On the Sunday after Hurricane Sandy, with spirits somewhat restored, we spent the day with a new friend from Suriname. The gloom of the storm in the endless mists and forests of the Blue Mountains still weighed a little heavily, and our friend was far from home. So we endeavored to lighten her load (and ours, into the bargain) with a visit to the National Gallery of Jamaica.
We did not regret it.
As I noted in a recent post, a strong move is under way to “revive” the downtown area of Kingston. This can only work to the benefit of a cultural oasis like the National Gallery – a government entity, but certainly not dull or lacking in variety and vibrancy. The NGJ’s mission statement is “to collect, research, document and preserve Jamaican, other Caribbean Art and related material and to promote our artistic heritage for the benefit of present and future generations.” This is something which Executive Director Veerle Poupeye and Assistant Curator O’Neil Lawrence put into practice every day. Moreover…with her small and enthusiastic team, Ms. Poupeye has also, in her quiet, determined way, greatly expanded the Gallery’s outreach through innovative programs, such as its monthly Sunday openings (the last Sunday of each month from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.) These are free and include guided tours, musical interludes, children’s activities…and simply the enjoyment of permanent as well as current exhibitions.
Now, it is well worth while spending some time downtown, as we did, where the waters of Kingston Harbour sparkle brilliantly and the city somehow seems to regain its personality in the calm of a Sunday lunchtime. The day was quieter than usual, as the good citizens of Kingston pulling their affairs back together after the storm. But we had had enough of sweeping and cleaning and clearing up, and wanted to refresh ourselves; and we found many friends and acquaintances eager to do the same.
While we were away (or “off the island” as Jamaicans like to say) a remarkable exhibition opened at the National Gallery: the winners of the First International Reggae Poster Contest went on display. There were 1,142 entries from 678 designers in eighty countries – from every corner of the planet – an indicator, of course, of reggae music’s extraordinary global resonance. The first prize winner was Alon Braier, from Israel, who visited Jamaica for the exhibit opening. His piece was a serious portrayal of the “Roots of Dub.” The central figure, the engineer/producer, has one finger poised to press a button on the amplifier; in one corner, roots musician Augustus Pablo plays his haunting melodica tunes; in the other, a rather stoned-looking Lee “Scratch” Perry half-smiles, enigmatically.
Second prize, from Turkey, is completely different: a dazzling five-point, red gold and green star; third prize, from Italy, is a flowing portrayal of a singer with birds nesting, resting and then flying from his dreads with the logo, “Riddim is Freedom”; fourth – and one of my personal favorites – from Poland, is a fine portrait of veteran reggae singer Winston Rodney (Burning Spear); and fifth is a Jamaican entry full of vigor and complexity by Taj Francis, a graduate of Kingston’s Edna Manley College for the Visual & Performing Arts. The “top ten” can be found on the contest’s website – link below; including #10, which I find quite beautiful, from Greece.
All I can say is that we were so overwhelmed and impressed by the diversity of the 100 posters on show that we realized it must have been incredibly hard for the fifteen international judges to pick the very best. Some reflected the lyricism of roots reggae; some expressed the harder, more aggressive mood of dancehall and the first deejays; others simply celebrated the music, interpreting its messages for the most part as peace, love and harmony. I have posted a few other favorites of mine below, so that you can see the amazing range of moods and interpretations.
Reggae music is complex. It is not one thing. It is not just rhythm and baseline – although these are important components, to draw you in. It is so much more – and the “more” is what this ground-breaking exhibition encompasses – the quiet philosophy, the raw emotion of reggae music, for better or for worse.
