Leila Sackur interviews John Robert Lee (ed) Saint Lucian Writers and Writing


Leila Sackur interviews for BookBlast John Robert Lee editor of Saint Lucian Writers and Writing, an indispensable author index of poetry, prose and drama.

John Robert Lee, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am Saint Lucian, lived there for most of my life, been involved with the arts, literature and media from the late 1960’s, from about nineteen. I attended the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, Barbados from 1969, finished off my degree at Mona, Jamaica in the early 1980’s, began work with the library service in St. Lucia in 1979 after working as a teacher, cultural officer and radio announcer and producer. Literature, theatre, literary journalism, media (print and electronic), libraries and teaching have been my main interests and occupations. I am a practising Christian and Bible teacher and preacher with my local Baptist church.
My mother encouraged me to read and memorize poetry, my father bought me books; I read the usual Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, William and Jennings books, Enid Blyton, fairy tales and many of the classics. Comics of course. I had an early exposure to newspapers, principally the Trinidad Guardian which my father got daily. My father and mother were readers and encouraged reading. A year or so before I went to university, I took A-level classes in Literature and became introduced to the moderns – Eliot, D H Lawrence, Philip Larkin et al – read many anthologies and these have had a lifelong impact and influence.

Did you start writing at a young age?
I started creative writing age about nineteen, after I had left secondary school, St. Mary’s College in Saint Lucia. I had always done well at English language and literature and languages (French, Latin.) When I went off to University and studied English and French Literature, including Caribbean Literature, I got more fully into creative writing – poetry and short stories, especially as I was exposed to Caribbean and other literature and began to meet and befriend writers, theatre persons and artists. Many of them were senior Caribbean writers and artists. I was also very involved in theatre as actor, director and drama teacher. In Saint Lucia I led my own theatre company in the mid-1970’s, “The New Day Theatre Workshop.”

Tell us about how you kickstarted your career as a poet, editor, journalist and teacher.
I think much of this, overall, started when I left school and made friends with McDonald Dixon, Saint Lucian poet, playwright, artist, Roderick Walcott, playwright and director, Patricia Ismond, literary critic and Walcott scholar and a Barbadian writer resident in Saint Lucia, name of Stanley Reid.

Reid edited for many years our first major literary magazine, Link, in which I initially published poetry. They sparked off my deeper interest in the arts and Caribbean literature.  At the same time, Saint Lucia and the Caribbean were coming under the influence of Black Power in the US, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and our radical Caribbean movements of democratic socialism, led by people like Walter Rodney. The work of Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott and Martin Carter was coming to the attention of my generation; new music of Bob Marley and reggae, soca, cadence-lypso, zouk was rising, Rastafari was growing in influence, our nation languages were coming centre-stage and it was a time in which many of the islands were becoming independent, it was a post-colonial time, waves of political and social consciousness were sweeping our shores. Writers, artists, musicians, painters, dancers and theatre people were at the forefront of all this throughout the Caribbean. So it was fertile ground for someone like myself who was discovering his talents as a writer, theatre person, also interested in print and electronic media. So those various literary interests found root there in that milieu.

What are you most proud of writing as a poet?
Difficult question. I do have some favourite compilations like something called Canticles (2007), my Collected Poems, 1975-2015 (Peepal Tree, 2017); a cycle of ekphrastic poems responding to, and accompanying the art of Saint Lucian Shallon Fadlien called Song & Symphony. I have edited anthologies like Sent Lisi (2014) and Roseau Valley (2003) which collected Saint Lucian and Caribbean poetry and art, also an anthology of reviews of St. Lucian Literature and Theatre and Bibliographies of Saint Lucian literature. These personal and collective works are among favourites. Many of my self-published works carry my photographs as illustrations and are published under my imprint Mahanaim Publishing. I give a lot of attention to the design and production of these Saint Lucian-produced works. The whole book or chapbook is a work of art. I also use as cover art the work of Saint Lucian artists where I don’t use my photography. I work very closely with my graphic designers.

