September 27, 2006

"Calabash Poem"

Calabash Poem” has been making the circuit and has been roundly rejected by many publishers. I think I know why. And it has nothing to do with the “f” word which I assume my readers are sophisticated enough to attribute to the speaker in the poem and not Geoffrey Philp—who does not speak like that. Mrs. Philp’s son is a “righteous man.”

No, I think they are afraid of the poem because it makes pokes fun at the public personae of the big three (not the big tree of “Small Axe’) in Caribbean literature: Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, and VS Naipaul. Anyone who has read this blog knows that I have the utmost respect for Brathwaite, Walcott, and Naipaul. Especially Brathwaite who has been good and kind to me. Even the speaker in the poem states it clearly: “Lawd, God, people don't get mad is only a joke/ Sit down and relax, light a spliff, take a little smoke./ We couldn't have a book or be here today/ These men are our heroes despite what Naipaul has to say.”

The idea popped in my head during a poetry workshop that I did for Calabash and I followed it. This is a very dangerous thing to do with rhyme. The combinations that spring into my head when I use rhyme sometimes lead to places I wouldn’t ordinarily venture, but the line takes me there. Of course, as the maker I have the option to edit. But when you have grown up as I have, censored and self censoring, then the idea of silencing myself, however noble the reasons, is just not appealing anymore. I just have to stand firm and take licks.

So I can understand why a Caribbean magazine publisher would shy away from taking the risk of publishing the poem, for it also satirizes our current preoccupation with awards and prizes, the growing commercialization of writing, and perennial issues in many writers’ lives: sex and depression.

I’m standing by the poem. And if in the future some young whippersnapper should make fun of me, so be it. I couldn’t/wouldn’t stop them anyway. They’d find a way. As I have. For in the end, the poem in accordance with the dominant image was written in a spirit of play.

Calabash Poem

It began so innocently when Kwame, Colin and me was to read,
Smady shout out, "Oonu cyaan write! Oonu mus a smoke weed!”
Then a next one, “Do you know Latin or Greek? I doubt if you can spell."
We was on JBC-TV, so we couldn't say, "Man, fuck off! Go to hell!"
Still, we couldn't take it like that. We had honor; we had to save face.
I said, "We know we’re the best, so meet us on the field, any time, any place!
A week from now, a duel of scrimmage, three man to a side.
To prove the best writers in JA or make it better, world wide!"
For nowadays you can't judge a writer's worth just by the size
Of royalties, sales, NEA fellowships or even the Pulitzer Prize.
Nobody reads anymore, so everything really depends
On your agent or if you're sleeping with your editor's best friend.
Still, not a soul answer the challenge, no one take the bet,
Even when we send it far and wide, all over the Internet.

Ondjatee, Rushdie, and Coetzee say they didn't have the time,
We said, "Make way, boys. You’re history and way past your prime."
Then Caryl Phillips, David Dabydeen, and Austin Clarke came in pads,
Down at Jake's, dressed to play cricket, and they really looked sad
When we said we'd never play that game again, them days were done,
Babylon had fallen with the empire's setting sun.
It was good we never played them; they’d have beaten us for sure,
But everyone know, all's fair in love, writing, and war.
But when people test you and draw a line in the sand,
You have to tip the scales and play your best hand.
America teach us that: don't hang on to the past.
Fairness doesn't count. Nice guys finish last!

So the deadline come and we thought we’d won our very own cup.
We'd won by default, for not a single writer or critic showed up.
We were the best in the world; we was rolling in the grass
But then we looked up; it was Naipaul, Brathwaite, and Walcott to raas.
We started to worry, and we started to fret, but Kwame said we couldn't lose,
“Besides, I'm also a critic, even if they win, we'll have better reviews!"

Kwame told them, "We respect you, but now you're too old to fight
And it really wouldn't be fair, you three elders taught us how to write!"
Brathwaite and Naipaul agreed, they didn't want to do anything rash,
But Walcott wouldn't let it go--you'd think we were playing for cash!

So we changed into our jerseys that Colin supplied us for free,
Random House was sponsoring us from
Waiting in Vain’s royalties.
We wondered who'd sponsor these codgers who were now old and gray,
For we don't' support our own writers and forget it if you’re gay!
But these stalwarts were shrewd and still showed their wort',
Ads for Viagra and Prozac were plastered all over their shirts.

Lawd, God, people don't get mad is only a joke
Sit down and relax, light a spliff, take a little smoke.
We couldn't have a book or be here today,
These men are our heroes despite what Naipaul has to say.
But we had to fight to prove that we too were men,
And we was going to see which was mightier, the ball or the pen?

