Very proud to be one of three poets to be awarded the inaugural Jerwood Foundation Poetry Fellowship.
From April 25th – May 9th I was invited on a poetry teaching and reading tour of Baltimore, Chicago and DC.
My friend Zeina once told me “You have a look that’s foreign everywhere”. People think I’m from every country except the two I’m actually from. England and Jamaica. While travelling this can be difficult. I rarely get through an airport without the “random search” or being escorted into a backroom for questioning. Anticipating this I arrived at Baltimore airport suited, booted and clean-shaven. I also put rosary beads in my pocket in case I was searched.
Why are you travelling to the states?
I’m a poet and teacher. I’m here to work with young poets at a local college.
You’re a teacher?
Really? … and poetry?
Yes, I teach poetry.
…and you get paid for this?
OK, I need to check this out. You wait there for me.
Man walks away with my passport.
Soon I’m led into the backroom with four other young black men, one of them is wearing a bright yellow and green shirt, brown trousers and sandals. He is holding two folders of paperwork and is smiling but tapping his foot nervously. We make eye contact, his look says, “If you deserve to be here I have nothing to do with you”. As we wait to be questioned I’m already picturing myself on a flight back to London with my rosary beads, having to explain to people in the U.S. what happened, already saying in so many ways I look too much like the enemy of white supremacy to come to your country. After an hour and two interviews (given in my best Queen’s English), I’m let in. To celebrate I sat in the terminal, threw away the rosary beads and waited to be picked up by Ailish Hooper while playing Nina Simone in my headphones.
Ailish had driven to the wrong airport so it was a long wait. We’d only met virtually after she came across #RayRecommends, a poetry vlog I ran for a year. I was already aware of her poetry published in POETRY magazine and that she is a teacher. When she arrived we instantly connected, talking education, poetry, Trump and May, Brexit and all things dominating the airwaves.
Over the next few days she introduces me to other poets, teachers and community leaders in Baltimore. I also got to sit in on her lessons at Goucher College and listen to seminars on peace talks, the Black Lives Matter movement and intersectionality. Ailish Hooper is a white woman who writes about race in America, a minefield to navigate. When I ask her about this she is tactful and compassionate, telling me about the work white America needs to do to acknowledge racism as a major part of its construction and that she has used her privilege to curate spaces for her white students to go on their own journey to examine the lives of marginalised people who are treated differently at the benefit of white America. She tells me about her time being taught by Cornel West and her friendships with poets who have challenged her journey. Reading Dark-Sky Society, her book of lyric poems. She writes on “the many lines I am told / not to cross”, examining the position of whiteness.
While sitting in the discussions in her classroom I was asked my thoughts on Black Lives Matter from a UK perspective. In England, a seminar with teenagers talking race and colonialism is rare. Our culture doesn’t have its own language in race politics. The average person hasn’t heard of Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy or Bonnie Greer. England in and of itself has a different history with its colonies, so a different landscape and language has emerged, forming a separateness, which is more connected than most people in England care to know. It was absurd when Michael Gove removed American Literature such as Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice And Men’ and Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mocking Bird’ from the English curriculum. I said this in Hooper’s class that awareness of “Post-Colonial” politics is growing. A few weeks ago I saw the documentary ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ in Stratford Picture House, half the audience was white. I don’t think this would have been the case pre-Brexit. In fact, I never spoke to my white British friends about race until a few years ago and that was only because they started asking me "if race was a thing in the UK like it is the US?"
Talking about race in America for me was necessary but exhausting. I want to be careful how I say that because Donald Trump isn’t my president and although I’m racially profiled as a brown man in the UK I’m not living in constant fear of being shot by the police like black Americans. I’m not trivialising the discussion I’m saying it’s tiring. I do worry that a lot of the anger is unproductive but also I’m aware that I’m 30 years old and the students are mostly 19. When I was 19 I lived in Ohio for 3 months. A black marine solider who had served in Afghanistan threatened to “Take me outside and shoot me” because I asked him if he’d ever considered America as the terrorist. Stupid shit, I had no tact in these conversations. I was emotional and self-righteous.