Now to the even more important part: The posters are to be auctioned off this weekend – yes THIS weekend - at the National Gallery of Jamaica on Sunday, November 11 at 2:30 p.m. All proceeds will go to the Alpha Boys School (which deserves at least another blog post for itself), where many of Jamaica’s musicians got their training with the Alpha Boy’s Band. Alpha Boys is no ordinary boys’ school; it was, in fact an orphanage, founded by the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy in 1880 on Kingston’s South Camp Road. The flyer below shows Sister Mary Ignatius Davis, the iconic head of the school for an astounding 64 years, who passed away in 2003. The school teaches music and as well as academics has a strong focus on vocational training for boys from very deprived backgrounds (a number of them were homeless, alone, and without family, but Alpha takes care of them, gives their lives structure – and brings music). The illustrious alumni of Alpha include jazz trumpeter Dizzy Reece, singers Leroy Smart and Johnny Osbourne, pioneering dancehall deejay Yellowman; trombonist Rico Rodriguez; founding members of the legendary Skatalites, Tommy McCook, Lester Sterling and Dizzy Moore – among many others. What better beneficiary could there be?
The Alpha Boys are more than half-way downtown. Another important arrow in the bow that the poster competition has let fly is the campaign to build a Reggae Hall of Fame on Kingston’s waterfront. Something along the lines of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, which I have visited and which is a delightfully brash and enticing attraction on the lakeside, built of glass and steel. As a huge rock fan since the age of ten, for me it was like visiting a cross between a shrine and a garden of unexpected delights (their small but intimate exhibit on the Doors moved me nearly to tears, when I visited). I hope the reggae version might be something similar, for the true fan. On the Reggae Hall of Fame’s Facebook page (why don’t you “like” it?) Michael Thompson describes the vision as “a new approach for Kingston’s development, linking reggae with urban revitalization.” Aha.
So there you have it. Please come down on Sunday to bid for your favorite poster – or, if you cannot afford it, just enjoy a final look at the exhibit. The exhibition officially closes TOMORROW!
For more details, visit the National Gallery of Jamaica website or contact them via their blog, Facebook page or on Twitter. Support Jamaican art, and especially this amazing initiative!
(National Gallery of Jamaica website)
(National Gallery of Jamaica blog)
(First International Reggae Poster Contest: website)
(Alpha Old Boys’ Association: History of the School)
(Alpha Boys’ Home gets Royal Philharmonic treat: Jamaica Gleaner)
(Posters for Reggae Hall of Fame)
(Reggae Hall of Fame.com)
A Pause for Refreshment…and Art to Soothe the Soul (petchary.wordpress.com)
Sticks and Stones (petchary.wordpress.com)
What to See and Do in Kingston (channelvoyager.com)
Post-Sandy Cheer, Part One: Gastronomic (petchary.wordpress.com)
National Gallery of Jamaica’s Saturday Art-Time (repeatingislands.com)
National Gallery To Open ‘World-A-Reggae’ Exhibition (repeatingislands.com)
VIDEO: Hurricane Sandy hits Jamaica coast (bbc.co.uk)
A few more of my favorite posters, below:
- Clarks, the shoes that tap to Jamaica’s reggae beat (guardian.co.uk)
- Heart on sleeves: 50 years of Jamaican album covers tell the story of a nation (independent.co.uk)
Yes, we may be short of a lot of things in Jamaica, but we’re certainly not short on sunshine. As the sun thankfully dips behind the rooftops (the sun isn’t thankful, I am) I am just about to start this blog post with very little idea of what has or has not been going on this week. We took three days off away from all media, computers etc (unless you count switching to ESPN for the Euro 2012 semi-finals). Thanks ESPN! (I was quite upset by Italy’s sad defeat at the hands of Spain today, but the Italian team delighted me during the tournament with their creative, attacking play. Spain played like a passing machine, but seemed to wake up for the final). Ah well. The drama is over. We now await the start of the new English Premier League season.
