Jamaicans have an energetic relationship with words. They fling them, they shout them, they play with them, they let them sing. And so it was at a light-hearted, but quietly passionate session of open mic poetry last night at my neighborhood bookstore, Bookophilia. At times we competed with the busy Friday night traffic. But we made our point.
I kicked things off myself, on a very un-Jamaican note, but dipping into my heritage and childhood. After a grim week (not only for Boston and Texas, but for Iraq and Syria, too) I began with the somber “The Second Coming.” W.B. Yeats‘ poem, written in 1919, is suffused with dread. The “rough beast” begins to drag its feet across the desert. It is in no hurry. It will get there. It is Evil. You can find the entire poem on another blog post
As an antidote, I read from probably the first book I ever possessed, “The Jumblies and other Nonsense Verses,” by Edward Lear. I read my favorite poem, “The Owl and the Pussy Cat,” and was surprised to discover that some Jamaicans were actually familiar with it. I received this book from my great-aunt Esmé on my third birthday; the book is now battered and stained, and some tropical insects have taken tentative nibbles at the cover, over the years. But it is still very much intact – and alive, as only books can be…
But the occasion was a very Jamaican one. It was, in fact, the launch of a Word Festival called “Dis Poem” ...a tribute to the “Incient” (in Rastafarian parlance) Mutabaruka. The veteran, barefoot dub poet is acquiring the status of an elder (and I think that feels nice). But thankfully, he has not mellowed much. He has stayed the course. “Dis Poem” is probably his best-known work, from back in 1986 – declamatory, demanding, humorous, contradictory and always enjoyable in a new way. You can find it on YouTube – don’t just read the lyrics. It must be spoken, performed, and has been put to music several times by different artists. Rastakura, our courteous Master of Ceremonies for the evening, gave us a spirited version of the poem itself, as a reminder.
Ann-Margaret Lim read several of her sharply perceptive poems in a soft, but sonorous voice. Her first published book of poetry, “The Festival of Wild Orchid,” received a Special Mention on the Long List for the 2013 OCM Bocas Literary Prize. It is published by Peepal Tree Press. But I especially loved a poem that was not included in that collection, about the sea. I would love to publish it here. You can read the title poem here:
Randy McLaren (the “Creative Activist”) stirred our conscience with his poetry. He touched on a number of social issues – in particular, he mentioned the terrible fire at Armadale, where seven young women who were wards of the state died. And he spoke about sixteen-year-old Vanessa Wint, of whom I have written before, who survived Armadale in 2009, but committed suicide at an adult prison last November.
There is huge potential in dub poetry as a kind of protest art form. Of course, this has always been done. I was (still am) very fond of the work of Linton Kwesi Johnson, the Brixton revolutionary, a British Jamaican who has never lost the fire in his belly. The humanity of young dub poet Mikey Smith always shone through in his poetry (I saw him perform more than once in London; he had a powerful voice, extraordinary presence). I recommend that you look him up on YouTube also. “Mi Cyaan Believe It” is a great poem of his. But poor Mikey died too young; at age 28 he was attacked and killed by political activists in Stony Hill, near Kingston in 1983.
Randy, I want you to walk in the steps of Mikey. But take care of yourself…
Then we had LXS, a two-man dub poetry team (I hear there is actually a third member, who did not perform last night) rooted in Rastafarianism. The two went on a veritable verbal excursion, occasionally leaning together at the mike, nodding in agreement, dancing, interrupting each other and talking in chorus. It was delightful, fluent. I believe there is much potential in this kind of dub-team format.
I had seen History Man perform before. A well-built Rastafarian, he strides onto the stage, closes his eyes and launches into a flowing, detailed account of Black History. There is very little performance element here; you just have to listen to his words, and the information pours out of him like a well-rehearsed, structured dictionary. His first poem was about black inventors; the second was a detailed account of Bob Marley’s life and music, including a discography, dates and all. Marvelous stuff.
Thank you so much to Bookophilia – and to Rastakura, our MC. And to the appreciative audience. It was nice to read, even if the poetry wasn’t mine. I have never written a line of poetry in my life, but I could not live without it. I grew up with its endless riches.
“Dis Poem” Word Festival will take place at Hope Bay Beach, Portland, Jamaica on Sunday, April 28, 2013 from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Admission $700 pre-sold, $1,000 at the gate. Students $300 (free to students of the College of Agriculture, Science & Education in Portland).
Bookophilia is at 92 Hope Road, Kingston 6. Tel: 978-5248. Opening hours: Mon – Fri: 10:00 – 19:00; Sat: 10:00 – 18:00; Sun: 12:00 – 17:00. They are on Facebook and Twitter (@Bookophilia) and their email is email@example.com. They have comfy chairs, an appealing children’s section, an excellent selection of West Indian literature, and they brew a mean cup of coffee. It’s also well known for its special events – readings, book launches, art exhibits and the like.