Baltimore is known as the drug capital of America. I came to understand this while sitting in Red Emma’s coffee shop. A black man with a bandage wrapped around his head and skinny veiny arms slumped onto the table next to me. I almost asked if he was ok, then I looked around and saw at least another 40 people, black, white and brown in a similar condition. People with shriveled faces and no teeth as if the air was trying to suck them out of existence. They shout and sing and groan and no one answers them. You end up feeling complicit in their suffering. But what am I going to do? I’m not completely naïve; I lived in South Africa for four months and saw a similar pain there too but this had a different intensity, there were no whales jumping out of oceans to romanticise it. Of course I walk past people in desperate situations in London. In Hackney where I’m from, I know some of them personally, staggering out of bookmaker shops, passing out in parks, some of them used to drink with my dad. They’ve known me since I was a child and I’ve seen them on park benches shouting at passers by where I’ve turned around and sucked them out of existence in my own way. The privilege to make these comments feels gross but I’ve learned to stop apologising for things out of my control. Becoming a teacher made me realise that if I’m to be there for my students, my friends and family, I need to know what I can and can’t give my energy to. If everything weighed me down I’d be no good to anyone.
On my last night, after a successful performance at Goucher College with two student poets Soledad and Jaida, I returned to Red Emma’s Café with Ailish. We were served by a tall energetic dreadlocked dancer called Talbot who couldn’t stop smiling, “I got it right man, finally, my steps coming together, the universe be moving my way”, he said this while making us a pot of mint tea, “I’m not even trying to do right and I’m doing right”, he was moving in flow with his body and his words, his energy radiated the whole café’. As we sat I told Ailish about what I saw when I was last in here, the people in need that barely exist, “Well, there’s a methadone clinic next door, and this café feeds a lot of these people for free so it’s something”. I then thought about her students, particularly students of colour who are growing up in and around these environments. I thought about the pictures of the Baltimore uprisings and all the young protesters that took to the streets to make themselves heard. “You know things like this café and that methadone clinic exist because of the kinds of people you met in my class, the one’s who are deeply concerned with equality”, this clicked with me, this was why I had felt so unsure of myself speaking in AIlish’s class to people who are living all the dimensions of life here. In many ways I’d need to learn more of the language in the states if I’m going to be able to speak it when I get back home.
When I arrived in Chicago the rain and wind was intense, I was just a two-hour plane journey from sunny Baltimore. This is to be my second visit to Chicago, the windy city. My first time here was in 2010 when I’d won “Best Performance by a London Poet” in the Farrago Slam awards and was invited to perform at the legendary Green Mill, which was hosted by local legends, Marc Smith and J.W. Baz. I’d learned a lot on that trip. Not all my performances got the desired response. I’d met Roger Bonair Agard, Emily Rose, Laura Yes Yes and Rob Q Telfer, who all encouraged me to read wider – I then picked up 'Magic City' by Yusef Komunyakaa and 'The Father' by Sharon Olds, which helped me think through narrative, word economy and turns in poems. Most importantly it was where I’d first meet Peter Kahn who was introduced to me by local poet Dan Sully. Peter Kahn worked as a social worker for 3 years then became a English teacher and now uses poetry to build one of the most powerful creative youth communities I have seen anywhere in the world. The first time I came into Kahn’s classroom I met a packed room of young poets between 14-18 years of age, all writing poetry in after-school hours. I was introduced as “a emerging poet from London” and instantly a line formed of poetry students eager to show me their poems and receive feedback. I’d never seen anything like it. Kahn observed how I interacted with his young poets. 3 years later he’d set up the Spoken Word education MA program at Goldsmith University in London. I’d managed to jump through the hoops to get onto the course, (despite leaving education with two GCSE’s), Kahn had remembered the impression I made on his students and became an ambassador for my poetry and work in education. Two years later I finish my MA with a distinction and become lead educator of the program for a year. I went on to become a Spoken Word educator for four years in three different schools, two in East London (my local Hackney community) and one in a North London Deaf school (where I'm an ex-pupil). I meet Kahn in a café, hiding from rain, we hug – he apologises for the weather and we get straight into business.