Should all poetry be political?
In the broadest sense of the word “political,” to do with the “polis”, people – all poetry, all literature and art, is “political.” The intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual life of people, private and collective, as we interact together across social yards, is a “political” matter. If a writer chooses to write about the more obvious “political” matters of ideology, party-positions, causes etc, why not? I do not believe that poets and artists have any obligation to be “political” or “politically correct” in the narrower, ideological sense.

Do you write more for yourself, or for your audience?
I start off by writing for myself. About my life in my parish of the world. Not self-consciously, gazing at my navel, egocentrically or self-indulgently, which I eschew. But how can I write about some experience I am not part of, except in some imaginative way and even then, I would be imposing my own perceptions on the situation? After I have written to satisfy my vision, intuitions, point of view, then you can say I write for whoever will read what I write. Whoever that audience is. I would like to think I am writing for those who share the general culture out of which I write, but the Caribbean reading audience is small, and there is not much circulation of even the best-known writers.

Ultimately all good writing speaks to the wider world, across cultures. So, in a sense, I write for the world, of which I am a citizen. I suppose we can also say we write for the future into which our books go. I like literary history and the stories of writers and how their contemporaries and future generations respond to their work is fascinating.

What is your dream book project (or have you already done it)?
Curating a book on Saint Lucian art. I had begun something but it did not get too far. Another dream book would be an anthology of Caribbean religious poetry. I have a manuscript of ekphrastic poetry (poems responding to art) I would like to publish. Compiling and editing are a great complement to one’s work.

What are you working on at the moment?
Finishing off a new book of poetry for Peepal Tree Press in Leeds titled Pierrot, to be published in February 2020, reading some books for review, and considering editing and compiling bibliographic work on the valuable Patricia Ismond Special Collection at the UWI Open Campus, Saint Lucia. Saint Lucian Patricia Ismond who died in 2006 was a major Walcott scholar. Her book Abandoning dead metaphors (UWI Press, 2001) remains one of the important studies of Walcott’s work as it looks at the Caribbean phase of his writing.

How did compiling the author index of published works of poetry, prose and drama Saint Lucian Writers and Writing come about?
I had compiled a similar bibliography in 2013 and the idea came to review and update it. I don’t remember how I came to bring it to the attention of Polly Pattullo of Papillote Press, but when I did she responded immediately with enthusiasm. It was a pleasure to work with Polly and her editorial skills. Papillote Press is doing important publishing work returning major authors like Phyllis Shand Allfrey and Elma Napier to us.

Bibliographies are an important part of building a literary tradition and in many ways I consider myself a literary archivist. Over the years I have kept digital archives of Saint Lucian Literature and Theatre, consisting of photographs of writers, book covers, theatre handbills etc. Kendel Hippolyte and I compiled an Anthology of Reviews of Saint Lucian Literature and Theatre in 2006 and many of my saved articles and photos went into that 364 page book.

How well did you know the late Derek Walcott, did you ever collaborate in any way?
I was fortunate to know Derek very well, spent much time with him as did many of our home-based writers and theatre persons. He invited us to meet his friends like Seamus Heaney, Arthur Miller and Jamaica Kincaid, and I was able to interview many of them for local television. He was a generous man, set high standards for himself and others. Over the years we would have collaborated on drama productions, planned events and visits of his friends, including the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, and things like that.

Your views about the importance of the work of Derek Walcott, and his legacy?
Derek Walcott is one of the most important of twentieth and twenty-first century writers and thinkers. His writings on the Caribbean – poetry, plays, essays, reviews – its history, social life and politics, remain seminal. He brought the Caribbean into the consciousness of the writing and reading world. He is one of the finest poets in the broad spectrum of world literature. His criticism of Caribbean and other writers remains essential reading in the broad international literary canon. His legacy is substantial and reaches beyond his Caribbean.

What is your favourite Derek Walcott poem, and why? 
Hard question. I suppose the long autobiographical poem Another Life (1972) which speaks of a Saint Lucia of a gone era, and Derek’s growth as an artist, has a special place for me. Over the years, his later works like The Prodigal (2004) and White Egrets (2010) with their very mature poetry, in themes, styles, explorations of form, large world-view, a real freedom of voice, have become text books for me as I grow as a writer, learning from the master. Omeros (1990) is rightly regarded as his major poetic achievement.

