art in all its forms

art in all its forms

7/15/14

In search of Dylan Thomas


"It seems every single thing in Laugharne is connected to Dylan Thomas. Or if it is not, it fast becomes so. The entire town is a memorial to him; a living and breathing tomb. It is a monument comprising: pubs, book-shops, a clock-tower, ruins of a gothic castle, and St John’s Hill. And all of this can be found in Thomas’ poetry.  
"But how much of a poet’s life and circumstance do we need to know? Do we need the back-story in order to enjoy each poem? Is it not better the less we know? Must we see the writing-shed, learn of the love affairs in New York, visit the favourite drinking haunts, the neighbours, the aunties? Of poetry Thomas once said:
"All that matters about poetry is the enjoyment of it, however tragic it may be. All that matters is the eternal movement behind it, the vast undercurrent of human grief, folly, pretension, exaltation or ignorance, however unlofty the intention of the poem...."

***
READ my Zocalo Poets website post on the Dylan Thomas centenary, and a trip to his home-town, Laugharne, here.   

7/13/14

Papa Bois, poet



Life is like the sea
—Sylvester Devenish

ACCORDING to one historian he was, “the most outstanding poet Trinidad has ever produced”.  The same writer—Anthony de Verteuil—tells us he was also, “a prominent figure in Trinidadian society as Surveyor General; in scientific circles; and also in encouraging a spirit of patriotism among all Trinidadians whatever their original nationality”. In a 392-page book about him, de Verteuil states, “he was one of the best known characters among French creoles in Trinidad.” Long before the controversy over judges and MPs pensions, he was at the centre of one of the island's first scandals over retirement pay. When he died in 1903, the Schoolmaster magazine, wrote, “As a Poet his name will be immortalised in literary circles”. A contemporary, Léon de Gannes, stated, “He sees all, knows all, is everywhere.” But today he is forgotten.

Peter James Sylvester Devenish, who came from an Irish family, was actually born at Nantes on March 9, 1819. He lived in Trinidad for five years before being sent back to France to study. He read a wide range of subjects at the College des Oratoriens of Vendôme where, according to lore, he was presented to Ferdinand, the old King of Naples, after a fencing match. While in Paris, Devenish apparently made the acquaintance of the authors Jules Janin and Honoré de Balzac.

Devenish reluctantly returned to Trinidad at the age of 22. He longed for Paris life. But things changed when he fell in love with and married Laura D’Abadie here on June 16, 1842. He was educated, cultured and became popular.

“The general impression in Trinidad was that Sylvester Devenish knew everything about anything,” de Verteuil states in his 2007 book, entitled, Sylvester Devenish: Trinidad’s Poet. We learn how Devenish once delivered a talk to the Scientific Society entitled, ‘A Few Notes on Alligator Shooting in Trinidad’. He recommended grilled babiche with lime and pepper sauce.

In 1850, though not an engineer, Devenish was appointed Inspector of Roads. In 1857, he was made director of the Irois Forest Convict Settlement; in 1860 Superintendent of the government saw-mill in Port-of-Spain; in 1861 engineer of the Port-of-Spain Wharf Improvement in which capacity he constructed the new sea-walls. In 1874, he was Justice of the Peace for the counties of St David, St Andrew, Nariva, Mayaro. From 1875 everybody gave up: he was made Justice of the Peace for the whole island. When the time came to open the Royal Victoria Institute at the top of Frederick Street on September 17, 1892, it was Devenish who would cut the ribbon, not the governor of the colony.