The next day I’m back in Peter Kahn’s school in Oak Park. I’m featuring in the student poetry showcase. We do a run through in the classroom and each poet is asked to say something about their journey through Spoken Word poetry club, many eyes tear up, telling the group how much it has helped them come into themselves, how important its been to bond and share parts of their stories they’ve hidden from others at home or in the wider school environment. They spoke about how they’ve made friends they wouldn’t have in any other way. The intimacy and the respect the poets had for each other in that classroom felt true, powerful and important.
Later in the main studio space I share my warm ups and performance rituals with the young poets, theirs however are a lot more compelling. They dance, sing, huddle together and cypher while a DJ spins Hip-Hop tunes. The audience of 350 family members, teachers, community leaders and poets (young and old) fill the venue. The energy is electric; the air is fully flared. The young poets perform poems (in groups and individually) about growing up in Chicago, mixed-race, queer and black identity, some perform odes to teachers, friends and family members – there were sincere tears, focused listening and loud laughs.
What I love about performing on stages like this is it’s not about you; it’s about what you contribute to the journey of the poets you're sharing the stage with. I got to hear poets, writing at 14, better poems than I was writing at 25 and there’s hundreds of people here to witness their talent and bravery. Even if none of them go on to become poets they won’t forget the time they were part of something powerful enough to uplift themselves and others around them.
A few days later Hanif and I were invited in to Oak Park/River Forest High School to teach, perform poems and judge their freshmen slam. 11 poets performed in one of the biggest theatre spaces I’ve ever seen in a school, seriously, it could’ve been half the size of the Royal Festival Hall. I find performing on big stages easier than smaller ones, you can hide in the spotlight in a way you can’t in more intimate settings. There are only a few poems I have that can hold this kind of space. I do like seeing how far I can throw my voice into the edges of rooms but generally I prefer small stages. Mainly because I try not to be in the mindset of a grandiose orator, I’m not quite Yevgeny Yevtushenko or Amiri Baraka.
After the Slam, Hanif and me ran workshops with Peter Kahn’s Spoken Word club, first analysing poems by Hannah Lowe and Patricia Smith, as well as our own poems. In classrooms I really have to focus my listening, and also pace myself as hearing aids take away any selective hearing ability, for me, sound is shoved down my ears and I can’t choose to spit any of it out. In busy classrooms this is a challenge and part of my teaching practice is managing this. I try to create down time in my classes where I can turn off my hearing aids and recharge myself. Given the number of students in each of the workshops and the work ethic of Peter Kahn’s classrooms there’s little opportunity to create downtime. Me and Hanif are given 35 minutes each to curate our writing prompts, hear students read and give feedback. It’s literally poetry boot camp.
I didn't realise how unconvinced the wider public are about poetry and poetry in education until I was running my own poetry showcases in East London. I constantly had to convince journalists, head teachers and even parents of its value. Once, I rang the mother of a particularly talented student to say her son is a gifted poet, "So!?" she huffed, "How's poetry going to help my child get a good job?". Journalists scoffed at my invitation to student poetry showcases, the gist being "We got better things to report than school assemblies".
I'm under no delusions of being “Saved by poetry”, although this is occasionally true. My passion is more centered around how poetry and Spoken Word can help manage stress in environments like schools, PRU's, prisons etc, how it has the potential to build community like the one Peter Kahn has built, how it can increase literacy and confidence (in 2014, I conducted a case study which found that 98% of all students who regularly attended my Spoken Word club went up a level in their English and predicted GCSE grade the following year).
After Hanif and I had finished our workshops, Kahn asked the students if they’d like to leave us with messages to let us know how they felt about the day. Some students who were less vocal and were initially unsure if poetry was for them handed us notes high fived us and left. When I got back to my apartment, tired and hungry, I read through the notes, beamed, then emailed Hanif, “Those notes sustained me” he wrote, “me too,” I said, “me too.”
I meet Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib in a Wholefoods store before our reading at the Poetry Foundation. I’d come across Hanif’s work on Button Poetry and I’d read some of his essays on music criticism on the MTV blog. We spoke a bit about British and American poetry but more about Grime and what poetry works well with music – I think we all agreed Gil-Scott Heron’s collaboration with Jamie XX is the best example of this in recent times, but we gave head nods to Tricky, The Spaceape, Ursula Rucker and The Streets.