Meanwhile, back on the Rock, shock waves from last week’s “bloody weekend” – including the resurgence of gang warfare in the August Town area of St. Andrew – continued to ruffle the media; and the annual hand-wringing exercise over the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) examinations kicked into top gear. On the former, I feel deeply sorry for the many peaceful and law-abiding residents. August Town is not, to my mind, a typical “inner city” area with all that the term suggests. The first time I visited there about twenty years ago – and I have done so a number of times since – I have felt that it was more like a village. The area is close to the University of the West Indies campus, on the outskirts of Kingston. There are narrow streets, small houses surrounded by low walls, a number of churches, and a bus service into Kingston. It is essentially a cul de sac, so the bus has to turn round and go back. There is the usually-dry Hope River (an escape route for criminals, I understand), and some houses on the other side. There is a primary school with a large yard, and the police station close by. What is most striking is the steep green hills on all sides – so close, so green, with one huge white scar where limestone was quarried. And yet, in true inner-city tradition, August Town has “corners” where young men gather, and is divided into areas called “Vietnam” or “Jungle 12.” And the small community (it really is small) which was ironically named after Emancipation Day on August 1, 1838, has a plague of gangs, mostly (or originally) politically-motivated. Since 2008, residents have been lulled into a sense of false security after the signing of a so-called “Peace Treaty” between gangs; this was negotiated through the efforts of an organization called the Peace Management Initiative (PMI) and the local community organization headed by the well-meaning Kenneth Wilson. I have my severe doubts about these peace treaties; how can they last? Gangs are gangs. Deputy Commissioner of Police Glenmore Hinds, who is in charge of crime, does not believe in them. But Mr. Wilson has, on this occasion, complained that concerns expressed by residents in the area prior to the latest outburst were ignored by the police, who were not “proactive” enough and could have prevented the murders if they had listened.
Enough hot air has been expelled on the topic of the GSAT results to inflate a balloon and carry it half way round the world. Educators and officials, retired and otherwise, have all weighed in with interviews and columns in the media. Should the test be abolished? How can we breach the “social chasm” described by Minister Thwaites that afflicts our educational system (but hold on…doesn’t this afflict every aspect of our society, Minister Thwaites?) Meanwhile, one high school said it simply could not accommodate all the students who had been placed there by the test; and one of the conceptualizers of GSAT is quoted as saying – perhaps rather brutally – “I hear the minister apologizing to schools for being called failing, when in fact they are worse than failures. Some of them should not even exist.” Oh dear. Expect more of the same this time next year.
Speaking of education, one commentator on the Jamaica Observer website commented wryly, “I wish Jamaicans were as passionate about education as they are about two men in pink dresses.” Yes indeed, the “homosexual debate” drags on endlessly, with the usual obfuscation, manipulation, misinformation and religious propaganda. The latter gets plenty of airtime in the media, with religious leaders coming out of the woodwork all over the place with their arguments, and of course their Bible quotations. Thank God for sensible and clear-thinking people like broadcast journalist Dionne Jackson-Miller, who tried to make some sense out of it in her latest blog post (see link below).
The rumblings over whether Jamaica should remain in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) – called by some a “talk shop” – continue intermittently. Speaking to the Sunday Observer today, CARICOM Secretary-General Ambassador Irwin LaRocque intones, “I think the single most important reason for keeping CARICOM alive is to serve the development of our region. It can’t be anything but that.” Well, as young people say… Duh. My italics, by the way – it appears CARICOM is on life support? Well, it is worthy of note that a recent ECLAC survey on Caribbean GDP growth last year (and predictions for this year) pointed out that it was the non-English speaking countries of our small region that have registered – and will register – strong growth. For example, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Suriname – six, 4.5 and 4.3 per cent GDP growth predicted this year; Jamaica, Barbados and St. Kitts & Nevis – just one per cent each. Go figure. By the way, CARICOM’s annual summit for heads of government will meet this coming week; among the “big issues” to be considered this week is – yes, you’ve guessed it. West Indies cricket.
But hey! Summer is here, and the seasonal distractions from the serious issues of the day are multiplying daily. Why worry about regional development, education and so on? It is hot. We all need to chill out. The rich ones will be disappearing overseas in a few weeks’ time – and of course, that includes our politicians. And there is sports. With the Olympics mere weeks away, the National Trials have been taking place over the last few days at the National Stadium – which, strangely, has been three-quarters empty, even for races with superstar Usain Bolt (who was beaten not once, but twice by his reportedly more focused rival and training partner Yohan Blake). Jamaicans adore their athletes; but there seems to have been confusion over entrance tickets. Besides, people probably just don’t have the money to buy them. Much cheaper to watch them on television.
