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“We have been living in the Anthropocene for hundreds of years”: a conversation with Kei Miller

Kei Miller delivered a fascinating keynote reading at the Anthropocene and Race conference in February 2021. The conference was hosted by the University of Central Lancashire, in partnership with the literary agency Renaissance One. He read poems from his latest collection, In Nearby Bushes, and gave us an exciting preview of his next poetry project, Nine Times Around the

Forgetting Tree. He joined Magma editor Yvonne Reddick, poets and conference participants for a discussion afterwards. Here, he tells the harrowing story of the forgetting tree, reveals what we can find in nearby bushes and discusses what we can learn from place-names for the sea.

Yvonne Reddick: Kei, could you tell us about your recent work, and what the issues around the Anthropocene mean to you?

Kei Miller: The title of the collection that I’ve been working on recently is Nine Times Around the Forgetting Tree. I am going back to what was quite possibly the cruellest ritual done to enslaved

Africans during the trans-Atlantic trade. This wasn’t physical, but rather psychological torture. There’s not a lot written about the forgetting tree. This ritual would sometimes take place on the Guinea coast, but more often than not it would happen when the slaves were o oaded in the New World. What took place was a kind of ritualised amnesia. Whether we believe in the supposed magic or superstition of it all or not, the thinking behind it was interesting. Men were made to march nine times around this tree; women and children had to go round it seven times. In this act, in this constant circling around, they were supposed to forget everything about the world they had come from and the life that had been stolen from them. They were to be made blank slates, ready to be filled by the demands of empire.

My own understanding of the debate about the Anthropocene is the question of time. When did this catastrophe of climate change begin? And importantly, do we only count it as a catastrophe when the architects of that catastrophe finally become embroiled in it? Because what we see happening now is obviously rooted in the profoundly destructive ways in which we relate to the land. But those destructive relationships, and all their attendant issues of dispossession and extraction and unsustainable expansion, in the desperate desire for increased wealth and capital, have enacted their catastrophes, especially on people of colour and our communities for centuries. We have been living in the Anthropocene for

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