April 30, 2009

Support World Press Freedom Day (3 May)

I became a member of PEN because of their unwavering support of writers and our freedom of speech. For members, this is not merely an idyllic concept. PEN members demonstrated this when they coordinated the release of a young poet, Orlando Wong, from jail. Wong would later change his name to Oku Onoura and the literary history of Jamaica would be changed because along with Mutabaruka, Mikey Smith, Malachi Smith, and Oku, the birth of dub poetry on this side of the Atlantic was given a chance to survive.

PEN International is now calling on all of us to support World Press Freedom Day 2009.

Please support this blog campaign by posting information on your blog or by spreading the word via-email.

For more information, here's the link:
PEN and authors from across Americas condemn violence against journalists in Latin America and call for end to impunity around murders and disappearances in Mexico

To mark World Press Freedom Day 2009, the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN releases the ‘Declaration in Defense of the Freedom to Write in the Americas’, endorsed by over 50 authors throughout the region. The Declaration condemns the persistent attacks on against writers and print journalists in Latin America - particularly Mexico, where in the last five years alone 20 journalists have died and four others disappeared - and calls for an end to the impunity surrounding these cases. PEN urges its members and others to publicize the Declaration and to send as many appeals as possible to the Mexican President now and throughout the year, using the postcard provided.

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April 29, 2009

"An Ode to Waterboarding" by Geoffrey Philp

How would you feel?
If your lungs were on fire, screamed for air,
While you were bound, trapped, as if under water,

By someone who thought your pain wasn’t real,
And doused you as gagged--following his orders?
How would you feel?

Wouldn’t you sell your soul, make a deal
With the Devil because God was deaf to your prayers:
“Please, just stop. Just stop. I’ll say anything, I swear!”
How would you feel?


Edwidge Danticat:Are we nay safer with the use of torture?
New York Times Index on waterboarding
Shepard Smith Uncensored: "We Are America, We Do Not F**king Torture!" (VIDEO)

April 27, 2009

Who’s Your Daddy?:And Other Stories Has Arrived!

Who's Your Daddy?As you can see from the photo, I’m really proud of Who’s Your Daddy?:And Other Stories, my latest collection which will be released by Peepal Tree Press in the next few weeks. Who’s Your Daddy? brings together many of the themes from my first collection, Uncle Obadiah and the Alien, and also pushes my work in some new and exciting directions.

I’m thinking about “Cry to Me” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” where I’m not only signifyin’ on two reggae choons, but I’m exploring the themes of eroticism and domestic violence respectively. Also in “Bobby Bijani and the Rolling Calf” I wanted to see if Jamaican/ Caribbean magical realism could survive in South Florida, and to include another Asian character (as I had done in Uncle Obadiah and the Alien) because the Asian experience is a part of the Caribbean matrix.

Of course, there are the recurrent themes from Uncle Obadiah and the Alien: gender issues, the dilemmas of fatherless boys, and the disruptive effects of the Jamaican Diaspora on family and community life.

Who’s Your Daddy took me ten years to write and some of the stories have appeared in several journals: "Third Time" in Avocado Magazine; "Who's Your Daddy?" in Small Axe - A caribbean platform for criticism; "Beeline and Babylon" in The Caribbean Writer; "Coward Men Keep Sound Bones" in Asili :the Journal; "I Want to Disturb my Neighbor" in Julie Mango Online Journal of Creative Expressions & revised in Iron Balloons: Fiction from Jamaica's Calabash Writer's Workshop, and "Sister Faye and the Dreadlocked Vampire" in OBSIDIAN : Literature in the African Diaspora. Some of the stories even helped me to win an award or two.

In other words, Who’s Your Daddy? presents the “best” work that I’ve written in the past decade, and I’ll be reading from this collection at Calabash 2009 on May 22-24, 2009.

Drop by and see me, nuh?


April 26, 2009

Blog Rally in Support of Roxana Saberi

Blog rally in support of Roxana Saberi, Via John Baker's blog: "Please consider placing a blue ribbon on your blog or website this week in honour of the journalists, bloggers, students, and writers who are imprisoned in Evin Prison, nicknamed “Evin University,” and other prisons around the world, for speaking and writing down their thoughts. Also, please ask others to join our blog rally."

The West Indian Literature Conference: ‘Quiet Revolutions’

Most of the leading critics and several scholars in the field of Caribbean literature will assemble in Guyana this week for an international conference on West Indian literature hosted by the University of Guyana. The activities of this meeting will focus on three themes: a celebration of the centenary of the birth of Edgar Mittelholzer, a programme and academic panels in honour of Wilson Harris, and the main conference theme ‘The Quiet Revolutions in West Indian Literature.’
Another major West Indian writer whose work and theoretical ideas created a few ‘quiet revolutions’ in the literature is another Guyanese, highly celebrated fiction writer and critical theorist Wilson Harris. Harris, rather like Eddie Kamau Brathwaite, has been recognized as one of the most original Caribbean writers. He has influenced such radical departures from the former trends in modern fiction that he has created more than a quiet revolution; his style of narrative and “fictional autobiographies” have swept up such a storm among critics and writers that they have shaken up the complacency of the English novel.

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April 24, 2009

New Book: "Liquid Lunch" by Stephen Bess

One of the familiar tropes of the blues is that the ‘troubles of the world” (loss of a job or lover) can overcome us and the only forms of refuge are the arms of another lover (who will also betray) or in alcohol—the ultimate betrayer and bamboozler.

Yet we, like many of the speakers in Stephen Bess’s Liquid Lunch: Blues-Inspired Poetry, persist in this illusion because of the sweet, if ephemeral pleasures. Stephen Bess captures all of the anguish and the drama in poems such as “One Shot,” "Truth Serum," “My Baby Sue,” and my favorite, “Spoonful of Lovin’":

Please, please little baby

Run away with me

And I’ll show you just how sweet

life could really be

Stephen blogs at Morphological Confetti where you can purchase a copy of Liquid Lunch: Blues-Inspired Poetry.


