November 16, 2007

Reading @ St. Thomas University

St. Thomas UniversityCelia Alvarez and her creative writing students @ St. Thomas University, Miami

The Wackenhut guards at the gate almost had me convinced that the reading at St. Thomas University on Wednesday, November 1, 2007, was going to be a disaster. It had been raining, the streets were slick, and I thought I was going to late. So when the guards began their interrogation by asking for my driver's license, and wrote down my license plate numbers, I could feel every second streaming by on the face of my digital watch. But when Celia Alvarez called the guards, they quickly returned my license, gave me a visitor's pass, and directed me to the parking lot. I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe. Just maybe things weren't going to be so bad after all.

I was right. Celia met me at the fountain and we went straight to her class where I met her husband, Rafael, and her students.

After the usual introductions, I talked briefly with the students. Over the years, I've changed the nature of my readings. Instead of just reading from my work, I've preferred to engage in a conversation with the students because discussions are often more productive. The students and I explore ideas that would not necessarily arise if I just gave a straight reading /lecture. And besides, where's the fun in just reading?

After we talked a little, I read "My Jamaican Touch," which eased some of the apprehensions in the room. I mean, who was this strange man with a strange accent and what did he know about writing? We talked a little more.

As would be expected of any creative writing class that concentrated on poetry, we began our discussion about writing by examining the formal aspects of verse. I gave them examples of sonnets, villanelles and sestinas from Florida Bound, hurricane center, and xango music, and I read "Calabash Poem," one of my experiments with couplets.

Rafael, who has used my short story, "My Brother's Keeper," which was published in The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories, then asked a very interesting question about the state of Caribbean literature and the lack of critical feedback on writers who were born in the late fifties and sixties. This led to another discussion about the nature of criticism and literature, and I expressed my indebtedness to the work of Kwame Dawes in Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic.

Before this very important work was published, I had been writing for a very long time and making certain aesthetic choices without a conscious reason about why I made the decisions. I only know they felt right.

After I read Natural Mysticism, everything changed. Not only was I guided by my intuition, but I now had a critical apparatus to guide my editing. I began to understand and see the connections between my work and songs by Bob Marley such as "Is this Love?" In this seemingly simple lyric, Marley combines the erotic, socio-economic/political and the spiritual in a powerful triplet:

We'll be together with a roof right over our heads

We'll share the shelter of my single bed

We'll share the same room, Jah provide the bread

Without this understanding of my own work and Marley's, which Dawes provided, I would have continued to rely on intuition alone. Which is all right. But you have to grow up some time. And how did Natural Mysticism help me to grow up?

I reminded the class that Carl Jung once said that the unconscious is truly unconscious, and that writers who draw images from what they see around them and make associations are often not aware of the implications during the creative stage. They just create. It is only when they are trying to create a coherent whole with a novel, short story or poetry collection, that a pattern emerges and they can see why they made certain choices. Natural Mysticism helped me with those choices. Of course, not every work will fall under the category of the reggae aesthetic. But the central impulse to create what John Gardner calls a "vivid and continuous dream" that combines the spiritual, erotic, and socio-economic in a Jamaican/Caribbean context while drawing on the vast resources of Euro-English, American, and Caribbean literature is what has guided my work.

Give thanks to Celia, Rafael and the creative writing class at St. Thomas for engaging me in a thoughtful discussion of my work and that of my contemporaries. I had a great time and still don't have answers to some of the questions you asked. I also realized that as I stepped out into the Miami sun and humidity that I may never have an answer. But with those guards at the gate, at least I feel safe.


For more photos of the reading, please follow this link: St. Thomas

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