Rosary Church, Port of Spain, designed by Devenish

De Verteuil states Devenish played, “a significant if very small part in enlarging the boundaries of 19th century botany.” He collected 126 specimens of wood. In 1867, he was appointed director of the Botanical Gardens at St Anns. Over 43 years, Devenish surveyed properties all over the land. “I have all the maps of the island in my head,” he once reportedly said. De Verteuil tells us, “he was known to the Spanish-speaking inhabitants as El Duende de la Montana (the Spirit of the Mountains); and to the creoles as Papa Bois (Father of the Woods)”. In 1875, Devenish was appointed Surveyor-General of Trinidad, the highest surveying post in the island. He retained the post until 1878. In the 1870s the New Era carried an account of him: “passing over roaring torrents by swinging himself from bush rope like a monkey; making roads in the Savannah of Caroni; sleeping on a tree in the middle of a lagoon, astride of a branch, on top of a nest of stinging ants. Sun, rain, gales, thunder, lightning - the impossible does not deter him in the least.”

However, questions were raised about the fair allocation of state survey work. Devenish arguably became caught up in politics relating to feuding French and English factions in Trinidad society. This culminated with his suspension on Christmas Day 1878 from the post of Surveyor-General by the new British Governor General. There was outcry. A commission of enquiry was established. The governor who fired Devenish was later called, “one of the most unprincipled governors ever seen in the West Indies”. Devenish’s pension of £150 was deemed too low and raised to £200.

Despite all this, de Verteuil states, “Devenish was above all a poet. ” Many of his poems were sold in the streets on loose pages for a penny. The poems follow a rigid style, which Devenish regarded as classical. Putting aside literary merit, the poems are, as de Verteuil correctly observes, valuable because they are snapshots of society then. You also sense they are meant to be sung. They have a kind of stony grace, and do what Paul Valéry says poetry should do, dance. The poet wrote in a time when a ballad was recited at Belle Air dances as long as five years after.

Devenish died on January 31, 1903. The funeral took place at the Rosary Church, Port-of-Spain. Ironically, and perhaps fittingly, that stunning gothic church had been designed by him. The church stands today, even if we do not remember Papa Bois' name.

***

From Sunday Newsday, July 13, 2014. 

READ a review of de Verteuil's book on Devenish by Sharon Millar at the Caribbean Review of Books.

4/22/14

Douen Islands experiment at Alice Yard



PHOTOS BY ALICE YARD'S NICHOLAS LAUGHLIN


A FEW DAYS before the Blood Moon, on Saturday April 12, the contemporary arts space Alice Yard was transformed for a night of experimental literature readings as part of what is called the Douen Islands project.

Douen Islands is an ongoing, open collaborative project — featuring writers, poets, musicians, artists, photographers, dancers and others — first launched on All Hallow’s Eve, 2013, by poet and Newsday reporter Andre Bagoo and designer Kriston Chen.

On April 12, Alice Yard hosted an event by the Douen Islands collaborators, as part of the 2014 NGC Bocas Lit Fest pre-festival programme. Douen Islands: In Forest & Wild Skies, saw the floor of the yard at Roberts Street, Woodbrook covered with dried leaves, set aglow with red lights. Poetry by Bagoo – from an e-book produced for Douen Islands – was projected onto the floor of the drive-way leading inside the space. Tyre swings were put up, re-creating a child’s play area.

Poetry and prose produced as part of the ongoing collaboration – which follows the Trinidad and Tobago folklore character of the douen or a haunted child spirit – were also presented in what was billed as “an experimental reading”. The event was true to that description. Instead of a typical reading with a poet/writer at a podium, there was a projection of a shadow/silhouette of Bagoo who at one stage was pictured literally reading, with a giant moon image being beamed behind him, part of a video produced. At another stage, Bagoo’s silhouette appeared to consume a lit candle as he read his patriotically-themed poem, “Twin Islands”.




Several video pieces produced by Chen were streamed in the space Bagoo read in, including video adaptations of some of Bagoo’s poem “In Forest & Wild Skies”.

The stunning footage enraptured the crowd gathered, featuring video images of the Port-of-Spain skyline and text from the poetry e-book. One video featured the voice of artist and teacher Luis Vasquez La Roche, who read a Spanish translation of the section of the poem, heightening the sense of being foreign in one’s own nation and harking back to the colonial past.