April 23, 2009

World Book and Copyright Day (2009)

Buy a book (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, you know what I mean--at the top of the page) and share it with a friend!


What Can Penn and Teller Teach Us About Poetry?

Penn and Teller, a staple of the Las Vegas Strip, open their performance with a little act where Penn discusses the seven basic principles of magic:

Palm- To hold an object in an apparently empty hand.

Ditch - To secretly dispose of an unneeded object.

Steal - To secretly obtain a needed object.

Load - To secretly move an object to where it is needed.

Simulation- To give the impression that something that has not happened, has.

Misdirection - To lead attention away from a secret move.

Switch - To secretly exchange one object for another.

As I watched the video, I was thinking about the intersection of poetry and magic and how Kwame Dawes in “New Day” (Thanks, Rethabile!) masterfully deceives us into thinking that his poem is about the inauguration of Barack Obama when throughout the poem he is taking us on a journey through myth, music, history (personal and collective) and balances Lincoln and Obama—with even a little Farrakhan thrown in for good measure.

“New Day” by Kwame Dawes

1. Obama, January 1st, 2009

Already the halo of grey covers his close-cropped head.

Before, we could see the pale glow of his skull, the way

he kept it close, now the grey - he spends little time in bed,

mostly he places things in boxes or color coded trays,

and calculates the price of expectation - the things promised

all eyes now on him: the winning politician’s burden.

On the day he makes his speech he will miss

the barber shop, the quick smoke in the alley, the poem

found in the remainder box, a chance to just shoot

some hoops, and those empty moments to remember

that green rice paddy where he used to sprint, a barefoot

screaming boy, all legs, going home to the pure

truth of an ordinary life, that simple place where, fatherless,

he found comfort in the wisdom of old broken soldiers.

For the rest of the poem, please follow this link: Poem Commemorates Inauguration

Palm: Dawes appears to be speaking about Barack Obama.

Ditch - To secretly dispose of an unneeded object—our personal attitudes towards Obama by humanizing him (discarding his "foreigness") with details that make him appear to be just like one of us: “mostly he places things in boxes or color coded trays.” Or with the discussion of Obama being “colorless.”

Steal - To secretly obtain a needed object—myth. Notice that from the first line, Dawes has already mentioned the “halo.”

Load - To secretly move an object to where it is needed—Obama’s place in American life.

Simulation- To give the impression that racism has disappeared from American life—the “promises” have been fulfilled.

Misdirection - To lead attention away from a secret move—By appearing to speak about music and being “cool,” Dawes personalizes Obama, but reinventing him as a new kind of “black” man.

Switch - To secretly exchange Lincoln for Obama. Again, he has set us up from the first part where he speaks about the “bed.”

Looks simple, doesn’t it?

April 22, 2009

Top Ten Caribbean Theatre Classics

Caribbean TheatreCheryl Williams, an English Literature teacher working with adolescents and the CSEC English Literature syllabus, has asked me to assist her in compiling a Caribbean theatre “list of classics.”

Similar to the “Name Your Top Ten Caribbean Novels,” this survey will be conducted in two rounds.

Round One will run May 4, 2009--May 15, 2009. Readers will be asked to submit the names of 12 plays that they consider to be classics of Caribbean theatre.

Round Two will run May 18, 2009—May 29, 2009. Readers will be asked to vote on the results of Round One.

The “Top Ten Caribbean Theatre Classics” will be announced on June 1, 2009—the start of Caribbean-American Heritage Month.

In order to make this as representative as possible, please spread the word by linking and/or e-mailing this post to your colleagues.




Happy Earth Day

April 20, 2009

Tradition and the Caribbean Writer: Version

Only a good Catholic like Pam Mordecai could have asked such troubling questions about anthologies. And yet, they must be asked. For what is an anthology, if not a method of meaning within a shared experience? In short, a hint at tradition.

But as one of my favorite e-mail interlocutors has stated in response to
recent post, “One of the problems that I have with the concept of 'tradition' and the ensuing expected respect thereof is that it can disable the recognition of and the impulse to respect/ treasure/regard our universe as a big pot of emergent phenomenon, one in which the constant influx of change defines our existence.”

With which I agree, but with a few caveats.

Tradition implies continuity, a passing of knowledge from generation to the next, as it answers these questions: Who are we? Where have we been? Where are we going? Thus, education or the transmission of knowledge is vital to the life and continuity of any culture.

We would never sit a child in front of a piano and say, “Figure it out for yourself. I’ll come back in a few years to see how you’ve been doing.” Instead, we would seek out the best piano player/teacher (two distinct areas of expertise) to educate the protégé about the history of the instrument, the best historical examples of mastery, and perhaps, notable contemporaries. The teacher would provide the student with the essential knowledge, so that even if she did not go on to be a world class pianist, she would be able to appreciate a fine performance when she heard one. And if the student were so inclined and the teacher were able, she would teach the student a few tricks of performance and composition, based on her experience and perhaps passed down from her teacher, so that her student would not have to reinvent piano performance or composition.

And this is where genius comes in. Genius takes a pre-existing form and changes it by building on the older forms or by questioning the a priori assumptions of a tradition. A prodigy absorbs/learns the old forms—sees the patterns at a faster rate than most of us—gets bored with repetition of the old, and creates something with which the rest of us can plod around.

Great composers do this all the time. They try to play the music in their heads that many of their contemporaries don’t hear—she often wonders why they can’t hear it (too much respect for tradition?), but strives ahead to manifest the music. Genius is not afraid of tradition. Their attitude is similar to
Joseph Campbell’s comment about shamans: they regard the gods as co-equals and disrupt heaven to bring back fire so that their brothers and sisters have a better way of consuming meat. The important thing to remember is that the musician usually has had some training with the instrument, so that she is able to hear the possibilities about which the older forms have given suggestions, but could not realize because the appropriate change had not occurred.