The Poetry Foundation is a smooth glass, marble, wood and stone building that feels like the future got its act together. It’s the Blade Runner of libraries. There are towers of neat silvery bookshelves around the building archiving poetry from all over the world (with a focus on authors who have been published in Poetry Magazine). It was truly an honor to be invited to read here. I’ve been reading Poetry Magazine for years and it’s become groundbreaking since Don Share and Lindsay Garbutt took over editorial. As the audience pour in I decide my set list, do my usual breathing and visualising of how the event will go and step onto the platform. My set begins shaky, it took a few minutes to focus myself. The wide prestigious walls of the space had thrown me. The back room had portraits of Seamus Heaney and Gwendolyn Brooks who’d also read in this space. A few poems in I feel the audiences were with me so I relax. The sound in this room travels well. Given the space you’d expect echoes, but it is a clean and solid sound. I end my set with Echo, which was published in the March issue of Poetry Magazine 2017.
Hanif follows with a set of poems that are graceful, elegiac and charged with emotional visual power. Between poems he is charming and humorous. When I say Hanif has a strong musical sensibility in his poems I’m not just talking about his warm concrete voice, nor his arresting style of repetition, but (as stated before) he’s a music journalist and weaves his knowledge and experience of music into poems. I’ve seen this attempted many times but very few pull it off this effectively. Hanif has the mellow presence of a man in the street who’s lived to tell us he survived. He closes his set with an essay, “Can I invite you all to indulge me?” he asks the crowd of around 70 people, all nodding, not yet aware what they’ve committed to. “Can you all come closer, I’m going to sit on the stage and read this to you”. The audience gather, the listening in the room goes from the listening of a great and worthy orator to the listening of a humble storyteller by a camp fire. It’s a shift of intimate energy, a bold decision, especially in a space like this but this pays off, for me at least. It created an unforgettable listening experience. It was an essay, which starts off as a critique on the career of the rapper Future but develops into an elegy for Hanif’s late mother and his recent break up. As someone also going through something similar, I feel embraced, like my sorrow has found company, this is holy.
Ailish Hooper is the poet and teacher hosting me while I’m teaching and reading poetry in Baltimore. Having taught a morning poetry workshop with her students, she drives me to DC, which is an hour away. It’s a hot day and Electric Vibrations by Tribe Called Quest is playing on the radio. I'm excited to visit the world's only Deaf university. I'd read about its history in the book 'Seeing Voices' by Oliver Sacks. We reach Gallaudet University at 2pm where Christopher, a large man with the presence of a friendly bull greets us. He notices my hearing aids instantly and asks if I sign ASL (American Sign Language)? I tell him I’m level 1 BSL (British Sign Language) he shrugs, says “We won’t understand each other, I’ll type on my phone”, I look at Ailish as if to say, Should I tell him that isn’t necessary because I’m hard of hearing rather than profoundly deaf? But he’s already typing his name in the notes section of his phone and walking us towards the statue of Gallaudet. He types in the history of the campus, the significance of Edward and Thomas Gallaudet, then hands it to me – There’s a slight wind blowing into my hearing aids which muffles everything, then I’m moved by Christopher’s consideration for me. People usually assume my hearing is better than it actually is and I end up feeling a pressure to uphold that impression. Some people have told me I have a “nervous energy” but it’s usually because those people have voices I struggle to hear, but with Christopher typing I don’t have to make that extra effort to lip-read or fill in the blanks of our conversation. As he hands me his phone with all the information in text I instantly feel a rare kind of relief.