You describe self-publishing chapbooks at home. In the introduction to Saint Lucian Writers and Writing, Antonia MacDonald talks about how Derek Walcott self-published his chapbooks as a teenager. What do you think has changed about self-publishing, especially with the rise of e-commerce sites such as Amazon?
Self-publishing for us in the Caribbean has been the means of creating and developing our literature and literary traditions. This is true throughout our pan-Caribbean region. Of course quality and talent have been a mixed bag, but good writers and writing have emerged. Much local self-publishing still goes on, but today more people are using on-demand publishing sites like Author House, XLibris and Amazon etc. Quality, measures of talent still remain mixed, but these new outlets are welcome.

We still need more reviewing by capable reviewers and critics to help sort out quality of work, growth of the traditions, development of voices and styles. I wonder if with easy access to e-commerce sites things have not become more disparate and we have less sense of who is writing now, especially if many of the works are e-books. So promotion with trustworthy reviewing are needed. Hence then why bibliographies are so important.

Related to this is the widespread use of social media facilities like blogs, author pages, web-sites and hopefully, judicious use of platforms like Facebook and Instagram where many writers post/publish their work and their comments on writers and writing. Certainly the communities are greatly extended and available to all interested persons in the international cyberspace. Bibliographers’ nightmare?!

You include poems written by students – such as the “Reading and Writing Poetry class of 1993-1994” at Sir Arthur Lewis Community College – could you talk more about why you chose to include students, and the use of poetry in the student movement? 
I was including all published work and those had been published so should be included. While I had listed many unpublished manuscripts in the 2013 Bibliography, I stayed with only published work in the Papillote book. For drama, since not many plays are published, I included unpublished plays with dates of production, a form of publishing.

Poetry, especially “spoken-word poetry” or “performance poetry,” is very popular with students and young persons. Any publication of their verse should be indexed and promoted. Quality and talent will always emerge to the top.

The Saint Lucian Writers and Writing index communicates the scale and scope of Saint Lucian writing. How long did it take you to curate, and what drew you to these specific texts?
I built on earlier bibliographic work, but must have spent about six months on this new compilation once I had decided to do it. It was a comprehensive bibliography, not a selection. I located the texts in libraries, bookshops and through on-line searches. Even as I was going to press new books were appearing! The Index commemorated the fortieth anniversary of Saint Lucia’s Independence and provided a view of Saint Lucia’s literature, across genres, pre-and post-Independence. The Index also commemorated the seventieth anniversary of the University of the West Indies (UWI).

In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi wa Thiong’o argues for a rejection of colonial languages. In your poem For Kamau Brathwaite at 85 I found the lines “From islands’ scorned syllables/ your horn lifted new nations’ tongues” particularly interesting. How has Kamau Brathwaite’s use of nation language impacted your work?
To counter Ngugi (who I heard and met recently at Carifesta in Trinidad,) George Lamming has said that English is a Caribbean language. So I would not support wholesale rejection of “colonial languages.” What we do already is write in our version of those inherited languages. Former colonials have long subverted and remade those colonial languages. Which brings us to Kamau.

All the writers of my generation who came to our early maturity in the 1970’s, were influenced by the seminal and revolutionary work of Kamau Brathwaite in his poetry. His work with “nation language” has been replicated everywhere. He gave us confidence in our “heart-languages.” In my own Saint Lucia where we speak both our version of English and a French-based Kwéyòl (Creole), Kamau’s work has impacted writing in both languages. I write mainly in standard English, but a close look at my poetry will discover rhythms, inflections, accents, images that derive from my Saint Lucian and Caribbean English and my native Kwéyòl. Kamau Brathwaite taught me there. Musicians like the calypsonians, reggae and zouk singers also encouraged us to use our “nation language” in our literature.

I listen to singers like the late Shadow and think that is what we Caribbean writers aim at in terms of authentic Caribbean voice. Someone like Earl Lovelace in the novel is also a great influence where literary use of our languages is concerned and has captured our voice in his books. Maybe this kind of rejection and re-making is what Ngugi had in mind.

