Linda M. Deane discusses identity and hybridity, jazz, and the magnitude of Caribbean writing and poetry with George Wallace
Linda M. Deane is a British-born writer living and working in Barbados. She'd much rather be writing poems and listening to jazz than doing pretty much anything else. Linda is co-editor, with Robert Edison Sandiford, of Shouts from the Outfield: The ArtsEtc Cricket Anthology. Find her poem "But Soulful (A Premonition)" in the latest great weather for MEDIA anthology The Understanding between Foxes and Light.
GW: You are described as a British/Barbadian writer. You were born in England, did a Comparative American Studies program at the University of Warwick before living and working in Barbados as a newspaper journalist, editor, and independent publisher. Can you fill in the details of that outline? In particular your experience of, and current engagement with, British society and culture?
LMD: There was a bit more yo-yo-ing involved. I was born in England to Barbadian parents who left the Caribbean in the 1950's in search of better opportunities in what was deemed "the mother country." My father joined the Royal Air Force and we ended up living in a number of different countries as a result, although most of my secondary school education (from age twelve to seventeen) was in England.
We came to Barbados on holiday one Christmas when I was eighteen and I just didn't go back! Started training and working as a journalist at a Barbadian newspaper—a whole other education in itself—only to return to England five years later. I continued working as a journalist, strayed horribly into local government PR for a couple of years before going to study at Warwick (which included a year in the US at the University of South Carolina), before finally returning to Barbados in the early 1990's. I've been here ever since. Very deliberately. That whole restless yo-yoing thing gets exhausting after a while. This is where I chose to have my children. And it is in this time that I said goodbye to newspaper journalism and regular pay checks and chose the hairy path of the writer-editor-independent publisher instead.
I smile wryly that you ask about my experience of and current engagement with British society and culture. My experience of England is similar to that of many UK blacks who were born there and who more or less accept Britain as home in that I've experienced the racism and the obstacles and struggles they have. But at the same time I've always felt a little on the outside of it, removed from it, even as I was in it, being affected by those obstacles or as a journalist reporting on it. I think one reason is because I've had alternatives: we lived different places, like I say, my parents took us (my sister and me) back home to Barbados while we were growing up, taught us about the Caribbean, and I continued to travel and experience life elsewhere. I'm thankful I was presented with alternatives (escape?) but at the same time I realize I am estranged from a large part of British cultural life, especially black British arts and culture, in particular the writing.
I try to keep up in a broad manner through the BBC (I am addicted to BBC radio via the internet!) but that is limited and limiting. Increasingly now I find myself reaching out to what’s going on through visiting writers, through formal and informal exchange, and through the literature itself. British poets like Dorothea Smartt and Sheree Mack who have Caribbean roots are a conduit for me and I've had chance to work with both of them.
Caryl Phillips, who is St. Kitts-born, is a respected British writer of renown. I've been following his work since the 1980's and recently finished reading his essay collection, A New World Order. He is very much concerned with cultural identities, borders, crossing spaces, and ideas of home and exile. And he is sharp! His writing, both the fiction and non-fiction, keep me up to speed as it were and I am able to use what he is doing as a barometer for themes and directions in my own work.
GW: You worked as a journalist and creative writer in Barbados for many years. Could you discuss the relationship between the different craftsmanship and perspective required to be a journalist and a poet? How has that relationship played out in your own work?
LMD: Again, you make me smile. My close friend and publishing colleague Robert Edison Sandiford (himself a returnee child of Barbadians who left for Canada in the 1960's) often exclaims how I'm able to switch just like that between the creative writing and the journalistic/PR style we sometimes require for the business end of what we do. I've realized it never leaves you. I enjoyed being a reporter; worked on news for a short while then features before eventually becoming an arts and cultural writer and editor. I've also written on social issues.
