In My Own Words: Lisa Allen-Agostini
I often tell the story of the first poem I ever wrote. I was about eight, in Standard Three, when a friend and I went to her house after school. To amuse ourselves we decided to write poems and see whose was best. I don’t remember mine except that it said something about “shining rills.” Shining rills? I was growing up in Morvant, a working-class suburb of Port-of-Spain known for its poverty and violence. Rills weren’t exactly part of my daily experience. But I liked writing that poem and it was the first of many I would write over the years. Winning an award for my poetry at age 17 solidified what I had known in my heart since that first poem that I wanted to be a writer.
It’s partly because of that early award that I am doing what I’m doing now, starting up an NGO devoted to teen writers. The Allen Prize for Young Writers is a not-for-profit company registered in Trinidad & Tobago to give prizes, training and publication to writers aged 12-19. We are going to roll out the first programme year in September 2010.
It’s going to start with a prize. We’re giving it in two age categories and over four genres, fiction, creative non-fiction, drama and, of course, poetry. That early poetry award I won, the CLICO Poetry Prize, no longer exists. There are from time to time poetry and essay writing competitions for young people, and there is a National Secondary Schools Drama Competition, but the vision we have for The Allen Prize is bigger than the cash award alone. A part of the prize will be the chance to participate in a workshop at the end of the school year, to hone their works and have the opportunity to meet writers that are more experienced and get their feedback.
We’re also planning to do three free seminars a year, bringing young writers into contact with speakers who will talk about various aspects of writing craft. For the first seminar, we’re attempting to bring novelist Roslyn Carrington, playwright Paloma Mohamed, and poet Christian Campbell to talk about their work and give tips to the young writers in the audience.
It’s important to me that the seminars and the competition are free of charge. I well remember being a young person with no resources, or resources I had to carefully husband to meet all my personal needs. There were opportunities I couldn’t take just because I couldn’t afford them—a workshop with Wayne Browne, for example. Yet in some ways, I got a lot of help and support from adults while growing up and I guess The Allen Prize is part of my process of paying it forward.
It’s called The Allen Prize after my father, Rito Allen. He wasn’t a writer—far from it. He was a welder. But he was a reader, and while I don’t think he thought much of my writing, he bought me my first typewriter, a baby blue Selectric that made holes in the paper when I typed. On that baby blue, I wrote poems, plays, short stories, even started a manuscript or two for longer projects. When you missed me, I was probably at my desk typing something while hours passed and the dishes sat unwashed in the sink.
I know there are other young people like that. Nobody uses typewriters anymore but maybe they’re cocooned in their room on an ancient PC, slugging away at their Great West Indian Novel. I see their posts on Facebook, read their stories in the youth sections of the newspapers, and hear their poems at youth open mic shows. They’re writing, and I want the world to know it.
More importantly, I want them to grow up knowing that people take writing seriously, and that they can have a career as a writer. Writing has many applications in industries like film and TV, public relations, journalism, advertising, and publishing. But even more than that, we adults need to take responsibility for training up the next generation of writers if we want to have good writers. We don’t have to wait for fate to send us a Walcott or a Naipaul, we can look for them from now. The Allen Prize would be delighted if one of our young writers got his or her start in our competition.
I keep saying “our” because I’m not in this alone. Thankfully, I have a very supportive board of directors, which includes Nicholas Laughlin and Georgia Popplewell—he’s publisher of the Caribbean Review of Books, an editor and writer, and she wears many hats, one of which is managing director of Global Voices, a clearing house for international blogs. Charlotte Elias, the founder of that seminal NGO Caribbean Contemporary Arts, and Rhoda Bharath, a writer and director of the Cropper Foundation, are also on my board. My right hand man is Peter Gomez, the secretary of the board, who by day is the financial comptroller at a major chain of pharmacies in Trinidad & Tobago.
I can’t name all the people who are helping me do this; it’s too long a list and we’d be here for days. I’m grateful to all of them, though, and the young writers of Trinidad & Tobago will be, too.
About the Author
Lisa Allen-Agostini is a Trinidadian writer and journalist. She is co-editor of Trinidad Noir (Akashic Books, 2008) and author of The Chalice Project (Macmillan Caribbean, 2008). A freelance journalist, she writes for the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian, Caribbean Beat magazine, the Caribbean Review of Books and other publications.
In 2009, she founded The Allen Prize for Young Writers, a not-for-profit company dedicated to the development of writers aged 12-19. She chairs the board of the company, which is expected to start giving prizes from September 2010.
Lisa has written and performed poetry since childhood. She won a national schools poetry writing competition in 1991 and this gave her further impetus to become a professional writer. She self-published a book of poems called Something to Say in 1992.
Her career as a journalist began at the Trinidad Express, where she was a feature writer and the editor of a weekly youth magazine, Vox. Moving to the Guardian, she continued to write features, eventually becoming assistant editor of features. In 2001, she was awarded an Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship to The Washington Post and spent some five months as a journalist on the Style Desk there. She left the Guardian in 2007 as Internet editor.
Having been an actor with the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, she studied stagecraft and literature at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, while earning a BA in Literatures in English (First Class Hons.). Her writing has reflected this experience and she has written a handful of plays, one of which was staged as a dramatic reading as part of a playwriting workshop headed by Tony Hall, a Trinidad & Tobago theatre legend. Additionally, she has participated in poetry and fiction workshops with Wayne Brown, Merle Hodge, Raymond Ramcharitar, and Funso Aiyejina, all highly esteemed Trinidadian authors.
As a poet, she has toured Trinidad & Tobago with an ensemble of women writers called Ten Sisters. Her work appears on the group’s self-titled CD, published by FishInk Press.
Lisa writes in a variety of genres and voices, but is probably best known in her homeland for her weekly column, written in Trinidad Creole, in the Guardian. It ran from 2006-2010 and covered issues of governance, parenting, society, children’s rights, education, the arts, and the economy, among others.
Lisa is the mother of two girls and is currently working on three manuscripts, one of them a young adult story and one a follow-up to The Chalice Project.