National Poetry Day 2020 Bumper Blog 2 - The Meteoric Rise of Kuli Kohli
Continuing with my vaguely 'vision'-themed blog posts in celebration of National Poetry Day 2020, this time I'm looking in more detail at a friendship which has helped me flourish as a poet and person.
You may have heard of Wolverhampton-based Kuli Kohli - wife, mother, poet, and council worker. You may have watched her commissioned poetry video for Multistory, heard her reading poetry on Radio 4's Black Country instalment of their Dialect Poets series, read about her on the BBC News website, or seen her on BBC1's Sunday Morning Live. All in all, it's been a very busy year for Kuli.
I first met Kuli in 2012, when I joined Blakenhall Writers in Wolverhampton. Over time, we got to know each other a little better, but when the group leader left and we took over helping to run the group, we built the foundations of our friendship. It turns out that even something like organising a writing group takes a lot of effort (who would have thought?!), a lot of compromise, and a lot of support.
From the start Kuli was there for me - she came to my very first poetry performance, at City Voices in Wolverhampton. She's always been a source of welcome feedback on my poems - whenever I ask, it's no trouble. It was Kuli who encouraged me to finally get over my fear of form and metre - memorably describing my poems as being like 'splashes of colour here and there', but ultimately not held together by anything! She supported me when September launched - even performing at the Wolverhampton event. Having been through a pamphlet release herself, she was able to calm me down when I got too anxious! Through everything, there's always kindness, a desire to help, and a passion to share poetry.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons Kuli is so well-liked. Despite everything she deals with (read the BBC News article to find out more about Kuli's life), she has a smile for everyone, and will always offer a shoulder to cry on, or words of wisdom. Her acts of kindness, such as sending sweet postcards during lockdown, reminded me that I was in her thoughts. We have each other's backs - if one of us is struggling to complete a commitment, for example to the writing group, the other one picks up the slack. We discuss and make decisions together.
I remember when Kuli told me she was releasing Rag Doll, her self-published pamphlet of work. She had worked so hard over so many years to bring together the material for it, and it was finally going to print. Although she was seething with excitement, she'd kept it a secret until it was released - perhaps because she didn't know how people would react. Now, one published pamphlet (Patchwork - Offa's Press), several commissions, placements in magazines, anthologies, and a collectible poem on Overhear (pinned to Zuri Coffee in Wolverhampton - yum!), Kuli heads up the Wolverhampton-based Punjabi Women's Writers Group and mentors other poets, helping them find their own voices, something which made poetry so precious for her.
Kuli used to feel that her Cerebral Palsy prevented her from performing her work. I, among other readers, performed poetry on her behalf at many events. While she was able to tell her stories through the words on the page, she relied on others' interpretations of those words when it came to performing to an audience. Kuli's since received mentoring and encouragement to improve her confidence in performing her own work. Even though she sometimes experiences 'wobbles' while reading (as she calls them!), Kuli perseveres and tells her own stories now. She's performed at high-profile venues such as the British Museum, given lectures at universities, performed in plays, recorded videos, and as I mentioned earlier, even been on the radio and TV.
It would be tempting to categorise Kuli as a 'disabled poet', a 'family poet', or perhaps a 'British Indian poet', but the truth is she's all of the above. Her work doesn't focus on any aspect of her identity, but rather, details her experiences despite them. In perhaps my favourite poem of hers, The Drop (found in Patchwork), she writes of a happy day out with her husband. There's a passing reference to her disability, because like her gender, nationality, and role as a mother/wife, her disability is just another part of her life. The result is an authentic embedding of her identity amongst her poetry, all topped off with gentle humour.
Now that Kuli is writing and performing poetry about her life, her story is being heard more widely. Already a familiar face on the Black Country poetry scene, the BBC News article brought her life to millions of readers around the globe. Her story which says you can do it. I did it. As Kuli herself said in her Sunday Morning Live segment, "I want people to say if that girl can do it, anyone can!"
I've never been more thrilled for Kuli than now, seeing that her natural kindness and desire to help people is being translated through the media into something people can aspire to. I remember her excitement on the bench in Wolverhampton city centre, wrapped up in our coats, when she told me about Rag Doll. I wonder what that Kuli would say if she knew one day she'd be beamed into people's homes all over the globe. I'm so lucky to have the friendship of someone who has done so much to help and encourage me - I hope we've many years ahead of us yet!