October 11, 2006

In My Own Words: Mervyn Taylor

For someone who started out with ambitions of writing fiction, I've remained loyal to poetry for a long time. I think I began looking at verse as a serious enterprise during my undergraduate days at Howard University. I had left Trinidad in 1964 and landed here in those hectic days when the “Black Power” slogan had begun to rage in American cities. It was my fortune to have the great folk poet Sterling Brown (Southern Road) as one of my teachers. In the same year Professor John Lovell taught an intense course on the poetry of Walt Whitman. For a young man who loved the English language, but only knew it as sternly taught at St. Mary’s, this was a double dose: poetry as instrument for political change and as celebration of ordinary life. Many years later, the tutelage of two poets from very different parts of the globe, Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky, would crystallize this schema into actual lines.

Meanwhile, as is the nature of poetry, it began to take a shape of its own, influenced by day-to-day experiences in America, my interaction with natives and with other “foreigners.” In New York through various workshops, I came into personal contact with such writers as Amiri Baraka, and the African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, both of whom had some influence on my own work: Baraka’s for the pure nerve and music of it; Willie’s (since no one could pronounce his name) for the absolute freedom to sing in any language. Out of such meetings, grew my membership in a group called Bud Jones Poets, which boasted among members the late, incredible Fatisha and Wesley Brown, he of the wry wit and unshakeable commitment to the just cause. My own reading led me to the experimental fields of the Beats, through the remarkable retreats of Auden and Roethke and the clear-eyed imagery of Bishop and Olds.

All through this, I listened for my own voice. I wrote many poems, some good, some bad, many mediocre, reaching for an expression that would include a true idiom, its own “native tongue,” as Brathwaite would say, one that would go past the easy slang, the nostalgic geography of the place in the mind. I walked backward to be present at the death of those whose lives I’d missed. I put on the costume and took part in the Carnival, witnessing how hard it is to write with a bear claw, or half drunk in the town. I saw the fraud emerge at times and let him cry on my shoulder. I cried on her shoulder when love tapped me, and showed me her poem, the possibility of it, shining, outdone.

From it I’ve managed to winnow three books, An Island of His Own, The Goat, Gone Away, and a CD, Road Clear, done in collaboration with bassist David Williams. In them are poems that go back and forth between the big city and the island, that note the human condition and effort in war and in peace time, that seek to find the part of the bell that resounds most sincerely, that move toward the kind of forgiveness that asks only, in the words of my father, that we try “not to let it happen again.”

Mervyn Taylor was born in Trinidad. He is the author of three books of poetry: An Island of His Own (1992), The Goat (1999), and Gone Away (2006), and a CD, Road Clear (2004), done in collaboration with bassist David Williams. About the poems in his latest collection Debbie Jacob wrote in her column in the Trinidad Guardian, "Lost in the cold and unable to return home to the tropics, the West Indians of Taylor's poems reach as far as they can: Florida." Mervyn Taylor lives in Brooklyn, New York.


Stephen A. Bess said...

He's come across some pretty amazing writers in his road to success. He's another that I can add to my list of readings. How are you today brother Geoffrey?

Geoffrey Philp said...

Yes, and I've been reading his book, Gone Away, which has some amazing vignettes of people and places in Trinidad and New York.
I'm looking forward to meeting him.

Today, I am stressed but irie. Payroll and credit card reconciliation at work. Took a little time for pleasure.