A Cup of Tea, and a Poem or Two (petchary.wordpress.com)
The father of dub poetry gets a fine award: petchary.wordpress.com
Mikey Smith, by Mervyn Morris
A week ago, I left hot, windy Kingston early with a bus full of book fans, heading for the Calabash International Literary Festival (themed “Jubilation 50″ in recognition of Jamaica’s fiftieth anniversary) in Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth. Jamaica’s south coast is warm and red-earthed; scented with watermelon and scallion grown under windows; yellow sand beaches and driftwood; and buildings painted dark red and brick and cream and blue. Founded in 2001 by Artistic Director and novelist Colin Channer, with support from poet Kwame Dawes and producer Justine Henzell, Calabash did not take place last year due to funding issues. The festival still needs financial support. It is determinedly free (no entrance fee), although the local community benefit greatly from the influx of Kingston’s privileged classes, assorted foreign visitors and genuine book-lovers.
Whether or not the Calabash tradition continues, this year was remarkable for the conspicuously absent, always ebullient Channer. I missed my former tutor from the Calabash Writers’ Workshops, which I participated in several years ago. Otherwise, the Memorial Day weekend festival followed the regular, much-loved pattern of lively local music with a rootsy feel, “book-ending” a decent spread of book talk and readings by writers – this year mostly of Jamaican descent. There was tasty but over-priced food, some nice crafty stalls and a good selection of books for sale, all thrown into the mix. There was paddling in the sea, some fairly intense networking, huge waves of socializing and photo-opping, and a great deal of consumption of cold beer (it actually seemed hotter than Kingston).
It was a three-hour journey from Kingston, in a bus crowded with middle-class women wearing long dresses, floppy hats and strappy sandals. This attire is one of the major Calabash “uniforms” (the other being what I like to call the “modern roots” look – thousands of bangles, dreadlocks, a sprinkling of piercings and tattoos – among the younger set). Then there were some people like me – I felt like a pale Kingston person, wearing mostly black, and I did not take my shoes off.
Women always outnumber men by three or four to one at Calabash. And speaking of women: two names I did not hear that day were those of two Jamaican writers – Diana McCaulay and Alecia McKenzie. So, I am now trumpeting them – the two regional winners of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Caribbean, no less. Kingston-born Ms. McKenzie won the regional prize for her first novel, “Sweetheart,” published by Peepal Tree Press. Put it on your Amazon wish list, or purchase from your local Jamaican bookstore, now! Ms. McCaulay had her first work published at age six, and has never looked back. Diana is a committed environmental activist. Her second novel, “Huracan” (also Peepal Tree) will be published at the end of June; her winning short story is “The Dolphin Catcher.” The overall winner of the Commonwealth Book Prize will be announced at the Hay Festival on June 8.
On our bus trip, I kept company with young poet Ann-Margaret Lim, whose first book of poetry, “The Festival of Wild Orchid,” was launched recently. One of Ms. Lim’s major influences was a leading light at the festival: Ms. Olive Senior, who has lived in Canada for some years and who writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She has just published her first children’s book. Ms. Senior read a short story in her melodious voice, and we chatted with her later; she has a kind and sweet personality, like everyone’s favorite aunt.
A number of other vibrant Jamaican women trooped up on the Calabash stage, standing at a windy podium made of bamboo, against a backdrop of glittering sea and twisted acacia trees and sea grapes. The Jones sisters – Sadie and Melissa – are the novelist daughters of Jamaican writer Evan Jones, author of a fascinating historical novel called “Stone Haven.” They read from their work in almost identical, husky English voices. Gifted poets Loretta Collins, Christine Craig and Shara McCallum (who now live in Puerto Rico, Fort Lauderdale and Pennsylvania, respectively) read on Friday night. Along with the Joneses and Ms. Senior, we thoroughly enjoyed a reading by Kingston-born, UK-based Kerry Young, who read a very witty and perceptive piece from her first novel “Pao.” Ms. Young is UK-based and her energetic reading was a delight. “Pao” is published by Bloomsbury. Other wonderful locally-based Jamaican women – Carolyn Cooper, Laura Henzell, Sonjah Stanley Niaah, among others – kept things going, with Dr. Cooper keeping a strict eye on the Open Mic – three minutes each, and not a second more!
Of course, there are other terrific creative women in Jamaica – including the Rastafarian film-maker Barbara Blake Hannah, who has written four books: “Rastafari: The New Creation,” the first book on the Rastafari religion written by a member of the faith. Her biographical memoir “Growing Out: Black Hair and Black Pride” recounts her early years and life in England. As Jamaica’s homeschooling pioneer, her book “Home: The First School” is a guide based on her experiences raising her son Makonnen. She is also author of the novel “Joseph: A Rasta Reggae Fable,” inspired by the life of her friend Bob Marley.
And I cannot – and must not – omit the group of Jamaican women who write for younger audiences. My former colleague at Heinemann Publishers, Diane Browne, won a Special Prize in the 2011 Commonwealth Short Story Competition for her story “The Happiness Dress.” She recently launched a novel for young adults, “Island Princess in Brooklyn,” the story of a migrating Jamaican teenager who must adjust to life in the “Big Apple.” Diane is among a group of dedicated writers for children in Jamaica that includes Heather Campbell, Tanya Savage, Kellie Magnus and others. There is a great need for more Jamaican/Caribbean children’s literature, and local bookstore Bookophilia confirmed this recently.