And then, there is Jamaica 50. Of course, I still have questions (don’t we all?) For example, why was an International Reggae Day concert in Emancipation Park suddenly canceled at short notice? Why is the Portland Jerk Festival, which happens every year, a Jamaica 50 event – and such a costly one (J$1,400 at the gate)? Is there a schedule of Jamaica 50 events, and if so where? I tried to download the enlarged schedule pdf document on the Jamaica 50 website (“proudly presented” by the Jamaica Information Service), and got this message: “This is somewhat embarrassing, isn’t it?”
Yes, it is. However, the website did remind me that we are just five weeks, 1o hours, 40 minutes and 18 seconds away from our nation’s fiftieth anniversary. And there is a basic schedule here:
. For the month of July, there is Reggae Sumfest; the Festival Song Contest; and other regular annual events. OK, OK… I know, we don’t have any money, but are these really Jamaica 50 events, or just wearing the cloak of Jamaica 50?
Meanwhile, the politicians talk. And talk. Minister of Agriculture Roger Clarke and Minister of Education Ronald Thwaites are the two current Champions of Talk at the moment. Speeches galore. Minister Clarke, an amiable and obese man, raised scattered laughter when he asked his audience whether they agreed that he had thrived (thriven?) on a good healthy diet of Jamaican food. The Opposition Jamaica Labour Party has been largely quiet, apart from Justice and National Security Spokesman Delroy Chuck, who is clear and sharp in his commentary. There is an occasional obscure piece of waffle from the Opposition Leader, who seems to have gone back into his shell. Among other serious issues, Mr. Chuck has asked why the monthly meeting of the National Security Council has only taken place once since the new administration took office six months ago; if this is true, what is the story behind this?
Our Prime Minister is also very quiet, and only speaks when spoken to at the moment, like a well-behaved child in Victorian days. At least, I have seen very little reported.
But let’s give a huge round of applause to our very own Jamaica Defence Force and to all the other participants – including those from overseas – in the Jamaica Military Tattoo 2012. This was only the fifth in Jamaica’s history, and by all accounts our military outdid itself. Congratulations to all involved.
On the arts front, congratulations are also due to the urban arts festival Kingston on the Edge (KOTE) 2012, which took place over the past week. It was an extraordinarily lavish schedule of art in all its forms – grassroots, uptown, downtown, in-between – showing how vibrant and creative our much-maligned capital city truly is. Special congratulations to Veerle Poupeye, director of the National Gallery of Jamaica and her hard-working staff for their ongoing work (and for their monthly Sunday openings); and of course, to Karin Wilson Edmonds and the many others who worked so hard to make KOTE 2012 a huge success. I have to add that this is largely a private sector effort – thanks to all the sponsors and supporters, and may it be even bigger and better next year!
And of course, the sports. Mr. Yohan Blake and Ms. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce are worthy of special mention for beating the favorites in the National Trials in both the 1oo and 200 meters. But congratulations to all the young men and women who put out all their efforts and the best they have to offer. I am sure those who qualified for the London Olympics will continue to strive and do well for Jamaica.
Let’s round things off with another old and hoary “chestnut”: It’s “health tourism” time again! For the umpteenth time, this wonderful idea (it is a great idea actually) has been taken from the shelf and dusted off, this time by Industry, Investment & Commerce Minister Anthony Hylton. The Jamaica Information Service describes health tourism as “a new growth area with significant potential.” We first heard these words – or something very similar – approximately fifteen years ago. Well, let’s give it another whirl. I am sure the long-suffering “diaspora” will be thrilled to hear about it – or did I hear a stifled yawn from across the waters? Surely not. It’s a new area, folks! Let’s talk about it some more!
Well, dark has descended and I have rambled on too long. We are due for at least a few more days of hot, dry weather, with clouds that drift high above and have no intention on raining on us here in Kingston.
It’s summer, we haven’t solved the mystery of the noxious fumes yet (more on that another time) and…let’s try to have a great week!