Which leads me back to Pam’s questions about anthologies. For an anthology is a textual representation of collective memory, and "
are part of our moral conversation as a society." It says these are the most important voices of the past, the ones who should not be forgotten, and represents the aesthetic zeitgeist of generation. Anthologies also present the “best” work of an artist and her era. They ask and answer: Who are we? Where have we been? Where are we going?

These are questions that every generation should ask, and as Chris Lydon in a recent interview reveals, James Carroll has been asking similar questions about Catholic tradition. In the interview, Carroll suggests that Catholicism has been held hostage by an ecclesiastical class and that the religion, in its present form, is slowly dying because of its inability to change.

A similar trend is happening with Caribbean anthologies. The ecclesiastical class of critics and a few publishers have a virtual stranglehold on the selection of writers in anthologies. And just as the role of the priest is to serve and educate the people about the revealed word, the role of the critic should be to educate students about literature. It is these critics who are teaching our children from primary to tertiary education the answers to the questions about the past, present, and future of Caribbean literature.

But a review of any number of conferences, anthologies, or books of criticism reveals that our ecclesiastical class of critics, like their medieval counterparts who used to argue about angels on the head of a pin, have become more concerned with conflicts over Derrida and Foucault or recycled papers on the “conflation of orality with the picaresque”—or whatever that means. Universities, the modern patrons of the arts, have become crowded with these literary critics who have grown fat with gold rings and critical indulgencies. Meanwhile, writers like Rachel Manley sit at the gates of the temple.

But, perhaps, these critics should not even be the ones deciding what goes into anthologies.

It is perhaps a team of writers who should decide which poets should be included in an anthology. For as
David Orr a of Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell argues that a great poet demonstrates “qualities that make poetry seem interesting and worthwhile to such a degree that subsequent practitioners of the art form have found her work a more useful resource than the work of most if not all of her peers.” Ultimately, it will be the future writers, the practitioners of the art, and not the critics who determine the ultimate “greatness” of a writer.

So why should I worry now? I can almost hear my interlocutor, a lapsed Catholic, ask. To which I would answer, if the goal of an anthology is to preserve the voices of our generation, then our present resources should be used to continue the work of artists and not their handmaidens.

For writers can and do give up because of a lack of support—material and moral. Even two giants of American literature, Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell relied on each other, as Jackson Taylor in another review of Words in Air states:“In spite of, and partly because of this kind of aesthetic elitism, it is touching to comprehend how much they actually depended on one another for a certain confirmation of self, a certain calibration of culture, and a certain appreciation for what the other writes.”

It is always reassuring to think that one’s work will be vindicated in the future, but in the meantime, it remains a nagging thought that such an idea should only be the cold comfort of tyrants.


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April 19, 2009

Accepting Submissions: Vanderbilt University Press.

Issues in Critical Investigation: The African Diaspora (ICI) is pleased to announce our inaugural 2009 competition for the best book manuscript or manuscript of linked essays written by an untenured professor on the general topic of the global African Diaspora and produced in any field of the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

Manuscripts will be read and closely evaluated by senior professors in the relevant fields and the winners announced each spring. In the fall, an annual symposium will be convened at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. when winners and finalists will present seminars on their topics. The winners of the two prizes­ the Anna Julia Cooper Prize in the Humanities and the Ida B. Wells Prize in the Social Sciences­ will each receive $3,000 and the option for a book contract with Vanderbilt University Press.

Possible topics may include, but are not limited to, the following:

African, African-American or African-Canadian studies
Atlantic African slave trade
Black European studies
Black popular culture
Caribbean studies
Cinema and film studies
Latin-American studies
War and peace

All submissions must be emailed to ici@vanderbilt.edu, June 1, with the subject line "Submission." Do NOT send full manuscripts at this time. Please include the following:

-cover letter
-proposal with a prospectus and book outline

Candidates will be notified by July 15 if they are invited to submit a full manuscript. All submissions must be exclusive submissions to ICI for the duration of the contest.

For information contact:

Hortense J. Spillers, executive director
Brenna Hansen, program coordinator
Vanderbilt University
Station B # 351654
2301 Vanderbilt Place
Nashville, TN 37235


April 18, 2009

Lockdown: Leda Serene Films


Frances-Anne Solomon’s new theatrical production looks as if it will be another success!
In July, CaribbeanTales in association with Leda Serene Films will stage the world premiere of award-winning director Frances-Anne Solomon’s new theatrical production Lockdown, brought to audiences for the first time ever at Toronto’s largest theatre festival, The Toronto Fringe Festival (July 1st to 12th). Lockdown’s fictional story traces the fortunes of a group of young people held hostage during a high school lockdown. The high octane script picks apart the violence that threatens to undermine their dreams. The play stars a number of established performers including Jamaican icon Leonie Forbes (What My Mother Told Me, Lord Have Mercy, A Winter Tale), and rising Toronto actor Michael Miller (A Winter Tale, Get Rich or Die Trying) alongside a diverse ensemble of talented young performers selected through citywide auditions held across the GTA last June.

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April 17, 2009

"Manifesto" by Geoffrey Philp

This is why I write.
Because of salt on the lips of the dead,
The bitter grunts of lovers in my head,

A moon blinded by mist, egrets in flight,
Forgotten ancestors by whose words I am fed.
This is why I write.

To awaken drenched by the dew of night
Blooming cereus that releases from my throat the dread
Song in my chest for the journey ahead.
This is why I write.

