Isabelle Baafi on ‘hotboxing’

Down to the Butt. Photo © Aamir Mohd Khan.

When we were sixteen, a friend of mine left home and declared herself homeless. Life with her mother, and mother’s boyfriend, had become unbearable. Within months, she was allocated adequate housing, and her time in temporary accommodation didn’t last long. But in my mind, those months spanned years: an endless summer, in which we – my friend, myself, another girl, and three guys who sold weed after college on Hounslow High Street – would often gather at the B&B where she stayed. The six of us were bored, unstimulated and untrusting: a mass of forehead scars and scalp burns, PTSD and lost relatives, vitiligo patches and alopecia. None of us were whole. And these indices of trauma are not in the poem, but they surround the poem. They exist in the margins – just as we did, in the world outside the B&B. But in the poem, as Toni Morrison said, “I stood at the border, stood at the edge, and claimed it as central.”

And so here, as the poem says – “here” – we are aware of what drives us inside, towards each other. But the impetuses themselves are neither present nor important. There are no parents, no police, no teachers, no bullies, no rival gangs, no paedophiles, no immigration officers in this poem. Sealed from the inside, we are not locked out, but locked in, and we alone hold the key to our unleashing. Here, we expose the world for what it is. We are conspiracy theorists and causeless revolutionaries: becoming drowsy to wake ourselves up. Streaming endless Illuminati videos, and laughing our heads off, crying our eyes out. Teaching ourselves to inhale, the same way we learned to hold our booze, or make a fiver last a week, or roll, or stomach the taste of boys we didn’t really like, but who did the job – or for whom/to whom – we might do it. Boys who didn’t say much on road, lest they give away their gentleness. Boys who smiled like toddlers whenever we teased them; called them by their government names.

The first draft took half a dozen sittings, over the course of about three months. I wrote about everything: the room, our stories, our roles, our words. The original form was a 6×6 grid, comprising of 36 stanzas/blocks. Each ‘block’ represented the World and the hotbox in which we were contained. But there is only so much (of us) that a page can hold. For the sake of publication, I reformatted the poem into columns and trimmed it down. A thankful change, which I think offers a better visual of six kids on a bed.

I also knew early on that I wanted to embed a lateral repetition, and picked words – black, blue, paper, block, fly, cloud – that could be passed across like a spliff but hold a different resonance each time. To a smoker, the word papers may not conjure the same primary association as it does for a refugee or an aspiring writer. And my black is not your black is not his black is not her black is not their black is not our black. But having been draped – all of us – in that same concocted black, we are able to bolster each other because we all know how wearing it feels.

I started to write ‘hotboxing’ about four months BC (before coronavirus). Back then, the world was different, but not really. Black youths were still more likely to be stopped, harassed, detained and killed by police. Asylum seekers, immigrants, and those who have lived and worked in the UK were being summarily deported. Black households were more likely to experience homelessness. And connecting with others was something we all knew was important, but which we didn’t fully appreciate – like key workers, or washing our hands when we came home. Around the world, millions of people are sealing themselves are off – many for the first time. But such withdrawal is only new to those whose relative privilege means that they have never lived in a world that is fraught with dangers that seek to destroy them. Such self-imposed isolation is only new for those who have never had to retreat to the sanctuary of those who share their pain.

Isabelle Baafi’s ‘hotboxing’ is published in the Summer 2020 issue of The Poetry Review, Vol. 110, No. 2.