My deep condolences to the family and friends of all those who were murdered in Jamaica in the past week. This may not be a complete list, but my thoughts are with all those who are mourning the loss of their loved ones.
- Kemado “Joe” Edwards, killed by the police in St. James
- Unidentified man found in a cane field in Llandilo, Westmoreland
- André, in Barnett Lane, Montego Bay, St. James
- Bryan Morris, 33, in Sheffield, Westmoreland
- Sylvia Beckford, 40, in Sheffield, Westmoreland
- Judith McCauley, 31, in Sheffield, Westmoreland
- Unidentified man killed by the police in Camrose, St. James
- Courtney Willis, in Nuts River, St. Thomas
- Unidentified woman chopped to death in Manchester
- Fabian Buckley, 26, in Duhaney Park, Kingston
- Newton Steer, 40, in Red Ground, St. Catherine
- Hugh Modest, 47, in West Meade, St. Catherine
- Cyril Kelsey, 59, in Leeds, St. Elizabeth
- Norman Noble, 48, in St. James
- Mario Balotelli, One of Soccer’s Most Gifted and Eccentric Players (nytimes.com)
- Gianluigi Buffon: Italy must improve to beat Spain in Euro 2012 final (thesun.co.uk)
- Sunday Songs (petchary.wordpress.com)
- Jamaica National Trials 2012: Seeking emancipation for Veronica Campbell-Brown and Usain Bolt in 200m (theislandjournal.wordpress.com)
- In Memoriam (petchary.wordpress.com)
- Minister reassures Jamaicans after 10 killed in bloody weekend (caribbean360.com)
- Blake shocks Bolt in 100m dash at Jamaican Olympics trials (edition.cnn.com)
(Jamaica 50/JIS website)
(Spectacular Military Tattoo: Jamaica Information Service)
(Mark Wignall column)
(Dionne Jackson Miller blog post)
(Rickey Singh on CARICOM summit)
(Jamaica Military Tattoo)
(Health Tourism remarks, JIS)
(Sickening fumes…Jamaica Gleaner)
- Bouterse installs CARICOM youth leaders (kaieteurnewsonline.com)
On May 15, I participated in a Writers’ Forum (and two workshops) organized by a relatively new organization in Jamaica, Katalyxt. To say that I was enriched, mind and soul, is an understatement. It was an extraordinarily fulfilling experience for me. I am a humble writer with aspirations to get published – sooner rather than later. It has certainly helped me along that road.
We started off bright and early with a poetry workshop, conducted by Professor Mervyn Morris. Now, I am no poet. I have never even attempted to write a poem. But I do love reading poetry, and always have at least one poetry book by my bedside. Currently, it is a Robert Frost collection; and a slim volume of poetry by young Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson (who now seems to be a New Yorker – I wrote about him in an earlier blog). I grew up adoring romantic poets like Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; French poets like Baudelaire and Verlaine; German poets like Heinrich Heine (yes, I did languages). And later, WB Yeats, TS Eliot, WH Auden - and Bob Dylan. “A poet is a maker,” said Professor Morris. But does the poet always have control over his/her theme? “You don’t always know where you are going” when you start to write, Professor Morris reminded the enthusiastic group. Of course, this is true of prose, too. But there is an important distinction, Professor Morris pointed out: The difference between prose and verse is that the creator is in control of the line.
And one of the joys of writing is indeed this: A poem (or a short story, or a novel) does not have to stay in one place, in the place where you, the writer, anchored it. It will get restless, and move away. It will take a sharp turn, or a slow one, and you will find you are heading in a different direction. And often, to use a rather flippant modern expression, the poet/writer should just “go with the flow.”
The group of Jamaican poets around the table discussed their work, presented in a file for us. The poems were incredibly varied in style, language and form. Their creators were courteous, chatty and at times argumentative. We had fun.
By the way, Professor Morris recommended two books for aspiring poets: “In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop” by Steve Kowit; and “The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry.” I also loved a poem he directed us to by Guyana’s Ian McDonald, called “Any Poem.”