Writer Sharon Millar read her haunting story produced for the collaboration, entitled, “The Gayelle”, occupying spaces in the yard and in a small kitchen area on the compound, lit by hurricane lamps. At times she read, while Bagoo recited and while another collaborator, the poet Shivanee Ramlochan performed.

Ramlochan did not speak. She wrote two poems down on a large blackboard/wall created by the collaborators for the event. Her poems, “Duenne Lara” and “Duenne Lillith” were startling adventures. The audience got a chance to see the poet write, react and even re-edit her words live, emotions and feelings and images flowing out of her.

The entire production involved a sound-scape featuring sitar work by another collaborator, sitarist Sharda Patasar, whose instrumentals were stripped down to create ambient noises and effects, evoking a landscape and resonating with the work’s concern with the marginal.

The event was well-attended. Among those present were Wendell Manwarren and Roger Roberts of 3 Canal, writer Monique Roffey, painter Che Lovelace, dancer Dave Williams (who gave key support to the collaborators), diplomats and more.



Leading up to the event, the collaborators stated: “Douen Islands is a journey, unearthing what is lost — the furtive child foraging through darkened forest; tricked by moonlight into a vacant past; vanishing, like love and blood, into wild skies. A slippery stream flowing out of this post-Independence country, trek into heat, memory, nightmare, dream. Take back the steps we never took. Seek to find.”

After the event, Nicholas Laughlin, one of the co-instigators of Alice Yard – alongside architect Sean Leonard and artist Christopher Cozeir – blogged on the event.

“In the past seven and a half years, Alice Yard has hosted roughly 300 public events,” he noted. “Thinking about last night’s Douen Islands event – and all the people who made it possible by sharing time, expertise, equipment, and labour – I was struck again by the generosity of our network and its immeasurable value.”

“We’ve never been anxious about the resources we don’t have. Instead we’ve imagined the biggest things we can make happen with what we do have. It’s a modus operandi of improvisation, and an attitude of possibility,” Laughlin said.



For more information see: http://douenislands.tumblr.com and email douenislands@gmail.com

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From Newsday, April 21st, 2014

4/20/14

Poetry, poetry, poetry


A GREAT deal of poetry is being produced by this nation. The evidence: books, published locally and abroad; a constant stream of public poetry reading events, poetry slams and poetry salons. And, of course, the poetry that has been with us all this time: the Carnival poetry and its progeny: such as the still flourishing Robber Talk and a host of traditional characters that rely on language and live action.
In the last few months several new books of poems by Trinidadians have been published. Consider: Lauren K Alleyne’s luminescent Difficult Fruit; Vahni Capildeo’s magnificent and distinctive Utter; Roger Robinson’s wonderfully textured The Butterfly Hotel; and Mervyn Taylor’s haunting and beautiful The Waving Gallery, to name a few. Taylor’s book is published by Shearsman Books, a UK publisher based at Bristol, while the other titles listed have been published by the Leeds-based Peepal Tree Press. In the coming days, more poets will launch books. These includes Jennifer Rahim who will next Sunday launch Ground Level at the Bocas Lit Fest at the Old Fire Station, Abercromby Street, Port-of-Spain at 1pm.

These are just books produced by persons who may be identified as Trinidadian. But of course the nature of this region means each country is larger than an island and persons with ties to Trinidad are also launching books, such as St Lucian poet Vladimir Lucien who will launch Sounding Ground, also at Bocas on Sunday. The great St Lucian Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott - of Trinidad Theatre Workshop fame - recently published a magnificent volume, Collected Poems: 1948-1913.

However we cut up and view the region it is clear: a lot of poetry is here. Apart from books published by foreign publishers, poets living here have also, increasingly, turned to self-publishing to get work out. Two recent examples include: An Uproar of Angels, a self-published chapbook by Akil Thomas; and what has been described as a second edition of Poemas of the Caribbean Sun by Jude Patrong. All of this excludes dozens of other poets being published in journals, reviews and anthologies produced here and abroad, in hard-copy format as well as through the immeasurably diverse realm of journals on the internet.