I've been told I'm nosy and can ask the right questions. I observe plenty and love to people-watch and nature-watch. All of this made for some great feature writing (though as a news reporter I was told by many an editor to tone it down!) As a poet, I go for unusual details and descriptions. I take notes, books and books of notes, always jotting down ideas, snippets of juicy overheard conversations or things I notice. And I'm still always asking questions if only indirectly. Robert, who is a fiction author, and others have noted that there is a narrative quality to my poetry (and a narrative thread to the collection itself). I was unaware of this, and unsure if it was what I was even aiming for. Then last year, at Barbados' inaugural Bim Literary Festival, St. Lucia's celebrated Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, conducted a poetry master class that I had the great fortune to attend. After he got through basically lambasting poets (in extremely colorful language) and telling us to come off our high horses, he told us that each poem we write should be able to work as a story and that if our poems could not make good stories then we should just forget it. He was scary and carried us along real scruffy but what Walcott says makes a sense and I can see now, looking back, that my creative writing skills have informed my journalistic writing over the years and vice versa, and that I am a storyteller.
We are all basically telling stories whether we are journalists, poets, novelists, songwriters, historians, etc. And we should be aiming to be the best storytellers.
GW: For at least a decade you've been an organizer and advocate for the arts in Barbados, through ArtsEtc and other means. That includes annual production of an anthology associated with Barbados' National Cultural Foundation's Literary Arts Competition for about six years, including the Winning Words anthology for the National Cultural Foundation; involvement in the Green Readings series; and for many years, production of a literary/cultural guide to Barbados. Tell us about the poetry scene in Barbados. Is there a performance scene, and if so what are the happening venues? Who are some of the contemporary poets we should know about? How has the writing scene in Barbados grown/changed/evolved since you've been involved in it? What's buzzing these days in the poetry world in Barbados? What’s your understanding of the role of the artist as an agent of the arts—i.e, acting as a supporter/sustainer of the arts community while pursuing your own aesthetics?
LMD: It feels like there is a lot going on in Barbados right now. It is very cyclic. Every couple of years or so, you get this convergence of energies and ideas and things seem to HAPPEN! But if I truly study it, there is always something going on in Barbados with regards to poetry and performance. Sometimes it’s quieter than other times but there have always been movements. In the late 1990's, the performance/spoken word scene was vibrant with very active and productive groups like the VOICES: Barbados Writers Collective which used to meet at the Museum of all places and who produced an anthology. Also, poets and jazz musicians were collaborating on stage at the Waterfront Café, a popular city venue.
The Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Award was also established around this time, with Bds $17,000 (approx. US $8,500) in total prize money funded by the Central Bank of Barbados. This gave writers something real to aim towards and was part of a vibrancy that has more or less been sustained. Add to that the continued outreach of the National Cultural Foundation's Literary Arts desk with its annual calendar of readings, workshops, shows, and competitions and you have a picture of what goes on.
Other groups have sprung up since including those where the focus is more stage and spoken word rather than page crafting. Iron Sharpen Iron and the LXP (League of Extraordinary Poets) have spawned a number of exciting spoken word artists and freestylers like Adrian Green, DJ Simmons and the free-styler Keoma Mallett aka the Rhy Minister, who I think gives some of the spoken-worders a real run for their money. A vegan/vegetarian café called the Good Life on Barbados' south coast and another similar venue on the West coast called Jago's are current hot spots for spoken word and music. I belong to a group called Writers Ink Barbados. Members of that group tend to be more established and/or award-winning writers more concerned with the page and crafting.
Writers Ink stages readings, has produced an anthology and is also responsible for staging the Bim Literary Festival and Book Fair, the next one of which is May 15-18, 2014. ArtsEtc now, well, we do Green Readings, which provides a platform each year for poets, other writers and artists where the theme is all things environmental. Some of the contemporary Barbados poets you should know about are collected in the Green Readings anthology: Mark McWatt—a much respected Guyanese-born writer and teacher but we have claimed him! He is a winner of the Commonwealth Writers prize and the Premio Casa de las Americas, a prestigious Latin American literary award. Esther Phillips, who founded Writers Ink and whose brainchild is the Bim LitFest. Anthony Kellman who is also a novelist and lectures in English Literature at the University in Augusta, Georgia; Dana Gilkes, Margaret Gill, and Philip Nanton are others. Mark Jason Welch who is currently studying film at Howard University is another award-winning poet to watch.
