry as a dry and insoluble mystery were going to be dispelled during this evening get-together on Sept. 21. Only by being there in person could one fully appreciate how much the poet’s words were lifted off the page by her performance and presence. Her reading of her poetry collection, Copper Woman, was peppered with moments of song, peals of laughter, dramatic movements, and multi-tonal incantation.

Despite some angry tones in her poetry (or perhaps because of them), her work carries hope for change and a better world. One person, as common as Rosa Parks, said Cooper, can be a hero and bring about positive change. “We each have a role in changing the Earth’s Consciousness,” said Cooper. After considering the suicides of her early literary role models, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Cooper chose a different path. Her poetry celebrates the choice of life, everyday joy, and the interconnectedness of humanity. She emphasizes the need to “rewrite the script” and to not give in to feelings of apocalyptic gloom, saying: “If they predict Armageddon, it will happen.”

Cooper’s poetry nonetheless considers our present and historical past with a sharp eye. Her readings of the poems “Diamond is a Girls Best Friend” and “Negro Cemeteries” challenge accepted perceptions: “Black history has less to do with black people and more to do with white pride,” said Cooper, who also read from her book The Hanging of Angélique, which, as Canadian author Dionne Brand notes, is “a reclamation of Africans in early Canadian history.”

When asked about her development as a writer, Cooper traced her interest in writing back Children’s Own, a Jamaican newspaper for young writers. As a child, she began writing about Jamaican heroes. Eventually she discovered her place as a poet. Though she mentions a number of heroes, both male and female, Cooper had no single person in mind when writing Copper Woman. As the Canadian literary critic Neil Armstrong remarks in the book’s introduction, “you are sure to meet the Copper Woman as love goddess, seer, vengeful warrior, gifted healer, fecund feminine, earth mother, suffering mother, grieving lover, and empowered ruler.” However, the metal itself was an inspiration for the poet, recalling her memory of Jamaican women wearing copper bangles in the belief that it heals the joints. The vision in her work evolved as a love chant aimed at healing the joints of the soul.

When one student commented on the power of the mother figure in her poetry, Cooper replied, “In black culture, the mother is seen as a great woman, a bridge over which you can cross into adulthood, into personhood.” Noting that the Cooper’s daughter was in the audience, another student asked: “If your daughter were to write a poem about you, what would it be called?”

Cooper replied, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask her?”

Her back straightening, Cooper’s daughter replied, “My Mother, My Hero.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. On Thursday, Oct. 5,  Margaret Christakos will read from her poetry collection Sooner.