Additionally, there is a flurry of readings. Every month there is a poetry slam event called “True Talk No Lie”, hosted by Yvan Mendoza at Martin’s Piano Bar, Woodford Street, Port-of-Spain. Events are also regularly put on by Rachael N Collymore’s Poetry Vibes. Bookshops like the Paper Based Bookshop at Hotel Normandie, St Ann’s, also host regular readings. There are smaller salons. Additionally, events are constantly being put on by the Writers Union of Trinidad and Tobago.

Then there is the poetry that stays private, in secret note-books all over the nation. Or the poetry so ephemeral it is never named: the true Carnival of words.

What does all of this activity mean? Is it really new? Is poetry finding a larger audience here? I think all of these, as well as events such as the Bocas Lit Fest which opens on Thursday, present a good opportunity for discussion of the role of poetry in society.

Even with all the activity, poetry, unlike other art-forms, remains very easy to avoid. In a world now dominated by moving images and more visceral forms of communication, poetry, which calls for a kind of serenity and silence in order to be appreciated, is now more likely to be drowned out. Poetry must be actively sought out by the reader. Increasing activity by poets is one thing, increased readership is another. They may not coincide. But the mere prospect of an increased appetite for poetry still tells us something about the changing appetites of a reading nation which is, today, freer than ever before to pick and choose what it places on its bookshelf or iPad. Yet, what is poetry and does it require an audience?

As a poet myself, at the moment I don’t subscribe to any rigid stance on the role of poetry. I have ideas of what poetry can do, not necessarily should. Those ideas involve an engagement with truth — even through misdirection — and an engagement with social reality, however we choose to define that reality. Poetry, I think, is the emancipation of language from politics, mercenary duties and sacred cows: from forces that seek the opposite of love and freedom. Therefore, poetry is at once nothing and everything. To quote critic Stephen Burt, “Perhaps poetry needs no use at all; or perhaps it should do many things, all of them mysterious and beautiful and inefficient.” That itself is a freedom to which all — not just poets — are entitled.

In the coming days, the Bocas Lit Fest will present a rich array of poetry events. There will be readings or discussions of work by John Agard, Capildeo, Kwame Dawes, Anthony Joseph, Mervyn Morris, Grace Nichols, Taylor, Walcott, among others. There will be a film screening of Ida Does’ fine study on Walcott, Poetry is an Island. New poets such as Anna Levi and Gilberte O’Sullivan will read, spoken-word poets will recite. Word around town is that words mean something, then. So who is listening? Are you? For more information visit www.bocaslitfest.com 

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Newsday, Sun, April 20.

4/7/14

A Belmont saga-boy turned poet





IT WAS when his father died that things changed. Mervyn Taylor, 73, still recalls it well.

"My high-school career was shaky," the Trinidadian-born, New York-based poet says. "I was doing okay but I went into decline. My dad died when I was 13. I think as I hit 14 I got to that age where I started to become interested in clothes, in how I looked, girls, and partying. I didn't go bad because he died, but I started trying to combine studies with a little bit of, you know, hanging out."

Taylor is seated at a small table in an Indian restaurant around the Queen's Park Savannah. It is a few days after Carnival, when he played a sultan. He appears mischievous as he recalls his purported descent.

"I will always remember my mom got really concerned at the time," he continues, recalling how, on the Lord's Sabbath, he was always busy focusing on several activities in Belmont, where he grew up. "I started hanging out up the street. It was exciting. There were Dutch parties where you would bring a bottle of something, normally on Sunday evening. We could barely afford the bottle we were carrying and many times guys would put half-water and half-cider."

Taylor continues, "Wherever there was a party we went. I developed a real interest in music. Joey Lewis was popular at the time. He used to practice on the corner of Pelham Street and Reid Lane. But the Norman "Tex" Williams Orchestra was the band of choice. That was the band. Played incredible music. When they played at a fete, the women would crowd around the guitarist. Those things became my interest. This was the 1950s."