Winston Farrell, who is also a playwright and theater director is a wonderful link between genres and generations; between stage and page craft. He was heavily involved in what we call dub poetry of the 1970's and 1980's. Dub poetry is a kind of rhythm poetry that uses indigenous rhythms. I think a lot of the younger spoken word artists could look to what he does to help balance out what they in turn are doing. He himself is a link to older poets like our celebrated people's laureate Kamau Brathwaite and other exponents of "nation language" and rhythm like Bruce St. John who was a master of what we call "Bumbatuk."
Many of our contemporary poets whether they realize it or not can thread their inspirations and influences back to Farrell and through him to Kamau and St. John. In terms of other exciting poets to watch I would say Kerry Belgrave and Carlyon Blackman (both Frank Collymore award-winners) are doing arresting things with language.
I've found in the twenty years I've been involved that there is a natural divide and snobbery between the two camps, stage and page. It is something ArtsEtc deliberately tries to bridge in its work and I feel personally invested in this since I myself straddle the two camps, or attempt to at least! In some of our events and publications we reach out to page poets and stage poets, encourage dialogue and exchange and for the two sides to share performance space whether its on the printed page or on the Green Readings stage. I think we can only learn from each other, especially since it’s generational, with older poets tending to be in the page camp and younger poets on the stage—or "off page" as we put it!
But what we have experienced in the last couple of years is the emergence of some exceedingly promising youngsters, in their teens who are very much focused on the literary craft. We try to snap them up early before we lose them fully to the spoken word crews! I think writers are also beginning to share their work outside Barbados more than they used to. Before, they would not venture so much beyond national competitions and opportunities for publishing (and there are not that many to begin with) but now with the presence of so many more online journals and publications, I get a sense that more of us are submitting work and entering contests farther afield.
I certainly encourage younger writers who are thinking of publishing to do this first—it's a good way to test drive your material, to sort out which is the strongest, before putting it in a collection and dashing it on Smashwords or Amazon.
Role of writers/poets? I have what I think is slightly old fashioned view—that we are the safeguarders of a society. If you want to gauge any society, look to its poets. I know there are plenty who would challenge that but I'm a romantic and I feel that all word people, not just the poets but other literary artists and artists in general should challenge themselves not only to be guardians and mirrors, but questioners and challengers—agents of awareness and for change. I feel a duty to use my artistic tools to reflect the ordinary and the not-so-ordinary that’s all around us in ways that are extraordinary yet relatable to by the ordinary person.
GW: This year’s African-American Literary Festival at the Queens Library in New York City had as its theme Afro-Caribbean Poets and Writers. School us a little on some of the more meaningful ways, in your view, that the poetry worlds of the United States and the Caribbean, more specifically Barbados, have intersected or informed each other. What has been the trajectory of that relationship? Where do you see it heading? Who are a few key Caribbean writers who, from a Barbadian context, are particularly important for North American poets to know about -- historically, and in contemporary writing? What genre? What particular voices or genres from North American writing have been influential to writing in Barbados?
LMD: First I have to say that my responses here are completely those of a writer finding her way, and learning as she goes, in a small part of the English-speaking Caribbean only. French, Spanish and Dutch-speaking Caribbean territories, and newer Caribbean communities—another saga entirely! Earlier, I mentioned Kittitian-British author Caryl Phillips' A New World Order. It’s a fine collection in which he did a kind of cultural audit of the world as we entered the 21st Century. The book is divided into four hemispheres as it were: North America, Africa, The Caribbean, and Britain, and the chapters in each section deal with a literary or artistic influence that has shaped him personally as a writer or as a thinker or citizen. I found the essays gripping especially since I discovered his path or trajectory towards becoming a writer was pretty similar to my own in that all that existed for him for a long time was black American literature: Baldwin, Ellison, Wright. It filled a gap and satisfied and answered many questions but not all and eventually he had to seek elsewhere for his full story, a search that led him to Caribbean and African literature and then to a career in writing for himself.