April 15, 2009

In My Own Words: Donna Aza Weir-Soley (2009)

AzaErotic Caribbean was conceived several years ago on a car-ride to Xunantunich (Lady of the Stone), the ancient Mayan ruin in Belize, close to the border of Guatemala. Opal and I were at a CSA conference in Belize and the discussion turned to the erotic, how there was so little of it in Caribbean poetry and fiction. So after much discussion about how repressed we Anglophone Caribbean folk are in our literature and the irony of that from a people who show so much sexual abandon in our music and other popular cultural forms, we decided that we would edit an erotic anthology of Caribbean writing. It was a very public conception in a car full of other Caribbean women writers.

Now if you have any Caribbean roots, you know that unless you plan on bringing a baby to term, you don’t go around telling people you’re pregnant. So since we had announced it so publicly, we had no choice but to give birth to this vision, though, truth be told, the child was breached for a long time—what with six real-life children between Opal and myself, me trying desperately to finish an academic text at the same time, Caribbean folk too bashful to send us their erotic writings, and others just plain galled that we had defined Caribbean erotic as a synthesis of sexuality and spirituality rather than just good old-fashioned daggering.

But much as we might like to take credit, that definition of the erotic belongs to poet, civil rights warrior, critic, lesbian activist and mother, Audre Lorde. Audre’s definition allowed us to sift the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and to end up with a collection of diverse voices that honors our need to express ourselves as sexual and spiritual beings, without resorting to pornographic representations that often end up devaluing womankind (yes, that was our primary concern, no apologies). We knew we ran the risk of being considered presumptuous for assuming that we had the measure of what would offend or be considered pornographic to others, but it was a risk we were willing to take to achieve that balance between the sexual and the spiritual that we believed would make this collection truly representative of Caribbean eroticism.

It was a long and difficult birthing process. Like all mothers though, we tend to forget the birth pains once the baby is delivered. Thankfully, we are almost there. Erotic Caribbean will be published by Jeremy Poynting at Peepal Tree Press in time for the 2009 Miami Book Fair in November (that is the closest I can come to giving an actual publication date). Jacqueline Bishop, Carole Boyce-Davies, Colin Channer, Edwidge Danticat, Kwame Dawes, Nancy Morejon, Geoffrey Philp, Heather Russell (formerly Heather Andrade), Dorothea Smartt, and other luminaries and emergent writers from the Anglophone, Francophone and Hispanophone Caribbean community at large, have contributed to this project.

We think it will be a good looking baby; either way we plan to spoil and love it and we hope you will indulge us (please buy the book) and say nice things to our faces and especially behind our backs. We are hoping to put a panel together for the Miami Book Fair in November, so please look for us there.


April 10, 2009

"Empty Nest" by Geoffrey Philp

Her little boy had gone away.
So she searched his drawers for the lock of hair
After his first haircut in his grandfather’s chair

How he wailed when she crouched to pray
This would be the worst she’d ever have to bear.
Her little boy had gone away.

She had steeled herself for this day
But never imagined how her palms would sear
While brushing his face, the burn of his tears.
Her little boy had gone away.


I’ll be taking a break over the Easter holidays. Be back on Wednesday,
April 15, 2009.

April 8, 2009

Job Opportunity: Editor, The Caribbean Writer

The Caribbean Writer

Editor, The Caribbean Writer / Professor of English

The University of the Virgin Islands is seeking to fill the position of Editor for The Caribbean Writer. This is a joint appointment with faculty rank in English and the position will be based on the St. Croix campus.

The successful candidate will teach six (6) credit hours in creative writing and perform other regular faculty duties, including advisement and committee assignments. An MFA in Creative Writing is required, with a minimum of two years of university teaching experience; a Ph.D. is preferred.

Submit a cover letter, vita, transcripts, and three letters of recommendation to Dr. George Lord, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences (glord@uvi.edu), University of the Virgin Islands, #2 John Brewer’s Bay, St. Thomas, VI 00802-9990. Review of applications will begin on April 20, 2009 and continue until the position is filled.


What I Learned From Adversity

AdversityAdversity and being a writer, especially one from the Caribbean, are synonymous. And yet we continue despite the odds that financial or other types of "success" are stacked against us. Why? Perhaps its faith, stubbornness, madness, or the urge to give back to the universe beauty that has touched our lives. Who knows? But to devote one's life to a vocation that has few, if any rewards, other than the knowledge of having created a poem, short story, or novel, and then, to have it ripped apart or ignored? Who would want to do that?

It turns out that many of us do, and it may be as I wrote on John Baker's blog, "We write because of the pleasure. We write when no one is looking. We write even when the world is sleeping. To mangle Gertrude Stein’s aphorism: A writer is a writer is a writer." But that may not be altogether true. For as a person who believes in individual agency as well as the concept of Interbeing, I view writing as a means not only of personal, but also of collective liberation.

And the truth is that I like writing. It is a kind of meditation that helps to clarify my ideas and if it is done well can assist in demonstrating the emotional or intellectual consequences of an action. In fact, one of the roles that an artist plays in a healthy culture is to demonstrate through her fictions the suffering that characters encounter as a result of their actions. Not that people will stop making mistakes. There's too much fun in the drama. Besides, if they did, preachers, poets and politicians would be all out of business.

For life and art are built on conflict and adversity and these must be faced individually and collectively. And yes, "adversity often shows up in the forms of well, a person. Or three." And until we learn the lesson or if we forget, then the adversity and adversary will continue to show up in our lives until we become Buddhas.

The lesson I've been learning over and over has been never to doubt abilities and in particular, my intuition. And I won't say that I've fully overcome this kind of adversity because it's been a part of my personal and cultural matrix.

Many of formative experiences occurred at Jamaica College, and as a member of the Caribbean Boomer Generation in postcolonial Jamaica, I came of age during the birth of Reggae under the government of Michael Manley. As one of the oldest schools in the Caribbean, Jamaica College, like many schools in the region, was caught flatfooted after the island gained independence.