This is the poet who, later on March 29, 2014, presented the W.E.B. DuBois Award to Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott at the Black Writers’ Conference, Medgar-Evers College, Brooklyn. At that event, Taylor made a well-received speech on the nature of poetry (see here). It was not an easy task considering the status of the honoree involved.

"I did not go bad in terms of mugging people in the street," Taylor states over dinner. "I was still a good kid doing some school-work. I was never disrespectful but I really had this thing for just hanging out."
Taylor has somewhat different advice for aspiring poets out there.

"Keep a notebook," he says. "Write your lines then do what is the hardest part. Edit and re-write all the while looking at poems by established poets to see what a poem looks like. Train your eye to see your heart to have compassion and your mind to be disciplined. Then listen for your own voice, it will surprise you."

Mervyn Taylor was born in Belmont on December 18, 1941, the year of the attack on Pearl Harbor. His father Julian was born in Barbados, and was a railway conductor.

"Sometimes I rode with him. My mom, Agatha, came from Venezuela," he says. "I was born right here in Belmont, in Belmont Valley Road, up near Zed Road. I lived near what was the Shango Yard up there with my mom."

He notes, "All kinds of people came out of Belmont Valley Road. For example, David Rudder came out of Belmont Valley Road. When I was about five, my father – who did not live with us at the time, he lived on Rosalind Street – bought a house at Warwick Lane and moved us down to the flat. Walcott says, 'To go downhill from here was to ascend'. And so we moved down and I grew up in Belmont." Taylor went to Belmont Boys RC then Belmont Intermediate.

"Andre Tanker was one of my classmates, as was Johnny Boos who would later run a disco in town," Taylor recalls. "There was Trevor Anatol, Courtney King, Kenwyn Smart, Winston Rawlins, Archie Thompson, Winston  De Goveia, among others."

Taylor remembers the night when he won what was then called an exhibition (later Common Entrance and then SEA).

"It was a very big evening in my life," he says. "I remember being thrown up in the air when close neighbours found my name in the Evening News. I went to my father and the first thing I said was, 'Well I got the exhibition, what about the bicycle?' My father said, 'What bicycle? I don't have the money.' I said, 'Of course you have money. You always have money under your pillow.'" His father insisted on not getting anything. Then, a few days later Taylor got his bicycle as a surprise.

Taylor writes of his father in his poem, 'Picture of a Man at Peace', in his third collection Gone Away (2006). That book was preceded by An Island of His Own (1992) and The Goat (1999). In 2010, he published No Back Door. His latest book, his fifth, is The Waving Gallery, from which he is expected to read at the Bocas Lit Fest on April 25, alongside the Trinidadian/UK poet Vahni Capildeo.  

From Belmont Intermediate, Taylor entered St Mary's College where he was doing well until his father's death.

"My grades were going down. My mom got concerned.," he says. She staged an intervention, calling in two male role-models to speak to him. "They spoke to me for three or four hours of talking and asking me what I wanted to with my life. It ended up with everybody in tears." But it was from these tears that a germ of what Taylor would later become emerged.

"They asked me what I wanted to do. I said write. They said write what? I did not know how to articulate it. It was not yet poetry." The intervention worked.

"I would stay behind in school everyday and start over from theorem one. This is what brought me back up to par.," Taylor says. "Finally, I ended up leaving school with a second grade, which allowed me to qualify for a job at the Treasury." The future poet and teacher - who has worked with youths in prison - worked for four years as a second-class clerk in the Treasury, making sure columns were added correctly. That was from 1960 to 1964.


"I was able to buy a fridge. A lot of people did not have a fridge at the time. I got a car. I got my licence. Took my girlfriend to the beach after Maracas, Tyrico I think," Taylor says. "I had money to buy clothes I liked. In some ways I became a kind of saga boy. I was real dapper. I was dressing and having a good time. Continental suits were in style at the time. As much as you guys now like the slim-fitting suits, those suits were the thing." 

Taylor would play mas and remembers becoming a member of a group of saga boys called Amboy Dukes.