Christopher guides us onto the campus and types, “Do you have these video booths in the UK?” He sits in the booth and explains how deaf people call a operator on the screen, then the conversation can be signed or captioned, he points at the buttons and waits for my eyes to meet his face and says “this is how the deaf can speak to anyone” and this is when I’m hit with my own memories of telephones, how it was not hearing their shrill ringing that diagnosed my deafness – I think of all the times I was nervous to call the bank or the cinema knowing the operator wouldn’t speak clearly or loud enough, I think of the black clunky rubber pads I had to put on the phone receivers so I could speak on the phone with my hearing aids in, how I would push the receiver so hard into the side of my head trying to hear the operator the pads marked my skin and left my ears burning bright red. I excused myself, trying not to weep. I thought of the stories head teachers in deaf schools had told me about some parents who are ashamed of their child’s deafness, how they spoke like grieving parents, begging them to “make my child speak”, then I sobbed audibly thinking of the stories I’d heard about the isolation some deaf elderly people experience, how long they have to wait to speak to a GP with an interpreter, tears stream down my face and I’m embarrassed. Christopher asks if I’m ok, I’m not able to explain in the moment why I’m crying, why I’d never seen anything like this in a public setting before, but Christopher doesn’t make a big deal out of my tears. He leads me and Ailish to the bookshop and I’m standing in an aisle among books, mostly written by D/deaf authors on teaching, learning sign, deaf literature, history and poetry, and it hits me again, other memories of feeling alone in my condition, completely unaware there was a library of people who share a version of my experience. Ailish puts her hand on my back, seeing how overwhelmed I am, crying like a lost child in a new home. I pull myself together and select what books to buy.
Christopher then guides us into the “Deaf space classrooms”. The rooms are brightly lit, wide and square with hard surfaces to keep the sound in the room solid. There are three wide screens at the front of the class. The tables are arranged in squares so everyone can see each other from their desks. Christopher explains how lessons are in sign, speech and captions and how Deafblind students have screens and interpreters who sit with them and sign on their palms, he takes my hand and demonstrates the Deafblind alphabet, then types on his phone “touch is it’s own language too.”
It’s easy to glorify this as a D/deaf paradise at this point, to think that I would’ve flourished in this environment – that the inferiority I felt because I couldn’t keep up with what was said at school or at home, but I doubt this to be completely true. I recognise this is also an elite and competitive school to get in to. There is still a hierarchy within Deaf culture, with people who can sign fluently in multiple languages, with people who have access to travel and greater education and those who don’t. In the UK, class, race and education play out in the D/deaf world as it does in the hearing world. How you articulate yourself indicates (sometimes inaccurately) your social status and what opportunities and conversations are open to you. Christopher confirms this tension, he types, “it’s great but still not perfect here, there’s still issues of students feeling isolated and undermined because there’s a pressure to be high achieving”. Christopher takes the phone back and types “also many executive decisions are still dictated by non-signing hearing people who do not share the needs and experiences of D/deaf people, there’s a long history of students fighting for Deaf rights and to be taught by other D/deaf people”.
After we’re led through the “Deaf Space corridors” and told about how performing ASL poetry is a rites of passage in Gallaudet, that students are given poetry anthologies by Deaf poets and are asked to learn a poem to perform to other students. Many students have a story about the poem they choose and their experience performing it to a crowd. Christopher tells us that as a student he’d stand on the table in the cafeteria and perform poems to his friends huddled around him.
Christopher drives me and Ailish out of Gallaudet, he recommends a Mexican restaurant about a mile away. At every traffic light he types summaries of each road “this part of DC is black and has lots of poverty” then we’d get to the next block “this part is nice, look at the tall houses and wide green lawns”, then another block “lots of gentrification and tension here” and then another block “when Martin Luther King was murdered this part of DC was the first to erupt in flames and riots. People lost their lives. Cars turned upside down. Houses burned.” And that image stayed with me, a city vibrating with fire and turmoil and right in the middle of the flames, the world’s only university for the Deaf.
PRE-ORDER - http://www.outspokenldn.com/shop/tsb
Foreword by Margret Busby
From the very title of this affecting poetry collection, to its final lines, where well-chosen spaces speak loudly what cannot be said, it is clear that Raymond Antrobus knows the value of words that are too precious to squander.
These are poems that are unafraid to be tender, yet are free from sentimentality. These are poems aching with the loss of a father, to dementia even before death, and Raymond Antrobus in these pages moves skilfully between the reclaiming and letting go of memory, transforming intimate hurt into anger and vulnerability and strength and laughter and compassion. Long after I had read the whole collection, resonances of the title poem, “To Sweeten Bitter”, with its poignant opening, remained with me:
My father had four children
and three sugars in his coffee
and every birthday he bought me
a dictionary, which got thicker
and thicker and because his word
is not dead, I carry it like sugar
The magic of good poetry has to do with what it is able to say also between the lines, and Raymond Antrobus succeeds in conjuring up a lexicon of emotions evoked by the experiences, observations and history that craft his identity, drawn from a world that may as naturally includes a classroom in Kenya, a boat trip down Jamaica’s Black River, a confrontation at Miami airport, as familiar home life in Hackney, east London.
