Spotlight: Portia Bartley


6 Jun 17

The world seems to be a pretty bleak place right now and some days the information around us can feel so toxic and full of hatred, and even confusion. So, it’s always refreshing to hear from a voice that cuts straight to the truth. Boxpark Croydon was blessed with one such voice at the Well Versed spoken word event last week.

Well Versed Ink have truly made a name for themselves within the local community. Their aim is simple: to inform, teach and inspire through creative writing and spoken word performance. Well Versed runs workshops with primary schools and other community groups centred on poetry and spoken word and hold a monthly open mic poetry night at Boxpark Croydon to provide a welcoming platform for all poets.

Last week, Boxpark Croydon and Well Versed were blessed with a very talented and unique voice in the form of Portia Bartley. Rather than explain what makes her work so special to so many, we thought we’d let her say it in her own words…

Portia, for those who don’t know, please tell us who you are and what you do.

My name is Portia Bartley and I’m an Actress, Poet and Writer. 

You’ve recently been touring your new book ‘Land of the Free’, can you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind it?

The inspiration mainly stems from my time living in America. After being there for 7 years, it has definitely opened my eyes to the realities (and many forms) of discrimination. I’ve experienced some kind of racism, homophobia, xenophobia and misogyny on an almost daily basis. It wasn’t always something I was comfortable speaking about. The few times I tried to open up to friends or family, it usually wouldn’t end well.

When I finally got the courage to write and perform poems about it, I was very surprised to see that it was not only well received, but resonated with more people than I could imagine. Land of The Free is a collection of some of those poems. It highlights an ignored side to being black in America. It’s my way of putting a positive twist on many negative encounters. 

‘Colony’ is arguably one of your most powerful pieces. Why do you think it resonates with so many?
Thank you for the lovely compliment! I think it resonates with so many due to the global affects of Colonisation. Some see it as a good thing, but there are countless ways it still negatively affects society. There more present and extreme forms like gentrification, then there are more age-old, deep rooted things like the enforcement of European languages and the names that came along with it.

Unfortunately, most countries where people of colour live share this history. So you don’t need to be a 2nd generation Londoner of Caribbean descent to relate to the poem. You don’t even have to be a person of colour. Many people have thanked me for writing this, including white people from various countries. They might not fully understand the colonial side, but they understand what it’s like to move to a new country and have others try to tell them how to speak. 

There’s a really sad and common belief that immigrants must assimilate when they move, especially in America when it comes to how you sound. Colony goes against that. It reminds people (myself included) to be unapologetic. To carry themselves in a way that makes the most sense to them. It’s my way of saying: “I may not know every detail of my roots. I may be speaking a language that was forced on my ancestors, but I will continue to use it to my advantage despite the ugly reasons why I speak it“.  

Your work references the controversy surrounding white celebrities appropriating black culture. Why do you think this has become so prevalent in recent years?
This is a touchy subject for me so bear with me. 
Unfortunately appropriating black culture is not new. It’s been embedded in society since that one time Bo Derek was wearing braids, if not before. These days, there’s this obsession with being hip, edgy and unique. People are going to extremes to be individuals, while simultaneously becoming like everyone else. To achieve that, people are stealing more and more from other cultures in hopes that no one will notice, but we always do. It’s damn near impossible for cultural appropriation to go unnoticed in present day, especially with the presence of social media. 

Now more than ever information is available almost instantly, so there’s really no reason why anyone can’t give credit or refer to certain styles by their proper names. If they don’t, it’s not because they didn’t know, it’s because they don’t want to know and are purposely trying to exclude us from something we created. (Or maybe they did know and decided to rename it anyway, which in my opinion is worse).

And this is what infuriates people. How a big bum,”boxer braids” and full lips are called anything but beautiful on a black woman. Black women and girls are getting fired, ridiculed and kicked out of institutions over the same things that are glorified and sought after when mimicked (often badly) on a non-black woman. Society is picking and choosing the parts of black people they want to recognise. They’ve spent decades making us feel superior while simultaneously making our bodies the new beauty standard. They are literally taking bits and pieces of us and making sub par carbon copies. It’s tough to see that and not think it’s dehumanising. 