"The name came from an American group. It was a big deal at the time. There were bad john boys," he says. It was perhaps a premonition.

Taylor, sensing a kind of inertia setting in among those around him at the Treasury, made a decision to go to America, like some key relatives had before. A brother, Ansil, a boxer (subject of the poem 'My Brother the Boxer' in Gone Away), and aunt, Bertha, were among them.

"I came to America," Taylor says, still in that country even as he speaks over dinner around the Savannah. "What I remembered most when I first came out of the airport was how loud it was. This was 1964. This was September. I started school at Howard University. I spent two weeks in New York, then I went down to DC, met my first American girlfriend." The times were, for him, exhilarating.

"It was the height of the whole Black Power movement and poetry was an essential part of that movement.  I wrote a few things for The Hilltop school newspaper. I wrote a couple of short poems," he says. But it was really in classes that poetry came to him in a strong way.

"John Lovell taught a course on Walt Whitman," Taylor says. "I think that opened my eyes to the possibilities of poetry: how it could flow. We studied Leaves of Grass. I remember something happened during that class when Dr Lovell was absent for a few days. His wife had died but still he came to teach the class. He was really devoted to the idea of poetry. He said it was better doing this than sitting at home. That never left me."

Taylor was also taught by one of the great American folk poets, Sterling Brown, whose first book was Southern Road.
Mervyn Taylor on Carnival Tuesday, 2014

"He had been a whole part of a movement in terms of literature and black expression. He used to have students come to his house and roundtable things. His wife was Daisey," Taylor says. "Eventually, he went through some changes and there was talk of suspension. But it was inspiring."

By 1968, Taylor graduated with a BA in English and headed to New York. Along the way, he met Carla Thomas and Otis Redding, got a job in the garment district making,  "ugly women's coats, working as a charge clerk, writing receipts." Then, after a year, he took a job at Plenum Publishing Company.

"It wasn't what you think, they published Russian, Math and science journals," he says. "I would proof-reading the translation. Publishing was different then. They would cut and paste. You had to cut blocks of type and stick them and line it all up. I met very unusual people." But writing called.

"I wanted to get back into writing or start some kind of workshop and somebody gave me a number for the American poet Nikki Giovanni," he says. "So I called her and she was really sweet and she said the writer John Killens runs a workshop at Columbia. I started this. One night, Derek Walcott came and substituted for John." He recalls being "fresh" with Walcott who tried to get the workshop members to have a more open approach to poetry, to go beyond reactionary, political writing.

"Derek was saying every poem does not have to be this politically conscious thing," Taylor recalls. "I was full of it, and said things down in the islands are not all that honky dory. I was saying there needs to a be a revolution down the islands. I was being fresh with myself."

Today, Taylor has settled down a little now that he's a grandfather. His son, Ihsan Taylor, though not a writer has inherited an interest in words and is an editor at the New York Times where he writes the Paperback Row column. Ihsan is married to Becca and they have two children Julian and Zadie (named after the writer Zadie Smith). Taylor's daughter, Suchitha is a therapist and is married to Jude, they have two children, Sarai and Taj.

Today, the saga-boy and bad john of times past is so reformed that he gets a little sheepish when it comes to Carnival. This year, he says, he enjoyed himself. But there was something on his mind.

"I liked the Carnival, though I felt in some ways it interfered with the work," he says. "With Carnival, I am sure that somewhere I am paying the price for that. The poet should be really observing, taking it in. The poet should play poet, not mas. I've always felt this dichotomy, like if I was more serious about the work I would not be spending so much time with the mas jumbie." But however costumed, Taylor, and his poetry, continue.

Mervyn Taylor and Vahni Capildeo will read at the Bocas Lit Fest on Friday, April 25, at the Old Fire Station, Abercromby Street, Port-of-Spain, at 2.30 pm. Admission is free.

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From Newsday, April 7, 2014

READ Taylor's speech on where poetry begins here

4/1/14

LIVE AGAIN #DouenIslands

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