Word Flow, Word Play

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 https://petchary.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/the-second-coming/

The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats was interested in mysticism and the occult. His poem, "The Second Coming," is chilling. (Photo: atheismnorthernireland.com)
The great Irish poet William Butler Yeats was interested in mysticism and the occult. His poem, “The Second Coming,” is chilling. (Photo: atheismnorthernireland.com)

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…

My battered old copy of "The Jumblies" - nonsense poems by Edward Lear.
My battered old copy of “The Jumblies” – nonsense poems by Edward Lear.

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.

Rastakura performs Mutabaruka's "Dis Poem" at Bookophilia. (My photo)
Rastakura performs Mutabaruka’s “Dis Poem” at Bookophilia. (My photo)
Dub poet Mutabaruka. (Photo: Jamaica Gleaner)
Dub poet Mutabaruka. (Photo: Jamaica Gleaner)

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: https://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/the-festival-of-wild-orchid-a-poem-for-national-heroes-day/

Ann-Margaret Lim reads at Bookophilia. Don't worry about how others feel about your work, she observed; they may not view some poems as you do. (My photo)
Ann-Margaret Lim reads at Bookophilia. Don’t worry about how others feel about your work, she observed; they may not view some poems as you do. (My photo)

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.

The Creative Activist, Randy McLaren in action at Bookophilia. (My photo)
The Creative Activist, Randy McLaren in action at Bookophilia. (My photo)

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.

Mikey Smith performs. (Photo: jamaicansmusic.com)
Mikey Smith performs. (Photo: jamaicansmusic.com)

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.

LXS sharing words at Bookophilia. (My photo)
LXS sharing words at Bookophilia. (My photo)

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.

History Man educates us. (My photo)
History Man educates us. (My photo)

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 bookophilia@yahoo.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. 

Related articles

A Cup of Tea, and a Poem or Two (petchary.wordpress.com)

https://petchary.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/the-father-of-dub-poetry-gets-a-fine-award/ The father of dub poetry gets a fine award: petchary.wordpress.com


http://www.57productions.com/article_reader.php?id=36 Mikey Smith, by Mervyn Morris

8 thoughts on “Word Flow, Word Play

  1. Emma, thanks for this refreshing interruption of all the noise of corruption & poor governance that we have been inundated with lately in the land we love… This pause was definitely needed. You reminded me that there is beauty and magic in life around us. I had gotten distracted from that just for a bit. I enjoyed the recommendations you made – we certainly can laugh at the things that bring us deepest angst – loved “This Poem”. *EXHALES*


    1. I know Damien – one does get totally drawn into all that awful stuff. The past week has been very heavy going, and one really does need to take that refreshing pause! It is really too much, sometimes. I am glad I helped you to exhale and once again thanks for your kind comments and your support! Yes, the beauty and magic are always there for us…


  2. Bookophilia sounds awesome. I like their interactive nature and the push for local talent in this area. Really nice event. Hope to catch one such when I get home 🙂


    1. Yes, it’s a great little bookstore. It does more than just sell books – although I know that’s important. It’s a nice little creative hub. You can see much of what they do on their Facebook page… Thanks and hope you are well!


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