Plantation lineage, World War service, how do I serve Jamaican British?
When knowing how to war is Jamaican
Occasional light references to other writers - from Louise Bennett, James Berry to Binyavanga Wainaina and Derek Walcott - give me confidence that here is someone who knows what it takes to follow this literary vocation. Having begun my career as a publisher with poetry, decades ago, I rejoice that Out-spoken have taken on Raymond Antrobus, a poet so obviously destined for greater things.
PRE-ORDER - http://www.outspokenldn.com/shop/tsb
Outspoken Press showcase - https://www.waterstones.com/events/an-evening-of-poetry-with-out-spoken-press/london-piccadilly
Raymond Antrobus's new book of poems, To Sweeten Bitter is almost here. He'll be reading from it alongside Sabrina Mahfouz, Fran Lock, Anthony Anaxagorou and Hibaq Osman on March 15th at Piccadilly Waterstones - details in link.
Listen to Raymond reading 'Echo', published in the March issue of Poetry Magazine and discussed by editors, Don Share, Christina Pugh and Lindsay Garbutt.
You can pre-order e-books or paperback copies of an anthology I have poems and an essay on Deafness / education / poetry in -- the upcoming Nine Arches Press' Stairs and Whsipers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back -- as part of a Crowdfunder (the project is part-funded by Arts Council England but the books needs a bit more cash to make everything happen the way the editors dream). The price is the same here as it will be upon release: £15 hard copy & £10 e-book. There are other options too, including additional discounted books from Nine Arches. Plus free delivery in the UK, or £3 delivery worldwide!"
The Good Immigrant is for everyone in Britain
As ethnic minorities in Britain it is easy to see how easily things can be taken for granted, how misinformation about non-white cultures can be spread without hesitation, how an all-white reading list says that white people have rightfully earned their spot as the universal voice of science, philosophy and literature. As “othered” people our parents have to fill us in, or we have to educate ourselves, on the Avicennas, the Una Marsons, the Marcus Garveys, the Claudia Joneses, the Sophia Duleep Singhs, the Sara Forbes Bonettas – names that give us an important presence in British history, names unheard by people who have gone from GCSE to PhD level without knowing how non-white bodies shaped British society.
In this context I’m really pleased about the existence of The Good Immigrant, a collection of essays by twenty-one writers exploring what it means to be black, Asian and minority ethnic in Britain today. This is an unusual book to be in the Guardian’s bestseller list as well as many “recommended reads” shelves nationwide. All of the writers work in media as actors, poets, journalists, comedians and educators. It was funded via an Unbound campaign led by Nikesh Shukla, which gained impressive momentum with ambassadors such as J. K. Rowling. I enjoyed reading this book; it was good to see essays penned by so many respected poets, including Sabrina Mahfouz, Inua Ellams, Salena Godden and many more. As someone of mixed Caribbean heritage who grew up in London, I wondered if this book would offer me any refreshing insights, and it certainly did.
In Teju Cole’s essay, Black Body, (in print in his new collection, Stranger And Known Things) he challenges James Baldwin’s disappointment that there is “no black Shakespeare or Bach” by diminishing the importance in the race of an artist, claiming these artists are “profoundly human” and that it is more aligned to our biological heritage than our cultural one. He goes on to say, “I can oppose white supremacy and still rejoice in Gothic architecture”. Jamaican poet Claude Mckay, renowned for his If We Must Die poem, in his 1914 autobiography had similar sentiments to Cole; “the colour of my friends, nor the colour of their money, nor the colour of their class has ever been much significance to me. It’s more the colour of their minds, the warmth and depth of their sensibility and affection that influenced me”.