The game start with Colin marking Naipaul on the right,
Kwame with Brathwaite, and me on defense with Walcott in me sight.
The game dragged on for six hours on the beach; it was a battle of wills,
We played long into the night, but the score was nil-nil.
We outplayed them, but as God is my witness, every time we get a chance,
They would throw in some little comment and throw we off balance.
Colin get a chance to score, but Naipaul say, "You think you’re a warrior?
All your book is shit. Read bout true man in
The Suffrage of Elvira!"
Kwame get the ball, but Brathwaite whisper in him ear,"

is the standard,I never did like your Progeny of Air!"
And as him turn to answer that mawga griot,
Brathwaite thief way the ball. Them was playing we real low.
As for me, me never say nothing, for me can't even pay my rent,
So how me going match up to
Omeros or The Arkansas Testament?

The game dragged on and we was getting tired,
But with Prozac and Viagra these old boys were totally wired.
Then Walcott get a look in him green eye when the Viagra kick in,
Him look like the boy from
Star Apple Kingdom, the mulatto Shabine.
Walcott rise up like a young stallion, fetlocks pawing the ground,
Look like him was going write another
Midsummer or Tieoplo's Hound.
The old men were tiring us out, that was their plan,
We was playing their game, marking them man for man.
A crowd gather around we, and is like we was going faint, but an old dread
Bawl out, "Don't falter now, my yout, either play ball or dead!"

That's when we perk up; I block Walcott, pass Kwame the ball,
Him salad Brathwaite and Colin finally stand up to Naipaul.
Him shake off the old Indo-Aryan, and left him a rage
"That's for
A Bend in the River and The Middle Passage!"
Colin scored the goal and up and down the sideline
Girls started to jump and wine and shake they body line.
“We win, we win,” we shouted under the lights,
The three old men trudge proudly off the field and into the night.

Still, we felt bad and although we did win,
It was like killing our fathers-- it felt like a sin.
But Freud and Bloom say that's how it's always been,
By murdering your father, that's how history begin.


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Anonymous said...

I have some questions, and some statements to make. First the statements. This is a long poem, long in the tradition of Basotho's own Lithothokiso (praise poems), whereby a poet would praise his king, his family, etc, on and on and on. A feat of memory and improvisation. The poet would have a few reminders marked in the palm of the hand, and every so-many-minutes would glance at his palm.

It's a nice story-telling poem. Is the form common in the Carribean? I like the speech patterns, linking Africa and America, through the Reggae Islands.

Does Calabash have any definite meaning as the title of the poem? In Lesotho we drink it. "Pass the calabash" is a common shebeen saying. Traditional calabashes are made from oddly shaped courgette or pumpkin, whose flesh and seeds are emptied.

Kwame (which Kwame is it?) salads Braithwaite. I've never ever played cricket, so obviously I wasn't aware that salading went on there as well. In Lesotho it only refers to football, soccer, and is called "chibobo" (tchee-BEAU-beau). The French call it "un petit pont" (literally, a small bridge).

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear Rethabile,

First, give thanks for the statements and questions.

I used the couplet because it has a long history(the idea came while I was teaching a poetry workshop), especially in English literature (Dryden and the master of the heroic couplet, Alexander Pope) because of its association with satire and wit. The form lends itself to these kinds of observations and that's why it's also used by rappers--Lauren Hill's, "That Thing" and pick anything by 2Pac.

The two primary founders of the Calabash Literary Festival, Kwame Dawes and Colin Channer, had this in mind when they started the festival. The noble calabash has associations all through the Americas and with Africa.

Thanks for the education on "chibobo" (tchee-BEAU-beau)and "un petit pont". If you remember the post I did on meeting Bob, this was why he got so angry with me and wanted to fight.

Again, thank you.


eemanee said...

"By murdering your father, that's how history begin"

doesn't seem so much as if you're poking fun at the 3 Greats but rather paying homage to them and the same time asserting yourself as a writer.

somehow reading "calabash poem" brought to mind Walcott's Prelude:

And my life, too early of course for the profound cigarette,
The turned doorhandle, the knife turning
In the bowels of the hours, must not be made public
Until I have learnt to suffer
In accurate iambics.

they are bound to publish it sooner or later. the poem is boss!

Geoffrey Philp said...

Dear eemanee,
Give thanks for your insight and for putting this in context


Anonymous said...

I love the poem. May I have it? If little guys like me can publish you, that is.
*big grin*

Geoffrey Philp said...

Sure, Rethabile !
Be my guest.


Anonymous said...

This is great. I'm putting issue N°17 together. The Calabash Poem will feature therein.


Geoffrey Philp said...

Give thanks, Rethabile.
Give thanks.