Friday 24 March 2023

Karen Downs-Barton, "Didicoy"

Karen Downs-Barton is an award-winning neurodiverse Anglo-Romani, poet, essayist, and prose writer. After a peripatetic childhood including times in the state childcare system, she now lives in Wiltshire. Karen is the winner of the 2022 International Book & Pamphlet Competition, Cosmo Davenport-Hines prize (2021) and Creative Future silver medallist (2022). She is a PhD candidate at King’s College London, exploring identity and diaspora through minority languages and multilingualism in entertainment industries. Her poetry is widely anthologised, most recently in Wagtail: The Romani Women’s Anthology, and has appeared in translation in Spanish, Farsi, and Russian. Karen’s poems have appeared in The NorthRattle, Tears in the FenceThe High WindowWild CourtInk, Sweat and TearsRiggwelter, amongst others. Her website is here.

About Didicoy, by Karen Downs-Barton 

Didicoy started life as an MA project that had originally been destined to be a collection about the Silk Route. However, during the induction day a lecturer was talking about her recent book about female writers of the 1970s and was asked why one of the writers gave up writing for secretarial work. The response was ‘To put bread on the table.’ I’ve never experienced a room shrinking before but that’s exactly what it felt like. The room shrank to that one statement but not about the writer in question. It shrank to the face of my mother who did what she did to put bread on the table, and the rest is history.  

Didicoy means a half Gypsy living outside the norms of Romani life, and Didicoy is the exploration of my early didicoy life living with my mother in a colourful, if precarious multiracial family. The poems focus on characters at the margins of society bringing their difference into contemporary themes of poverty, diaspora, and chosen identity. My work blends confessional poetics with lyricism and formal experimentation to find new ways to bring in people outside these experiences. The poems harness the sounds, tastes, and sensory delights of eating stolen dog biscuits from paper doilies or watching the ‘professional’ rituals of a mother and the night world she existed within and exploring what it is to belong.  

From Didicoy

Of the Men who Came as Shadows in the Night   

Do you remember the stealthy men   
that knocked at night, whispered negotiations,   
the metal rasp as the chain slid, the door opened. Or when they    
slipped that other world to shadow our days?   
They worked in shops Mum scurried past,   
leered from corners, or spilt    
like stale beer from pub doorways. Some spat    
remarks, she’d do her best to explain away.   
And always, at that stage,    
we’d move on    
to some fresh place, new start, that was the start    
of the same knocks, same remarks, just recycled.   
There’d be a new home, better or worse than the last,    
a new school, friends to make, and a new name   
to grow into, memorised to get it right   
on textbooks. Mum would wait at new school gates   
never quite fitting in   
but trying. Once, a policeman picking up children,   
laughed, said he almost didn’t recognise her   
with her clothes on.   
And when she said, ‘Not in front of my girls,’ I knew    
we’d be moving again. We were always    
running away from   
Dear Faye,  
ask me   
about the day we were caught stealing   
in auntie Barbara’s dining room  
her posh flat on Streatham Hill  
ask me  
about our guilt  
as horrified faces peered under  
the lace edged tablecloth   
and saw an open box  
of dog biscuits   
between us  
ask me  
about the bone shapes  
that smelt of Farley’s Rusks  
arranged in coloured rows  
on paper doilies   
the pinks were a disappointment   
like blown rose  
the blacks etched our teeth and tastebuds  
with the grit of fire grate  

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