You include Kendel Hippolyte’s anthology of performance poetry so much poetry in we people (1990). Do you think that the medium of performance is better able to communicate ideas of testimony and the Self than the written word?
All poetry well presented, well read or recited, carries an element of “performance.” In long discussions with Kendel, I have preferred the term “presentation” to “performance.” I have also come to prefer the term “Spoken Word” to “Performance Poetry.” When I listen to much “performance poetry” my question is, to myself or friends, “where is the poetry?.” Much of what passes for “performance poetry” is more rant and histrionics than serious, well-thought out, well- formed, poetry. If someone wants to do what I call “rant” they should not call it poetry. “Poetry” becomes a cover for all kinds of “performance.” So the danger is that the distinctive form of poetry, versus prose or drama, is diluted and in danger of being lost and forgotten.

The obvious parallel is with music, at the ancient roots of poetry. If music is not carefully, thoughtfully composed and arranged, then instruments and singers are just making discordant noise. Even improvisational jazz has form and order. Poetry in all its permutations and combinations is a distinctive form and literary genre.

Kei Miller, writing in his essays Writing Down the Vision (Peepal Tree, 2013), says something I agree with: “I suppose I think poetry at its best is always a kind of music. I tell my students to ask of every poem they write — where is the surprise and where is the music? These two things are integral for me.” (Page 113). I totally support this wholeheartedly. My feelings exactly!!

Now certainly, a dramatic presentation of poetry can more easily hold an audience’s attention, and can communicate ideas of testimony, more readily than the written book which few seem to read today. I think many more ways of presenting poetry should be used, like audio and video recordings, on podcast and YouTube etc. But the “performance” should not undermine or destroy the words on the page as written by the poet. While there is room for interpretation, the presenter should not make something incorrect with the poet’s work. I do believe that workshops in presenting poetry (or prose) can be very helpful. The danger in “performance poetry” is that it can provide opportunity for egotistic self-indulgence, and the poetry, if it is well wrought, can be lost.

I am all for trying different ways of presentation (I use music, video and still projection of images), but we ought not to lose the distinctiveness of poetic form, with all the discipline of crafting involved. This now opens up another huge discussion on the poetry being written today by people like Dionne Brand, Claudia Rankine, Ilya Kaminsky, Danez Smith, Vahni Capildeo, Kei Miller and other talented contemporary writers and the adventurous things they are doing. They seem to be exploring “trans-genre” forms across and inclusive of, prose and poetry. And doing it very well and successfully if you look at the major prizes they are garnering. But that’s another conversation.

How do you think the work of Caribbean poets in diaspora compares to the work of those at home?
I think we have good Caribbean poets at home and in the diaspora. We ought to find ways to bring the work of writers everywhere, at home and abroad, to each others’ attention. I would like to see more exchanges between us, more opportunities to meet and hear each other. Writers in larger metropolises have more advantages in terms of prizes, awards, publishing opportunities, certain appreciation, audience, etc than those at home. But we have quality writers at home who are producing good work without the varied opportunities. Thankfully we have publishing houses today like Peepal Tree Press, Papillote, Carcanet, Shearsman Books, Akashic who are seeking and finding home-based talent, who go on to win prizes and attention. I think that the gaps between home-based and diasporic accomplishments have been closing.

Your current bedside reading?
Kei Miller’s In nearby bushes, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk,  Judy Raymond’s biography of dancer Beryl McBurnie, Kendel Hippolyte’s Wordplanting, Kathleen Raine’s The Inner journey of the poet, David Jones’ In Parenthesis, Charles Gore’s The Incarnation of the Son of God (1891). Lol. No, really, and others. I read for learning, study, teaching and review. The pleasure is in the reading. And the reading feeds my writing in all kinds of ways. So ultimately my work, absorbing all these reading connections, helps make the Caribbean literary voice a familiar one with many resonances audible across our land and sea borders.

Thank you for doing this interview!
You are welcome. Thank you!

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