Let us raise a glass of Red Stripe, Appleton rum or whatever your tipple is to these creative Jamaican women. Their extraordinarily diverse voices are ringing out across the literary landscape with more conviction and greater fervor than ever before, it seems to me. Let’s sit up and listen, and buy their books!
P.S. As an aspiring-to-be-published writer following in these great ladies’ footsteps, I took the plunge and read from one of my short stories at Calabash’s Open Mic. The audience were very nice, and clapped. I overcame my nerves, and felt encouraged.
Love Jamaica at Jubilation! 50 (repeatingislands.com)
Kwame Dawes Awarded Guggenheim Fellowship (nadineunscripted.wordpress.com)
The Joy (and the Business of) Writing (petchary.wordpress.com)
Granta goes global and shows a way forward (guardian.co.uk)
A Jamaican boat operator was devastated by the loss of his property in a fire in Harbour View, near Kingston this week. It was all uninsured, and the loss was no small amount in Jamaican terms – 15 million Jamaican dollars. It was also his livelihood.
When asked what on earth he would do, the boat owner said philosophically, “The incident has really left me in a state, but I just have to give thanks that I have life, and where there’s life, there’s hope.”
Jamaicans are very good at giving thanks. It is something that seems to come naturally, and I wish I was better at it myself. The Rastafarians are particularly fond of the expression. Whether the news is good or bad, “give thanks” – it could always be worse. We must simply give thanks for our life, and our health. We are walking, talking, living, breathing, eating and drinking and generally behaving (well or badly). We are thankful for that. Life.
The wonderful Mustard Seed Communities in Jamaica (who deserve all the love, support and thanks that they can get) is a faith-based organization that cares for abandoned children and adolescents with disabilities and children living with HIV/AIDS. They are selfless in an extraordinary way that the Petchary can only regard with some awe. She recently volunteered with a group from work, painting buildings at their home called Jerusalem near Spanish Town. Every week an email arrives from Mustard Seed with the subject line, “Thank You Thursday.” It gives me something to be thankful for, every week. Although not in the least “religious” in the “organized religion” sense, it always makes me pause and reflect for a few minutes.
Today was no exception. The Thanksgiving Day email gently pointed out to me that there is a “giving” in Thanksgiving. Simply put, “The more you give, the more you will find to be thankful for.” The thanks and the giving go hand in hand, the Mustard Seed people suggest.
As the light dims over Thanksgiving Day (being fortunate to have the day off work, despite not living in the United States) I can think of a thousand things to be thankful for. Not least is a postcard from our son, which arrived today from a trip to Toulouse, France, where he was visiting a friend. The Quai de Tounis, lined with rose-colored houses along the river Garonne. It’s something small, but so gratefully received.
And, as a prelude to the first of a series of blogs about the fascinating country of Brazil… I am thankful for the warm, intimate beauty of Caetano Veloso‘s music, which I have been playing at intervals today. Please refer to my Vodpod in the sidebar (which I promise to refresh more often) and my next post.
- A military Thanksgiving Day. (militaryzerowaste.wordpress.com)
- Thanksgiving Day ! (liveloveandpray.wordpress.com)
- Give Thanks! (dawncarnahan.wordpress.com)
As National Heroes Week draws to a close in Jamaica, here are three things the Petchary would like to celebrate, this Friday evening (apart from the fact that it’s Friday, of course)…
- HOORAY for the Bolivian indigenous protesters AND President Evo Morales, who has agreed not to run the highway through protected rainforest. After having a nice lunch together (big glasses of lemonade) the President gave in to the protesters’ demands. They got a hero’s welcome when they arrived in La Paz, after walking hundreds of miles in harsh conditions. They were attacked by the police half way along their journey. ”This is governing by obeying the people,” said the Prez. Something to be said for that. Listen, and obey!
- I am also giving my favorite President (yes, he still is) Barack Obama a pat on the back for his announcement today that all U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by the end of the year! Yes, some of us can be cynical (and of course the Republican’s knee jerk reaction is “no way, we want more soldiers and civilians to be killed”), but he did make that election promise. And the lads will be home for the holidays. What’s not to like?
- Thirdly, and I don’t want to be rejoicing over someone’s death, but I can’t help it. Like the Libyan people I am celebrating the death of Muammar Gaddafi (but much more quietly – I don’t have a rifle to fire into the air and I have not been going around yelling “Allahu Akbar” – I don’t want to scare the neighbors. But I have been quietly happy about it – although not happy at the apparent circumstances of his death, which are getting murkier. Even a forty-year abuser of human rights deserves human rights.
- Bolivian president Evo Morales scraps plans for Amazon highway(guardian.co.uk)
- Bolivia road march enters La Paz(bbc.co.uk)
- After 250-mile protest march, indigenous reach Bolivian capital to face president (csmonitor.com)
- Lights, Camera, Action(petchary.wordpress.com)
- Mother Earth has rights too (petchary.wordpress.com)
- Qaddafi’s People’s Temple (juancole.com)
- Obama announces pullout of all U.S. troops in Iraq by year-end “as promised” (