Speaking of poets: At the Forum I had the pleasure of meeting Ann Margaret Lim, a petite and perceptive Jamaican poet whose first book, “The Festival of Wild Orchid,” will be launched next week at Bookophilia, on Old Hope Road, next Tuesday, May 22 at 6:00 p.m. The book is published by Peepal Tree Press, which specializes in Caribbean literature.
Then it was on to the prose workshop (specifically, short story writing) with Dr. Velma Pollard, author of poetry and prose and a wonderful mentor and teacher of young writers. We delved deeply into the work of Jamaican Olive Senior. Ms. Senior’s advice, obtained for us workshoppers by Dr. Pollard, is that there must be “conflict, crisis and resolution” in a short story for it to work. Dr. Pollard read passages from Senior’s collections: “Arrival of the Snake Woman” and “Discerner of Hearts.” From the latter, there was an especially interesting, detailed description of an obeah man’s yard – like a camera slowly panning around the space. I must revisit Ms. Senior’s wonderful work.
We tussled with questions: “Is it the teller or the tale that is important?” Whose voice – first person, third person? How much dialogue, how much narrative? How important is dialogue in the short story? We pondered, and we laughed.
One oddly jarring – but interesting – point emerged when we were discussing reading. We had generally agreed that it is important for a writer to read widely – as widely as possible, and not to limit him/herself. One participant demurred. As a Christian, he said, he limits himself to reading works that are morally correct. This was difficult. He would not be convinced otherwise. How sad, I reflected, that one can narrow one’s horizons so tightly. I told him about my steeling myself somewhat before reading Nick Cave’s profane, helter-skelter novel “The Death of Bunny Munro,” which I expected to hate – and how, by the end, despite its leering, misogynistic anti-hero, the sexual exploits, corruption and greed – I was deeply moved and glad that I had read it.
After lunch a remarkable event took place. Mr. Derek Walcott, Nobel Laureate was there, to talk to us about “making writing sustainable.” He was in the company of an excellent panel: our two workshop teachers, Professor Morris and Dr. Pollard; esteemed poet Edward Baugh; and Professor Carolyn Cooper, of the University of the West Indies’ Department of Literatures in English. Remember that the aim of the afternoon’s proceedings was to turn to the business of writing, now that the pleasures of the workshops were out of the way.
However, Mr. Walcott began with a discourse, interrupted by readings, on his particular craft. He spoke a little on the aspects of a “Caribbean style” of writing, noting that it was more about “the meters of the Caribbean,” not the sounds. There had been attempts to reproduce the sound of drums, etc., in poetry – but this was more akin to music than to writing, he suggested.
He then began to discuss the poet’s sense of “belonging,” or not belonging, when traveling; when in the present his feet rest on foreign soil, but his sensibilities may be elsewhere, back home. He gave the example of how he (to coin a cliche) “fell in love” with Italy, and was not sure how, as a poet of the Caribbean, he should respond to its landscape and culture. “How much passion is there in writing about a place that is not yours?” he asked. “How sincere is it?” I later asked him if he viewed that landscape of terra-cotta, monuments and Tuscan villas and vineyards and cypress trees through the prism of his own West Indian experience; or whether he created something from it, and made it his own. He had really, already, answered the question. During his visit to Italy, his admiration turned to possession; it was “created for me to claim.” He was able to make “every fragment of every landscape” his.
His readings resonated, despite the rather-too-large room at the hotel and the occasional distraction of voices in a nearby kitchen. I wanted to get closer, to focus better as his voice slowed and became more gravelly, as if with tiredness. I was held with my breath also slowing and my mind sharpening as I listened.
Mr. Walcott read from his fourteenth collection of poetry, “White Egrets,” published last year, when the poet turned eighty years old. I will not comment on what the critics have said; you can read them for yourself. But for me, as the lines were applied, almost like the strokes of a painter’s brush, I experienced the poet’s nostalgia, a kind of longing, and a kind of resignation. The poet gives himself to the landscape, but it is a mutual giving; and it is simultaneously the landscape of the Caribbean, of his native St. Lucia.
