The first time I met Dorothea, she was a figment, yet a fixture of Centerprise, a community centre in East London, that housed a community publishing project. In 1995, I became the Black Literature Development Worker, a newly created post that replaced Dorothea’s role in the publishing project, which she ran with Bernadette Halpin. There wasn’t anything I could do that wasn’t compared to Dorothea!
Are you going to run workshops (like Dorothea)? Are you going to set up performance poetry evenings (like Dorothea)? Can you publish our poems in books (like Dorothea)?
Who was this Dorothea person I had to compete against?
In the meantime I took home the Word Up! Women’s Café anthology that Dorothea had edited, and realised why this woman was so missed by those she’d worked with. This was a classic anthology of women’s performance poetry in London, published in the mid-Nineties. There was nothing else like it.
I can’t remember when I first heard about Kadija. I had heard of her before I met her because she was working at Centerprise where I had worked, at one of the most enjoyable and rewarding jobs that I had had, up until that time.
Although I left Centerprise under a cloud I was glad to see there was someone taking up the reins. One of my main regrets was that I always felt I should have published more Black people. At the point when I left, we had our publishing resources removed so when she brought out Calabash, a newspaper for writers of African and Caribbean descent, I thought: oh good, she is getting around that, by putting out a resource in newspaper format.
By the time I met Dorothea, I felt as though I already knew her – I can’t even remember the exact time, except I published one of her poems in my first anthology, Burning Words, Flaming Images for which she says, till this day, it is the only poem she has published that she has ever been paid for, so I’m proud of that.
I remember reading at the launch event for the book at Centerprise. I still have the photo of Jacob Ross, Bernardine Evaristo, Courttia Newland, Chris Abani… It could very well have been the first time we met in person.
Around that time, Kadija organised the first Writer’s Hotspot in The Gambia in 1996. When she asked me to go a second time to be one of the tutors, I couldn’t believe it. I went again and shadowed Kadija.
She pointed me out and said, ‘On the next trip, she’s the Boss Lady.’ It gave me a lot of confidence that she selected me.
I knew Dorothea had a good reputation so there was mutual respect on both sides.
And here was someone who liked travelling as well. I believed in Kadija and what she was doing. I knew that whatever she did was gonna get done!
Dorothea Smartt’s third poetry collection Reader I married him and other strange goings on will be published by in 2014.