Last Saturday I attended a lecture at Brixton library given by Dr Carolyn Cooper, professor of Literary And Cultural Studies at University of West Indies. The lecture was titled Submerged Narratives in Caribbean Literature and Popular Culture. It touched on popular Jamaican music icons; Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Tanya Stephens etc and how these voices help us understand the overlooked areas of Jamaican society and so called “low culture”. I had met Cooper at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica last May when she was hosting the open mic. An event graced by established Caribbean and British based poets like Malika Booker, Keith Jarrett and Khadija Ibrahim. Cooper is one of the rare figureheads to be highly respected by academia and also the grassroots of Jamaica’s creative communities.
I was struck by something she had said off the cuff in the lecture when someone in the audience asked her a question about the “canonised Caribbean voice”. “I blame Derek Walcott for so much, he’s part of a problem” she said, laughing, “but I won’t get into that”. Walcott is the most internationally recognised Caribbean poet. He writes mainly in sonnets and metered forms. A deep appreciation of Walcott’s poetry relies on an education in European “high culture” (from Dutch painters to Greek mythology). A fellow poet and friend of mine once called Walcott “a black example of white excellence”. I understood the point but disagreed.
If you read Walcott’s first published poems in 1948 (he was prodigal poet even as a teenager) up to his last 2013 collection; White Egrets, he has been loyal to the poetic sensibilities of the Caribbean.
“I seek / as climate seeks its style, to write / verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight / cold as the curled wave, ordinary / as a tumbler of island water”
Islands is a love poem published in 1965 and is dedicated to his second wife, but it also reveals how life on a Caribbean island (Saint Lucia) has an atmosphere we can capture with the ear. His verse evokes all the hard sounds (cold, curled, crisp etc) of a difficult but atmospheric Caribbean history. To call this a “black example of white excellence” is lazy and simplistic.
I tried to read Walcott when I first started writing poetry. I was 18 and found his verse cold and impenetrable. It felt like reading sheet music for an instrument I couldn’t play. My appreciation of Walcott came when I was teaching a precocious class of year 10 English Literature students (of mainly second generation African, Caribbean and Asian backgrounds) preparing for their GCSE’s. I showed them the poem ‘Sixty Years After’. It’s still one of the most memorable classroom experiences I’ve had. A bilingual student recognised the French word “Vieuxford”, which is a place in Saint Lucia but the student also explained that it meant “old fort”. Also the significance of the poem taking place in a “Virgin lounge” while Walcott is wheelchair bound and “hating time” when he see’s a woman he remembered from the “fire” of his “young life”. He leaves us with an image of approaching death as “silent knives” entering both, him and the woman in their fertile old age. It was this class that woke me to Walcott’s mastery. However, using the same poem with a less receptive class, Walcott’s “cold” verse left them fidgety (one student threw a piece of paper across the room halfway through the reading).
Walcott’s poetry is not entry level. On one hand he does represent an art form that has a history of being perceived as elite, (it’s important to note I’m talking about his poetry, not the man himself). But on the other hand, Shridath Ramphal, chairman of the ‘West Indian Commission’ speaks in a report on the views of people living in former British colonies about Walcott’s most popular work, ‘Omeros’ as an epic that traces the history of “the diverse people of scattered islands and presented the history of the Caribbean with an identity recognisable to itself and the wider world”.
In Cooper’s lecture she championed the work of Linton Kwesi Johnson, Mutabaruka, Louise Bennett (better known as Miss Lou) and controversially, Vybz Kartel, calling for the Jamaican voice not to be looked down upon. She claimed Miss Lou is often spoken of by academics as a “minstrel entertainer” rather than a significant voice of Jamaican folk culture. A few years back Cooper invited Vybz Kartel to speak at the University Of West Indies to a packed out lecture hall with thousands of Jamaicans pointing out in her lecture that it would be dangerous to overlook the significance of the “voice of the ghetto”, because it would be another snobbish failure on the part of the middle classes.
Walcott being “part of a problem” could be said of Chinua Achebe in the context of African literature or Zadie Smith in the Black British category. When Baldwin said, “I am not your nigger”, this is the kind of sword he was trying to keep away from his head. To become a canonised writer is to become a writer that Universities put on their syllabus to a) justify their tuition fees and b) continue the status quo. Does anyone want to be the kind of writer where people are forced to read your work or fail their exams? Surely that’s the bigger part of the problem.