A couple of odd little things rang a chord with me. With a touch of irony, Mr. Walcott commented that in Italy he became one of those “idle old people” who sit in hotel lobbies watching people. This reminded me of the film “Death in Venice” which I saw again recently (see my recent blog post). In the film, the aging Gustav von Aschenbach (played by Dirk Bogarde) sits in the lobby, sometimes pretending to read a newspaper, leaning back in his armchair, watching the guests moving around.
And the white egrets reminded me of one of the first very short pieces that I wrote, on a cold winter’s day in southern England, in the leftovers of the year. I wrote it in sorrow, after several walks down a windswept lane during visits to my father; he was living the last few days of his life in an over-heated nursing home down the road. Once, I saw a white egret fly up from the brown winter field, and it reminded me of Jamaica. I wrote about it.
Mr. Walcott was gently steered back to the topic of the “sustainable” (in other words, the “money”) aspects of writing. He was not able to enlighten us a great deal, apart from references to literary prizes – and his own burning desire, from an early age, to see his work in print. When this happened, he said, it was amazing to have “the letters you have written looking back at you.” (In an aside, he and the panel discussed the sensuality, the physicality of letters, referring to a passage from Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes” based almost entirely on the letter “e”). He also spoke about the importance of building a reputation as a writer – others in the know will start talking about you, and the publishers will show interest.
How does creative writing move between other endeavors? Or, in Professor Morris’ words, “Could a decent poet ever abandon his day job?” His colleague, Dr. Pollard, thought not. But Mr. Walcott told us that his desire to see his work printed sparked his decision to self-publish initially, after borrowing money from his mother for the purpose - “a lot of money.” He also spoke of his indebtedness to Alan Ross, who supported and advised him as his agent. “Every young writer is told not to send any book out unless they have an agent,” Mr. Walcott observed.
We were also happy to have an extremely gifted Jamaican poet, Ralph Thompson, in our midst. Mr. Thompson said he started off as a “fairly prosperous businessman,” and is still one. He spoke of the need to share his work – something which had come up earlier in the day - “You have to have that feeling of wanting to share. It’s altruistic. It’s beautiful,” declared Mr. Thompson.
Ann Margaret Lim asked a question that we writers often ask ourselves: “Who do we write for?” Mr. Walcott responded simply, “I am not sure if there is an audience in our mind when we write.”
This took us to the nuts and bolts section of the afternoon, which I found extremely useful. Once I had descended from the small cloud on which I had been floating with Mr. Walcott’s voice, I refocused on a presentation by Carlong Publishers’ Dorothy Noel, a no-nonsense lady who emphasized, “Publishing is a business.” For a writer, she said, the first step is to hone your craft; then to sell your skills. Publishers, she said, are more adventurous than we may think; and they will invest in a quality product.
Ms. Noel gave us some helpful advice on how to approach the publisher (with confidence, of course). Do your research, she said: market research, trends, gaps in the publisher’s list that they might like to fill, or another direction they may be considering. She pointed us to a helpful paper by one of Carlong’s authors, Ms. Kelly Magnus, on the Book Industry Association of Jamaica’s website. She explained how to “market oneself and market one’s expertise” in one’s proposal to the publisher.
We then had a bracing – and indeed, somewhat sobering – talk from an International Property Rights attorney. There are rights, and rights, and rights. Your idea is not protected; but once you have written it down and shaped it into something, it should be. At a certain point, the topic got a little fuzzy around the edges. For example, there is no real objective measurement for the term “fair use” and our knowledgeable adviser said we should avoid what seemed to be a very grey area. Nevertheless, this was also good, practical advice to have under one’s belt.
Ms. Corine La Font, a virtual events specialist then talked to us about online publishing – a topic that has increasingly fascinated me. There are various types of e-publishing: there is the Kindle (I now own one myself); and there are iBooks (Apple); eBooks (Smashwords); and Nook (Barnes & Noble) that are all e-readers. Of course, all these books are cheaper than going out and buying a hardcover book off the shelf, but we learnt that you can actually earn more from Kindle publishing. Also, you can grow your reach and market your book electronically.