Many of the teachers, masters as they were called, had not thought through the implications of independence in education. For independence is not merely the lowering of one flag and raising another. It is supposed to bring about a change of entire systems and assumptions--the way that the American Revolution led to an American form of democracy or even Webster's dictionary: the realization that there was a distinctive American character and worldview. Instead, the masters at Jamaica College continued the same system of education that had been designed to keep the brightest minds in "mental slavery" and to hold the population under the domination of the British Empire.

One of the most efficient ways that the British devised was to introduce the noxious seed of doubt into the culture of the colonized. In other words, without firing a single shot--have those whom you fear doubt their own talents. This became part of the unspoken curriculum at Jamaica College and the masters, many of whom were Jamaica College Old Boys, continued this pattern in the name of "tradition."

But what is a tradition and whom does it serve? These were questions that were never asked. And if one dared to ask, it would have resulted in a box over the ears or a caning from a master. I know this. I spent most of my first form year in the principal's garden waiting for the caning master after being kicked out of my English class.

So, how does a writer or an artist grow under these conditions? Half a continent away, James Joyce's solution was "silence, exile, and cunning." It's the kind of answer that only an Irish Anancy could give. For Anancy represents that archetypal figure of the imagination that transgresses boundaries and his counterpart in Ashanti culture, Eshu, or in Haitian Voudoun ceremonies, Papa Legba, is always invoked at the start of any ceremony. It could be said that Anancy is the patron saint of writers and rebels.

For this reason, Anancy was feared on both sides on the "racial divide" in slave societies. Anancy represented rebellion against conformity and rebellion meant death. With the history of rebels under colonialism, no mother would have wanted her son or daughter to be a rebel and many in his/her family and some of the elders would have feared for his/her life. And some out of fear many rebels may have beaten or cowed into submission to save his/her life. In the name of love.

Flash forward to the seventies when I and a group of students are slowly matriculating through Jamaica College. And although I am part of the "A" stream of students, I am always reminded by the masters that there are students who are much brighter than me. And given the habit of invoking tradition from both the British and whatever vestiges of West African culture that remained in Jamaica, coupled with my fundamentalist Christian upbringing what this created in my mind was a denial of my intuitive faculties in favor of the intellectual and critical acumen of my elders. This sometimes led me to doubt my abilities. For without feedback, how do you know if your work is any good, or if you're not just plain delusional? It also led to a fear of arousing the displeasure of the masters. You could go to hell or worse.

And the masters and the prefects were quite willing to use verbal or physical abuse to herd us into the group of "the weary and those uncertain of themselves." They were not interested in the growth of the human spirit, but rather with keeping people "in their place"--whatever that meant.

Other than finding publishers for my work, this is the kind of adversity that I've had to face many times in my writing career. I’ll only list two occasions.
After the publication of my first book, Exodus and Other Poems, a certain critic in the Daily Gleaner, "Andrew Hope" pretty much decided that I was illiterate--this despite the fact that Exodus was judged the best manuscript that was submitted to the editors of The Caribbean Writer. Mr. Hope took aim at a line in one of the poems to which he devoted a column inch to criticizing my ignorance of the difference between "lie" and "lay": " the cars lay sweating/ bumper to bumper" my allusion to Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour": "I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down, /they lay together, hull to hull." I guess Robert Lowell and I were illiterate.

A similar incident also happened with the publication of my first collection of short stories, Uncle Obadiah and the Alien. A.L McLeod not only lambasted the book in World Literature Today, (even though one of the stories, "My Brother's Keeper," was eventually included in the Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories), but also published a small book devoted to demolishing my book. Naively, I expected at least one critic to defend the book as I had done when William Logan unfairly criticized Derek Walcott's The Bounty. No one did. Without any critical response, I feared that McLeod may have been right and I stopped writing. I shut down.

But then, with a little help from my friends, I began to write again--only to be met by critical silence. Yet I continued, for I was determined never to be shut down by a lack of response.

Then last week I was tested again. I don't want to rehash the controversy, but all I can say is that the event had the opposite effect on me. I responded without malice to criticism that was designed "to remind me of my place." But this may have less to do with courage and more to do with age.

When I turned fifty, I promised myself that would leave certain habits and behaviors on the other side of 50. At 50, I feel that I have paid my dues. In fact, one of the reasons I continue to blog is the wish to pass on some of what I've learned to other writers so that it won't take turning 50 to give up self-defeating behaviors.

Yet I hope I am not misinterpreted. I do believe in the poetic tradition and apprenticeship. They are part of the process of learning. As Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi and his researchers have concluded, it takes about ten years of immersion in a field before one can make a meaningful change in a discipline. And that growth is aided by constructive criticism of the work and not ad hominem attacks on the person.

So I won't say that I'm 100% free of the immobilizing doubt, that fear that I am not as good as my masters' opinions of me, but after last week and with the response of so many friends, I know I am a lot closer.

This is part of a series on "What I Learned from Facing Adversity" @ Middle Zone Musings.


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April 7, 2009

Interview With Poefrika: Geoffrey Philp

Geoffrey Philp
Rethabile Masilo interviewed me for his blog, Poefrika--one of the more pleasurable experiences I've had in the past two weeks.

To read the rest of the interview, please follow this link: Poefrika!

Give thanks, Rethabile!
4. How long did you work on your first book? Do all your books take about the same time to "finish"?
My first book took me about ten years to write. Then, I began to write steadily. Hurricane Center took me one year to write because I purposely set out to write a poem a week. Made my wife crazy, but I did it. That was the only time I worked on a themed book. The other books have grown by accretion. I write and write and then at the end of five years or so, I figure out what I've been thinking about for the five years, the general themes, and try to arrange them into a manuscript. At least, that's how my latest collection DUB WISE came into being. I've been meditating on Reggae, my thirty years of writing, and what I've learned from being a part of the Boomer "Reggae" Generation.

