Set in the Barbican’s Pit, viewers were immersed into an emotional and sensory experience centred around the Black femme experience, especially those experiences in and around London. Co-curated by acclaimed poet Inua Ellams and Michelle Tiwo, they screened the critically praised the 2019 British coming-of-age drama film Rocks, written by Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson, and directed by Sarah Gavron followed by a range of writers and creatives responding to the film through the medium of poetry.
The film itself centres around young teen Olushola (also known as the titular ‘Rocks’), whose mum leaves her and her younger brother alone as she is left unable to cope. Rocks, who appears used to these sorts of situations is forced to act as a maternal figure to her younger brother as she desperate tries to avoid them being taken into care, which contrasts to how she is depicted around her gaggle of school friends; the latter scenes always seem to have an underlying tone of youthful optimism of the future that only adolescence seems to bring.
Still from Rocks (2020). Image courtesy of Freddie Todd-Fordham at the Barbican
The school scenes are peppered with the naivety that early puberty is married to, such as when the girls discuss if using tampons mean that your virginity is lost, or deciding near futures based on their ‘rubber of destiny’. Whilst dealing with the ruptures at home, there is also rupture at school, when a new girl called Roshé upends the girls’ seemingly solid bond, offering Rocks a way to earn money doing makeup at her stepmother’s salon. She offers Rocks an understanding of what it’s like for your family to fall apart, of which Rocks apparent best friend Sumaya doesn’t seem to understand as her own family is very close knit.
As Rocks continues to navigate the tense line between saving her own family and putting herself first, the film brings to light a real London, not one glossed over by drone shots of the Shard and Buckingham Palace; one filled with ordinary people and their interweaving lives and communities. The landscape shots change as Rocks and her brother are eventually separated, leaving room for fear and trauma, but as the film’s foundation of friendship promises, the girls form again to get her to Sussex, where her brother is now in foster care, for his birthday. The bittersweet end as Rocks watches her brother play with other children from afar brings the realities of families home, while reinforcing the notion that friends will always have your back.
Rocks is a beautifully shot portrayal of teenagehood, femininity, mental health, and how friends can become family, which meant it was the perfect springboard on which several writers could respond to.
The first writer, babirye bukilwa, used their poem as a letter to their two sisters, but also as an homage to their religious and slightly strict upbringing. Referencing hands as a metaphor for friendship and sibling relationships, they talked about them being used for prayer, before rejecting religion and how they wanted to fit into corners 'religionless’, much like how Rocks felt when her brother was taken from her. Sarah Lasoye, an alumna of the Barbican Young Poets, also used siblings as a foundation for their poem, under the guise of collective care and solidarity. Set against the film’s backdrop whilst performing, Lasoye made a rallying cry for community and friendship, as it is never the state who helps those in need, but their support networks.
Following on from the idea of loyalty and commitment, Be Manzini, the first ever writer-in-residence for Sundance Film Festival, writes a poem for Rocks’ younger brother Emmanuel as an ode to older sisters and maternal figures in young boys’ lives. Also using religious imagery throughout her poetic response, Manzini makes it clear why her work has been published in several anthologies and commissioned for various arts organisations including the Theatre Royal; her words speak to an ethereality of familial relationships.
Former Roundhouse Poetry Collective alumnus Shanay Neusum-James was up next, focusing on motherhood as a whole and the fragility of Rocks’ mother’s mental health and her reasons for leaving her children alone. Similarly to Manzini, Neusum-James spoke about the intricacies of love and commitment to family, and the protection that arises within familial power dynamics. Using storks as her primary motif made it clear that Rocks’ mother, whilst largely absent in the film, is an overarching presence throughout as Rocks attempts to emulate an idealised motherhood in her relationship with Emmanuel.
Finally, closing the beautiful showcase is Tania Nwachukwu, another Barbican Young Poet alum and member of the Octavia Poetry Collective, who uses her poem to discuss separation in communities through the usage of language. Referring to her own Igbo heritage as her literary inspiration, Nwachukwu talks about language as a means of othering people in schools and outside communities, much like Rocks is othered by her own friends and those on her estate as her family dynamic is not the same as theirs. It proved to be an emotional end to the showcase, but still one filled with so much joy, hope, and optimism, much like the ending of Rocks itself instills in its viewers.
Poetry + Film/Hack presents both art forms in collaboration by adding poetry readings to the viewing experience of splendid films and you can find out more information on their Instagram here.
An earlier version misspelt Inua Ellams' name, this has now been corrected.
Written and edited by Maisie Allen, Literature Editor