We learnt that you should also think strategically when marketing yourself. Try a virtual book tour or a blog tour. Try Amazon bestsellers. Think of your book as a business card. Watch the video “The Business of Writing” on helpdeskja.com/blog: “Serving the Needs of Authors and Coaches – Write, Publish, Market” and follow Ms. La Font on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook too. She also recommended theselfpublishingcenter.com/registration to register for more useful seminars and training (free).
The young adult author Amanda Hocking is a classic example of a highly successful author who built her reputation entirely online. Ms. Hocking began with her blog and a MySpace page. From there, she moved into e-publishing, and is now publishing traditionally as well. Her marvelous blog includes tips on self-publishing and is a fine showcase for her books.
Finally, Bookophilia owner Andrea Dempster told us about what a traditional bookseller looks for – and as with everyone else involved in the business of books, it is quality that counts. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from – those in the business of books – as in any other business – are looking for a quality product. For Bookophilia, the look and “feel” of a book in your hand is very important – the design, the color, the “tactile experience.” Bookophilia is also involved in the marketing of books – mainly through special events, readings and book launches at the store, advertised through the social media. Ms. Dempster advised writers to pay for a professional editor; to have a PR plan; and to have a social media plan. Self-publishing sounds great, she says; but don’t forget, you, the writer, will have to do all the legwork – marketing, advertising, collecting money, writing receipts, even delivering your books.
Ms. Dempster noted that for her store, Caribbean titles are the biggest sellers. This is largely as a result of her successful marketing techniques. In fact, she says there is a huge untapped demand for Caribbean children’s books. Any more children’s book authors out there?
The final word was from Stefanie of Katalxyt, who had guided us through the day with great professionalism. With her accountant’s training, she advised us to always start out with a budget; and why not include a business plan in your book proposal to a publisher? Try new things – perhaps some merchandizing – to make extra money from your book. If you are in the happy position of having a surplus, you can reinvest. Wise words.
I must heap praises on Katalyxt (even if I have problems typing the name!) The forum was well organized by friendly people, who were clearly enthused and knowledgeable on the topic of writing, and writing as a business. They were efficient but unfussy, did not order us around, and everything started bang on time – how unusual is that! Kudos to Katalyxt, and I am sure their subsequent Business Conference was a huge success also.
Here are some last words from Mr. Walcott:
I am astonished at the sunflowers spinning
in huge green meadows above the indigo sea,
amazed at their aureate silence, though they sing with the inaudible hum of the clocks over Recanati.’
Do they turn to face the dusk, just as an army
might obey the last orders of a sinking empire,
their wheels stuck in one rut before the small studs
of stars and the fireflies meandering fire,
then droop like exhausted meteors in soft thuds
to the earth? In our life elsewhere, sunflowers
come singly, but in this coastal province
there can be entire fields of their temporal powers spread like the cloak of some Renaissance prince, their banners will wilt, their gold helms fill the void,
they are poems we recite to ourselves, metaphors
of our brief glory, a light we cannot avoid
that was called heaven in Blake’s time, but not since.
From “White Egrets”
RELATED LINKS AND WEBSITES
http://www.poetryarchive.org/poetryarchive/singlePoet.do?poetId=14625 The Poetry Archive: Mervyn Morris
Jamaican Poet Ishion Hutchinson Interviewed by Leanne Hayes (repeatingislands.com)
Abeng: A Poem for National Heroes Day
Velma Pollard biography
Olive Senior website
http://www.amazon.com/White-Egrets-Poems-Derek-Walcott/dp/0374289298 White Egrets: Poems by Derek Walcott
http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/220 poets.org: Derek Walcott
http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1992/walcott-poetry.html The Nobel Prize in Literature 1992: Derek Walcott
http://www.bookindustryja.com/ Book Industry Association of Jamaica
http://amandahocking.blogspot.com/ Amanda Hocking’s blog
https://www.facebook.com/Bookophilia Bookophilia on Facebook