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April 6, 2009

In My Own Words: Martin Mordecai

Martin MordecaiBorn in Jamaica, Martin Mordecai has had many lives, including journalist, diplomat, civil servant, and publisher. His current incarnation is that of aspiring writer. He aspires in Toronto, having gone there in the mid-1990s with his family to live; they are now Canadian citizens. He is the author, with Pamela Mordecai, his wife, of Culture and Customs of Jamaica (2000), a reference work. His first novel, Blue Mountain Trouble, published by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., has just been published. A historical novel and a book of short stories are unfolding. He has ceased aspiring to be a professional photographer, but continues to enjoy making pictures (and occasionally being paid for them).

Blue Mountain Trouble began life, under another name, as a bedtime story to an eight-year-old boy who is now in his thirty-fifth year to heaven. I began the story with twins — which I figured gave me greater narrative options than a single hero — and a magical mystery goat, because my mother kept goats when I was an infant and I’ve always loved them. My son fell asleep fairly quickly, probably from boredom, but I scarcely noticed: I had become intrigued by these people and this creature who had sprung, quite literally, out of my mouth. (The next night, when I asked him if he wanted me to continue the story my son said, No, it was okay, I could read him a book.)

I wrote down what I’d made up, to give the words permanence, and went from there. Once, fairly soon after its hesitant birth and with the glamorous prospect of publication (i.e. money) from the agent for a British publisher who was touring the Caribbean looking for children’s book ideas (and which had already published work by Pam, my partner), I sketched out a plot — important elements of which still survive.

Over several years I intermittently added to the tale, bits and pieces, scenes that would come to me at odd moments. I’d give it a week’s early mornings of concentrated work, and then ignore it for a year or more.

When we came to Canada in the mid-nineties, we did many different things, as immigrants often have to. Ours all had to do with books and, in my case, photography. One learned eventually that Canadian governments at all levels (federal, provincial, municipal) have an extensive system of funding for artists and their work. But it is suitably rigorous: in most cases, literary submissions are assessed blind by a jury of your peers. At an appropriate time (i.e. when we needed the money) I dusted off some pages and submitted them with a hope and a prayer. God smiled.

A grant is three things: money, always needed; affirmation, always a good thing; and (to my mind at least, as a taxpayer) a contract to produce. So I set to work more methodically, to fulfill my obligation.

And God smiled again. Pam and another wonderful Caribbean writer, Nalo Hopkinson, had begun a mutual support scheme whereby at the end of every day they e-mailed to each other a word count for work done that day, and work done on the project to that point. Eventually the group widened to include three other writers whom Nalo knew: Hiromi Goto, Jennifer Stevenson, and Larissa Lai. Pam asked if I could join; some time later, David Findlay, Nalo’s partner, came on board as well. The purpose of the group, spread out across the continent from Toronto to Vancouver with points in Illinois and Calgary, was mutual support and encouragement. Every day we’d post our word counts. Sometimes we’d post excerpts, a couple hundred words or less. No comment was required, though people often read excerpts, and if you were having a problem with a passage, or an idea, suggestions were sought and willingly given.

It’s a new take on the old idea of a writing group, and I’d recommend an e-group to every writer who has motivational problems (and which writer doesn’t) or lives in physical or social isolation from other writers. All but one member of the initial group (she took a break to do a PhD!) now has a book that was part of the process.

But at the subconscious level, so to speak, Blue Mountain Trouble wrote itself. Apart from the twins, and the goat, and the ‘baddie’ growing something forbidden, which have been constants from the start, everything else came of following the characters and my own whimsy. At the same time, the novel is not a fond recollection of my childhood. Rather it is the construct of an ageing middle class city man exploring the lives of a peasant society in a remote rural location, and trying to get into the heads of two 11-year-old members of that community.

Of the two children Pollyread sprung, pretty much fully formed, from the beginning. Possibly because I had a model right in front of me, a daughter with a sharp mind and tongue. Pollyread led me through the story – at first, anyway. When I realized that she was hogging the narrative and the best lines, I focused more consciously on Jackson. There again I could draw, less consciously, on clay near to hand: our eldest, who is gifted with many skills, including, pertinently, mathematics and gardening. As Jackson and I went through the drafts together (five in all before the serious editing began), he became more embodied with each go-round. He is now, though not perhaps as ‘brilliant’, more than a match for his sister, and equally a player in the dramas of their lives.

To the extent that there are conscious themes in the book, I can think of only two, which also were there, embedded, from the time the story began to take shape. One is the importance of books — in everyone’s lives but especially in the lives of children. “’Book is like bird.’ Mama was always telling the twins. ‘You can go anywhere in the world in them, and them will take you anywhere you want to go.’” The twins, even Jackson, who wants to be a farmer, understand that. The second theme is the existence of the magical (the goat) in the everyday, and that ‘duppy’ don’t have to be frightening or evil.

For the rest, Blue Mountain Trouble is just something for which I give much thanks and praises. It wasn’t all my doing.


April 5, 2009

"A Kind of Surrender" by Geoffrey Philp

tongues of the ocean has published a poem of mine, "A Kind of Surrender"--an excerpt from DUB WISE.

You’re currently reading “A Kind of Surrender,” an entry on tongues of the ocean.

is the author of the children’s book, Grandpa Sydney’s Anancy Stories, and he maintains a blog @ http://geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com. His next book, Who’s Your Daddy?: And Other Stories will be published in May 2009.

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April 3, 2009

Five Questions With Garry Steckles

Garry StecklesGarry Steckles is a widely traveled journalist whose career as an editor has taken him from his native England to Canada, the Caribbean, the United States and the Middle East and who has been writing about Caribbean culture since the early Seventies.