They can continue to do this if they want, but they can’t be surprised when they get dragged on social media. They shouldn’t be shocked if they lose customers and people no longer take them seriously (just look at what happened with Pepsi and Shea Moisture).
These significant parts of our culture are being reduced to a trend. The “in thing” to use at will that’s only disregarded when it’s no longer convenient. Miley Cyrus is one of the best examples of that.

But that’s also the beautiful thing about social media. It allows black people around the world to showcase our beauty, and make it clear that these are things that have been around since we came into existence. It educates others and reminds them that these are things that will surpass these fleeting trends. 

How did it feel to perform with Well Versed at Boxpark Croydon?
Absolutely brilliant. I didn’t plan for my last show to be there, so when I found out I was ecstatic. The last time I performed poetry here, I was a shy teenager who had to push myself to perform in public. So to perform at Boxpark Croydon as a feature promoting my book was mind blowing. The crowd was definitely one of the best ones I’ve had. I feed a lot off of people’s responses when I perform. So to get such great energy in the area I grew up in with my family in the audience is a feeling I’m extremely grateful for.
I used to take the 198 from East Croydon to get to and from school. I have countless memories of trips with friends and family that usually began at that station. Even when I’m back in London to visit, I stay with family who are walking distance from here.
I was able to finish off my tour where everything started, and I couldn’t think of it ending it in a better way. 

What advice would you give to young creatives wanting to follow in your footsteps?

In the beginning of my book I put: “For anyone who’s been told they should not fully embrace their identity. Continue to tell your stories”. 

It really is best to be yourself. As cliche as it sounds, people keep saying that for a reason. I’ve spent so many years hiding parts of who I was for the sake of someone else’s comfort. I wasted too much time being what everyone wanted me to be, and I had a limited amount of personal growth as a result. Things didn’t get better for me until I started to embraced who I was. I stopped asking for permission and did what made me happy, and it’s no coincidence that my career kicked off soon after.

Surround yourself with people who encourage you to do better. Your friends, family and partners are a reflection of you. They should be pushing you to constantly make improvements. You should be able to build together and have your achievements celebrated without there being a sense of competition. Get rid of anyone who hinders your personal or creative growth. It won’t be easy, but the positive impact afterwards will make it worth it. 

From a technical standpoint, look at your idols and find out as much as you can about them. Not from a personal standpoint, but in the sense of their craft. When hearing him speak, author Junot Diaz advised that “writers should read alot more than they write”. Listen heavily to your favorite singer’s influences. If you know a director you love interned for a particular company, apply for a position there. I recently got accepted into a poetry workshop specifically for black poets. I found out about it because many poets I look up to have attended. Don’t just be influenced by what’s in your field. Many of my poems have been inspired by films, songs, traveling or trips to museums. 

Finish what you create. Everything we want as creatives is the result of a finished product. Whether you wake up earlier to invest in your craft, or block out a certain hour every day, remember to get it done. It doesn’t have to be perfect (edits can come later), and it definitely shouldn’t be rushed, but people won’t know about your work if it’s never put out there.  

Finally, what does the rest of 2017 hold for you?
Taking my own advice. I’m the kind of person who’s had such faith and high expectations for others, but not always for myself. Even though I came into my own a lot last year, I still spent a lot of time apologizing for who I was. This year, I want to continue to remove anything in my life that’s an obstacle. I want to use the time I once spent trying to please others on working on myself. Both personally and career wise. 

I’ve stopped doing a lot of things I love, and I can’t wait to get into them again. I recently directed my first short documentary. It will help bring visibility and understanding to people of colour who are often ignored. It’s one of the ways I want to fighting against troubling stereotypes and current (but unacceptable) norms in society.

I mentioned earlier that I got accepted into a poetry workshop. That’ll be my next stop after leaving London. So more of that really. More learning, more growth and a better understanding of the world around me. I can’t wait to see how my work flourishes as a result. 

Click here to buy Portia’s ‘Land of the Free’