An Interview With Mervyn Morris
Mervyn Morris was born in Jamaica in 1937 and studied at the University College of the West Indies and St Edmund Hall, Oxford. In 1992 he was a UK Arts Council Visiting Writer-in-Residence at the South Bank Centre. His previous collections include The Pond, Shadowboxing, Examination Centre and On Holy Week; he also edited The Faber Book of Contemporary Caribbean Short Stories and published 'Is English We Speaking' and other essays. He lives in Kingston, Jamaica, where he is Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing & West Indian Literature.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer?
In my teens, I think. At first I wrote short stories. I also wrote light verse.
Was there a moment of doubt? Did you ever say, “What am I getting myself into?”
Not really. I kept my day job.
Did you have any mentors? If so, who were they?
In a general sense, my English teachers.
A major influence, I suspect, was the fact that in sixth form at Munro College our English master chose The Age of Johnson for our Special Paper (at a time when many other schools were choosing The Romantics or Early Twentieth Century). So at a formative age I was studying poetry which seemed to say, whatever its rhythmic and tonal subtleties, that it wished, at some of its frequencies, to be immediately understood. At school early in the 1950s I was also reading in English journals some of the Movement poets who valued a cunning plainness, in reaction against grand rhetorical gestures they often deemed bogus.
Like other poets colonially educated, I’ve been influenced by English Literature in general, and by bits and pieces of it, especially Shakespeare. At the University of the West Indies, I was introduced to some of the Metaphysical poets (John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell), and learned to appreciate ambiguity (a recurrent feature in Shakespeare also, of course). I have been teaching West Indian Literature since the 1970s and have been influenced by it, especially from studying the major poets. But I tend to be influenced not so much by the entire oeuvre of anyone as by particular poems or passages I have admired—poems by Hardy, Yeats, Eliot, Graves, R.S. Thomas, Larkin, Frost, Roethke, Stevie Smith, Langston Hughes, Louise Bennett, Walcott, Brathwaite, Martin Carter, Lorna Goodison and many others.
In your early career, how did Dennis Scott, Tony McNeill, and Wayne Brown figure in your development?
I was Warden of Taylor Hall (UWI, Mona) from 1966 until 1970 (when I joined the Department of English). Dennis, Tony and/or Wayne often dropped in at the Warden’s house. Tony was working for the Jamaica Information Service, I think. Dennis and Wayne were students on campus. We would often show each other poems we were working on or thought we had finished. The friendship was mutually supportive, I believe. I think I was strengthened by access to the responses of Dennis, Tony and Wayne. Approval from Tony was greatly valued, but he did not often say much about what he didn’t like. Dennis was very good at pointing to a line or a phrase and asking, “Can you get away with that?” Wayne was often brutally challenging, and for that reason very useful (even when I believed him to be mistaken). He would question the very basis of what you were trying to do. At that time, he was demanding visceral commitment.
What were some of the challenges you had to overcome with the publication of The Pond?
None that are unusual. I had some rejections before I found a publisher. (Looking back, I am glad that some of the earlier collections I was peddling were rejected.)
How has your work changed from The Pond to I been there, sort of?
I think it is tighter. It is certainly less expansive.
What has been the greatest challenge in your career?
Each time, the challenge to get the next collection published.