Steckles' stories, features and columns have appeared in dozens of major newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Sunday Times of London, Billboard, LA Times, Toronto Star, Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Province, Caribbean Beat (the inflight magazine of Caribbean Airlines), The Beat (the LA-based reggae and world beat magazine), the official magazine of Reggae Sunsplash, Maco Caribbean Living, St. Kitts and Nevis Visitor, the in-house magazines of the Sandals and Marriott hotel chains, Chicago Sun-Times and Jamaica Sunday Gleaner. He was founding editor of Caribbean Week, a Barbados-based bi-weekly that covered and was circulated around the entire Caribbean. He has hosted Caribbean radio programs in Montreal and St. Kitts, and promoted many reggae concerts in Montreal.

Bob Marley: A Life, is his first book. It is published worldwide as part of the Caribbean Lives series by Macmillan Caribbean (ISBN: 9781405081436; website www.macmillan-caribbean.com) except in North America, where it is published under licence by Interlink Publishing (ISBN 9781566567336; website www.interlinkbooks.com)

1. Why another book about Bob Marley?

It's the question I've been asked most often since Bob Marley: A Life was published last year, and it's perfectly valid. There have indeed been a lot of books written about Bob since he left us, at least in the physical sense, all those years ago, and many of them have been excellent.

So I usually answer that question with another question: Why not?

If the world has been ready for hundreds of books on people like Stalin, Hitler, Bush (George W, who I sincerely believe belongs in this evil company) and other world figures who have been responsible for so much human misery and destruction, surely there's nothing wrong with "another" book about a man who did nothing but make people all over the world happy - and whose message of peace and love will endure for as long as there are people on the planet (which, the way we're heading, may not be all that long ... but I digress).

The other point I always make, which I think is just as important, is that Bob Marley: A Life is the flagship book of an ambitious series being launched by Macmillan, the giant UK publishers, on important Caribbean lives. The 20-odd names in the pipeline include the great Trinidadian cricketer and rights activist Sir Learie Constantine (already published, to critical acclaim), Marcus Garvey, Louise "Miss Lou" Bennett, Fidel Castro, Jimmy Cliff, the Mighty Sparrow, Sir Garry Sobers, Derek Walcott, Toussaint L'Ouverture, George William Gordon and Claude McKay. I can only imagine the uproar in the reggae world if Bob Marley, without a doubt THE most important, the most influential, the most famous person ever to emerge from the Caribbean, had not been included in the series.

So when James Ferguson, the Caribbean Lives series editor, called me at home in St. Kitts to tell me about the upcoming project and ask if I'd be interested in taking on the Marley book, it was an offer I simply couldn't refuse. And didn't. I certainly wasn't about to write a bio of Bob on my own initiative and hope some publisher, somewhere, would pick it up; but when one of the world's biggest publishers puts an opportunity like that the way of a journalist who's spent more than three decades writing about Caribbean music, there really isn't much you can say except "I'd love to. How many words do you want and when do you need the manuscript?"

2. Why did Macmillan choose you to tackle the Marley book?

The simple answer is that James Ferguson, among many other things, is also the literary editor of Caribbean Beat, the excellent in-flight magazine of Caribbean Airlines (formerly BWIA International). I've been writing about music and culture for the magazine since the mid-to-late Nineties, and, inevitably, Bob has featured regularly in my Riddem'n'Rhyme column .... sometimes to the point where the magazine's editors have had to beg me not to mention him for a few issues. James had read my column, liked it, and my commission from Macmillan stemmed from that.

And I'd like to think I was pretty well qualified to take on the project. I've been writing about Caribbean music since the early Seventies, mainly in big-city newspapers in North America and magazines in the Caribbean, and have also been heavily involved as a concert promoter (including shows by Peter Tosh, Toots and the Maytals, Ken Boothe, Leroy Sibbles, Carlene Davis and Ernie Smith). I've hosted Caribbean radio programs on mainstream radio in Montreal and St. Kitts, and, over the decades, I've seen just about every roots reggae great perform and met and/or interviewed almost all of them. I've played soccer with Burning Spear (at his Marcus Garvey Youth Club in St. Anne, where Spear and a bunch of teenagers ran me off my feet), burned one down at Jimmy Cliff's house in New Kingston, downed a few cold ones with the late Alton Ellis at a show in Montreal, where we happily chatted about rock steady and the delights of English pubs, accompanied Ras Michael and the late Jacob Miller to an incredible concert for the prisoners in Spanish Town Jail, hung out backstage with the late Joseph Hill, toured with and cooked for Peter Tosh, Sly, Robbie and the rest of the Word, Sound and Power band, drove Carlene Davis to the Ranny Williams Centre in Kingston the year she became the first female performer to get a solo spot on a Reggae Sunsplash lineup (that was 1980, the year of the 'missing' Sunsplash; I've read in several places it didn't happen, because of the pre-election violence gripping Kingston - trust me it did), hung out with Tommy Cowan and the guys at his Talent Corp yard around the corner from the Pegasus in Kingston in the days when IC Oxford Road was THE hangout of choice for the roots reggae young lions of the Seventies, hung out with Bob & Co at 56 Hope Road in the week leading up to the Peace Concert in 1978, fired back a few with Sparrow, Duke, Crazy and other calypso greats backstage at shows in Montreal, felt my heart moving in my chest in time with the bass pounding out of the gigantic speakers at sessions in the late Jack Ruby's yard in Ocho Rios, and spent way more time than I should have at innumerable JA shows in smoky community halls and church basements in Montreal and Toronto.