For me, growing up in England and under similar constraints of a Eurocentric education and looking to break free, it was those writers, too. Add in Zora Neale Hurston. Toni Morrison. Alice Walker. Maya Angelou, J. California Cooper, a little Nikki Giovanni on the side, and a whole lotta Langston Hughes. (I realize I don’t make so much distinction between the poets and the prose writers—they were all essentially delivering home truths to me and in language that was lyrical and powerful no matter what genre they were writing in, leading me then to search for my own black British and Caribbean equivalents.)
And I think my path and Caryl Phillips’ path of discovery is similar to that of a lot of younger, contemporary Caribbean writers and writers of Caribbean descent. I also think the period of the mid 1960's and early 1970's that saw huge civil rights upheaval and change in the United States was reflected throughout the Caribbean and in parts of Africa in bids for Independence from Britain and an end to colonialism.
The same expressions you would have seen in North American arts and music of the period, you can sense a similar echo in works across the Caribbean in the poetry, the literature, the art and musical developments. There is evidence of a unity of movement and expression. In terms of important Caribbean writers that American poets should know, I would say Barbados' Kamau Brathwaite, and novelists George Lamming and Austin Clarke most definitely. Clarke lives in Toronto and wrote the brilliantly titled Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack among many books.
Kamau, an exponent of "Nation Language" and visual experimentation upon the page—well, he's a cultural icon! As a professor at New York University, he used to bring groups of students with him back to Barbados to literally "walk and talk" his poetry. Lamming's evocative essays meanwhile are required reading for anyone wanting to get a feel for Caribbean history and society.
Jamaica's Olive Senior, Guyana's Martin Carter, Derek Walcott of course, Haiti's Edwidge Danticat, and Trinidad's Edgar Mittelholzer and V.S. Naipaul—all required reading, although Nobel laureate Naipaul is extremely controversial. He's hypercritical of the Caribbean and India (he's of Indo-Trinidadian heritage), so cringingly racial and curmudgeonly at times, he's like the literary equivalent of a street brawl or a traffic accident. You know you should close the book and put it aside, return it to the library or whatever in complete horror, indignation, outrage, etc., but the language is so beautiful and his skill as a narrator so keen that you keep reading and then reach for the next book of his!
Martin Carter died in 1997, but his poems to me remain searingly alive and haunting. He was imprisoned in the 1950's for the outspokenness of his works against Guyana's colonial powers of the day. Walcott is very much in the guise of Shakespeare's Caliban claiming and transforming the language of the colonizer to reinterpret history and recreate myth especially as it relates to his own Caribbean experience. This ownership and weapon-like use of the language thrust upon us is a returning point both in terms of theme and style for a number of Caribbean writers.
Rather than name specific North American writers who have informed Caribbean or Barbadian poets, I'm thinking instead we have been influenced more by the scope, the vastness of North American storytelling. I read Alistair MacLeod's No Great Mischief about ten years ago (in about the length of time it took to fly home from a festival in Ontario, be stranded at Piarco Airport in Trinidad for half a day before arriving home in Barbados.) I was impressed by the "smallness", the parochial nature of the tale which was told microscopically yet telescoped big; ornate yet told simply; self-confident and proud and self-aware but totally un-self-conscious.
I am currently submerged in a stack of Barbadian novels as research for an essay I am writing and I am constantly on the lookout for that sense of vastness in the storytelling no matter how "small" the story; for that self-confidence. I also think many Caribbean writers have been guided by an urgent, deep-seated desire and need to produce against the tide of European and Western influence; against our post/colonial upbringing and educations; to create our own voices and music and mythologies. Rather than write of snow and fall and daffodils, to write of breadfruit and mangoes and carnival, and surviving slavery, and the meeting and mixing of old worlds in the new world of the Caribbean, looking back to Africa (or not)—and then to write beyond all of that.
I am seeing confidence in the new breed of short-fiction writers; a confidence that we, too, can take risks and tell our stories. These younger writers are acknowledging energies and movements from elsewhere, the influences of newer rhythms such as rap and the slam poetry of North America, looking farther afield but also within to produce an exciting newness—that hybridity again.