3. Did you have any initial doubts about writing a biography about Bob?

I felt quite comfortable tackling the Marley book. But I also knew it would be a huge challenge. How, I wondered, could I bring something new to the table? I wasn't about to discover a Marley tour no one had heard about. Or a "missing" album. Or, come to think of it, any event of massive significance that previous biographers might somehow have overlooked. So, perhaps inspired by Bob himself, I decided the best thing to do was keep it simple, and try to write a book that accurately covered the most important and significant events of Bob's short but remarkable life and also full of anecdotes that would appeal both to Marley vets and also to people who may have discovered his music comparatively recently and might be interested in knowing more about him.

Equally important, I wanted to use Bob as an example of how it's possible to become rich and famous without losing sight of your roots. One of the things - one of the many things - that I have always admired Bob for was the fact that he didn't change, and that one of the first things he did when he started to make serious money was to give it away - much of it to poor people from Kingston's ghetto areas, who used to line up at 56 Hope Road and tell Bob what they needed money for. And, almost inevitably, they'd get what they needed. There was no fancy mansion, no bling, none of the grotesque excesses that modern generations of so-called superstars have inflicted on their fans.

The other major decision I made was to keep myself out of the narrative. Much of what I write about happened when I was at the scene, and I have to confess it was tempting to start writing "I" this and "I" that. I even started the book with a chapter in which I crept into the story ... and then realized, with more than a little help from my wife Wendy, whose encouragement and support made the whole project doable, that readers really don't care a hoot about me - and why should they, they want to read about Bob Marley? Any lingering doubts I might have had about the wisdom of that decision disappeared when I checked out another book about Bob, one that was published while I was about half-way through writing my own.

For obvious reasons, I'd rather not be specific about the title of the book or its author; suffice it to say that the first paragraph (a long paragraph, admittedly) contained the word "I" 16 or 18 times. I discovered that the author had been born in Jamaica but moved to the US as a youngster and couldn't speak with a Jamaican accent. I was told how he was so well-connected he'd managed to land a rare interview with Bob's mother, Cedella. I learned that he'd actually been to Trench Town, and that he clearly considered himself a pretty cool sort of guy .... and I found out zilch about Nesta Robert Marley. I couldn't stomach too much more, but it was a valuable lesson, and I managed to write my bio without a single "I". I'm perhaps inordinately proud that I described perhaps Bob's most famous stage appearance, at the One Love Concert for Peace at Jamaica's National Stadium in April of 1978, without mentioning that not only had I been there, but that I'd seen the show from the first notes to the last from perhaps the best seats in the house, front row, centre, with the then Jamaican PM Michael Manley and his entourage sitting in the row behind me.

4. Were there any personalities in particular that stood out in the writing of the book?

The book also gave me an opportunity to write about one of the most remarkable people I've ever met, the New York-based Liverpool-raised PR genius Charles Comer, whose huge contributions to Bob Marley's success story have seldom, if ever, been fully documented or appreciated. I first crossed paths with Charles when I was writing reggae stories for the Toronto Star in the mid-Seventies. I would often call Island Records in New York for background info, and I was always put through to Charles, who had been hired by Island to deal exclusively with Bob. Inevitably, we realized right away we were both from the north of England - Charles from the western port city of Liverpool, myself from the north-eastern ship-building and coal-mining town of Newcastle-upon-Tyne ... of carrying coals to Newcastle fame. We became friendly over the phone, and finally met in person in Jamaica, when Charles was working feverishly to convince journalists that the Peace Concert was really a Bob Marley spectacle, with a few other reggae performers thrown in to keep the crowd interested until star time. Bob, I suspect, would have been horrified. Within a few years, Charles was to become one of my dearest friends, and, over the years, I had virtually unlimited access to his clients - among them Bob, Peter Tosh, and also mainstream blues and rock musician like Stevie Ray Vaughan and the legendary Irish group The Chieftains.

5. What else can you tell me about Charles Comer?

He was, in just about every way, a unique character. On the surface, he was about as unlikely a publicist as you could imagine for Rasta musicians. He was wise enough not to make the slightest attempt to meet them on their turf - and he made it clear, from the moment he took them on as clients, that they'd do things his way or it was no deal. Even Peter Tosh, a proud man who took no nonsense from anyone, was intimidated by him.

I vividly recall one incident, backstage between two shows at a big nightspot in Boston, when a reporter approached Peter and asked if he could spare him a few minutes. "You'll have to speak to Charlie Comer first," replied Peter. "I don't talk to any press without his okay." A year or so later, I was on the road with Peter and the band in Canada, and Charles had organized an early-morning interview for Tosh with the CBC. I was given the job of driving the two of them to the CBC studios in Toronto, and we had to be there at the unearthly hour - for a musician - of 9:30 in the morning. We knocked on Peter's hotel room door around nine, and it was opened by a half-dressed, half-awake Tosh with the first (at least I think it was the first) spliff of the day in his hand and barely lit. Charles was furious. "Put that spliff out, Peter Tosh," he commanded. "And get yourself dressed. We have to be at the CBC in less than half an hour." I waited for Peter to explode. He didn't. "Yes Charlie, I'll be right with you," he said, putting out the spliff - after a couple of semi-defiant tokes - and jumping into his clothes in double time.

The thing with Charles of course, was that, like Bob before him, Peter knew that his career had taken off since Comer became his main PR man. And he knew it wasn't a coincidence. Charles, who had also worked with the Rolling Stones for many years, was instrumental in arranging Mick Jagger's surprise appearance with Peter on Saturday Night Live in December of 1978, where they sang, "You've Gotta Walk and Don't Look Back," the duet they'd recorded and which became the biggest single of Peter's career.

As for Peter himself, I have to say that despite his reputation for having a short fuse I always found him perfectly easy to get along with. This has been the case with just about every reggae performer I’ve encountered since I started to get closely involved with the music all those years ago. I feel privileged to have been welcomed into their world, and, through my efforts in writing about it, to have been able to contribute in a small way to spreading reggae's message.