GW: Along with ArtsEtc co-editor Robert Edison Sandiford you co-edited an anthology Shouts from the Outfield, exploring the Barbadian passion for cricket in poetry and in essays examining the socio-political importance of the sport. Aside from the popular appeal of an anthology like this, what can North American readers—who generally know very little about cricket—learn from the collection?
LMD: The really cool, or maybe not so cool, thing about this collection is that it was put together by two cricket know-nothings. So I will step very carefully when suggesting what North American readers might learn from it! I was born with a love of cricket flowing, literally, through my veins but I cannot explain the game to you. It's a spiritual connection to the sport rather than any actual knowledge of it. Rob, growing up in Montreal, was strictly into what I call ice hockey and what he simply calls hockey. In 2005 or so we were trying to remember the title of something someone had written about cricket and where we could get our hands on it, and lamented that there was no single, handy cricket anthology in Barbados—a place, and part of a region where, for decades cricket was king, especially from the 1940's to 1980's.
We had a light bulb moment (I think we were in the Waterfront Café at the time) and said—“leh we do it!” Because we are NOT cricket experts we called on people we felt were. They were mainly from Barbados but also Trinidad, Jamaica, Grenada, Canada and India, and all of them published or recognized as writers in addition to being cricket-savvy. They contributed short stories, novel excerpts, essays and personal memoir covering topics such as addiction to cricket, cricket as theatre, and how the game can be viewed as a microcosm of any Caribbean society of the time (i.e., it was played along strict racial and class lines, used as a symbol of defiance against the colonizer who introduced the game to us in the first place, it represented a route up out of poverty and disadvantage for some cricketers, and it was a source of regional pride and unity.)
There are also pieces on key players and key historical matches. One of the writers, who fell out of love with the game while still at school, also provides a somewhat jaundiced idiot's guide. It has very complicated rules. We like to think the book has appeal to anyone in a country where cricket is spoken: the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Australia, New Zealand—basically most places the British empire took root, and in England itself.
Anyone in North America who might be interested in how baseball, for instance, mirrored or foreshadowed civil rights advancement, and who might be interested in how other quirky team sports have reflected societal change elsewhere, or who is interested in literary call and response to a sport, would find something to relate to in Shouts. There are pockets of West Indian communities in across parts of North America, and a few places where I understand the sport is being taught and played—we’d love the book to reach those audiences. Our book is on the cricket studies book list at the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus here in Barbados. And it does well at tourist outlets. Visitors fascinated by the West Indies' glorious cricketing past seem to love it.
GW: In 2006 you won a Prime Minister's Award and the Frank Collymore Hall Literary Endowment, a rare "double win," in part because your work "best captured a sense of Barbados and Barbadians." Your poem "But Soulful (A Premonition)" in our anthology The Understanding between Foxes and Light has distinctive qualities which are consistent with that comment, and yet is reflective of a deeply personal vision/recollection. To what extent is capturing the sense of Barbados a goal of your creative work? Is the socio-cultural context something you deliberately attempt to interweave into the other contexts of your poetry? How's that working?
LMD: It was never something I consciously set out to do. I know I wanted to make sense of a new environment that in many ways is still quite exotic and surprising to me. The collection that won the award is called Cutting Road Blues: A Narrative after the street I live on. It’s in an area caught in the transition between traditional, old-fashioned village life and social development. Lots of colorful characters on the street, noisy, nosy neighbors, young men with loud cars, an occasional police presence but at the same time hard-working folk just going quietly about their daily lives and still looking out for each other in that old-fashioned caring, way of the past. People who still knock on your door and bring you a bag of mangoes or avocados from their tree or ask if they can have some of your limes or a breadfruit.
I am totally captivated by this way of being—so different from what I grew up experiencing in England where you largely kept yourself to yourself! That kind of busy environment can make it difficult to find quiet in which to write but its also where I get much of my inspiration. I wanted to capture some of that color and rhythm in my writing in so far as much to create context and motivation for the main character in the collection. This character is surrounded by the blues (who may or may not be living entities) and is also the subject of the "But Soulful (A Premonition)" poem. That character is dealing with personal loss, attempting to come to terms with her new and shifting landscapes, remembering past landscapes.
Much of what's in the collection and what I've written since is environmental in that it records or comments on the changing physical and social landscape in Barbados but I'm also attempting—after years of avoidance—to write more about England and other landscapes be they real, shifting, psychological, imagined. I mentioned Caryl Phillips' work; his concern with cultural identity, borders, spaces, home and exile, interests me greatly. In terms of my own writing, I've been playing with the idea of an extended, multi-layered homelessness, of being caught between multiple worlds and belonging fully to none of them. I am particularly excited to explore this as it relates specifically to the experiences of that generation of blacks who have chosen to return to the Caribbean rather than stay in their European or North American birthplace. These are the children of those West Indian emigrants of the 1940's and '50s (who themselves were already in exile.)
There are quite a few of us; the return has brought its own unique challenges and some of us are beginning to write about it. I realize that what we are producing will naturally be different from what our contemporaries in Britain are doing, different also from what our counterparts in the States and Canada (where it can be easier to reach out to) are doing. Hybridity is such a handy term. I am very much aware that what I am attempting and what other British-Barbadian writers here are doing is very much a hybrid in that we are writing about largely unexplored, new, cross-over territory, but also with regard to the language we’re employing, and maybe even having to invent, in order to describe that experience.
Me, I am quite proud and excited to be a hybrid.
GW: You have said that you like to experiment with different literary forms and are inspired by art across the boundaries but "Poetry & jazz are my favourite ways of being." In what ways are you exploring or have you explored the relationship between poetry and jazz?
LMD: I'd have to say I explore very cautiously! I listen to all kinds of music but am seriously drawn to jazz and its history and mythology, the giants of the form. If ever I get my hands on a Tardis I am landing it in 1940's and 1950's New York or Chicago, right in a jazz club where any of my heroes might be playing—Ella, Dizzy, Bird, Miles, Coltrane. As artists they have all influenced me and I have tried to write about that magic very directly and what it means to me. More indirectly, jazz has inspired me to be freer in my writing (whether poetry or essays), to be more experimental in form and language and ideas, and to take risks. This is whether I'm writing directly about jazz, or using rhythms and the feeling to write about something completely or seemingly unrelated. (The Cutting Road Blues collection employs a mix of Caribbean-inflected, blues and jazz-inspired rhythms and forms.)
Generally, though, I am cautious. There's a line from a Woody Allen movie that stays with me, where one character tells another that writing about jazz is like dancing about architecture. (I live with an architect and I know how he is about what he does so it makes me step even more gingerly when attempting to write jazz-inspired stuff!) Basically, it's the idea that jazz is its own truth: How do you explain, comment on, improve, or even just celebrate a thought that has come out of Miles' horn when he has already brilliantly or boldly been there, done that and got the really cool T-shirt to prove it? What is there left for the writer to do or say except echo off him using words that may be insufficient or inadequate?
I try, of course. I love a challenge and feel writers should always be challenging themselves. I look at what other writers have done: The Beat poets (I confess I have not actually read any Kerouac but have fallen in love with his words nonetheless through the musical interpretation of them by jazz vocalist Mark Murphy); many of the writers I mentioned earlier (George Elliott Clarke's Black and Blue collections, in particular); while Langston's Selected Poems are a reference book for me!
I have enough jazz material for a slim volume and have performed a couple poems on stage but am conscious that right now, that is where they belong, on a stage, performed to savvy, live jazz backing if I’m lucky. I am still not satisfied with how they sit on a page and am constantly returning to certain pieces, wrestling them, placing them in a headlock if necessary.
I find closure or completion elusive compared to that for my non-jazz poems. Some jazz poems I have simply learnt to leave alone and let be. One poem in particular I started writing over 20 years ago—a looking-back piece inspired by something Dizzy Gillespie said and about why we shouldn't try to describe or explain jazz! Essentially it flies in the face of that wisdom. I perform it from time to time. It won't stand still and behave even after all this time.
But then maybe it's not supposed to. That's not the way of jazz!
Find Linda’s poetry in the great weather for MEDIA anthology The Understanding between Foxes and Light.