What is the first thing you wrote?
I honestly don’t remember. I was a ridiculously precocious reader and writer. Reading from the age of 2, writing from the age of 3. From a very early age – maybe 4 or 5? – I was writing poems to accompany Christmas and birthday presents for my granny, for instance, and short stories and poems seemed a natural way to pass the time if I wasn’t reading. Which I must say, I usually was.
Who do you write for?
This question made me think a lot, so bear with some rumination… I remember being at a workshop in Miami and hearing Claudia Rankine say that all she needed to be able to write was to sleep as long as she wanted, and not have to talk to anyone in the morning. I remember agreeing very strongly. And she teased me about writing happy poems. And as I started to think here about who I write for, I realized that I don’t really write for anyone in particular – unless I am thinking of an individual and directing the poem at them. In general, my writing is something that happens when I am happy. Way back when, I wrote a poem in which I compared poetry to collecting water from an artesian well, which is fountaining up and which the poet collects in vessels of different shapes. I was thinking forms as shapes for water. Cups, glasses, vases, mugs, bottles, weird twisty tubes… You have to catch the overflow of joy and find the right shape to hold that particular emotion/thought. (Sonnets are mugs. Good, trusty, solid, everyday breakfast shapes.)
Then I was published, then I became an administrative person instead of a teacher. I lost my long holidays, which was when most writing would happen. And I tried to write, but I missed that overflow of joy. Someone asked me why I hadn’t published again after Fellow Traveller and before Performance Anxiety. And I said because everything I had written was so dark. She said indignantly: Well other people get depressed too, you know. So I let Performance Anxiety go, although I was deeply ashamed of the misery of the poems in that collection. Actually, I disliked it so much I couldn’t even proof-read it, and it has a number of errors I should have been able to catch.
But in the summer of 2019, I nearly died of sepsis. After a strange journey through that, one day, I got that feeling of joy back. This time, it felt like I was a bottle of champagne and someone had pulled the cork. Love and joy were fizzing out all over, and I started writing again. (And finally decided to love Performance Anxiety because those are MY demons, dammit, and I WILL own them at last.)
Then there was Covid-19, and we went into lockdown, which plunged me back into anxiety… which makes poetry impossible. What does it all mean? I think it means I’m not a professional writer at all. I just like collecting love and joy in weird shaped vessels.
And doing some journalism and criticism and long ago some short stories.
What was the first Caribbean book you read?
I read a lot. Mostly novels, and I am not particularly picky. The first Caribbean novel I read would have been one of Naipaul’s, or Mittelholzer’s, or Jean Rhys’. We had a lot of these in the house, and I read pretty much anything I could pick up. I remember being fascinated by The Children Of Kaywana and really weirded out by The Aloneness of Mrs Chatham. Jean Rhys appealed to my sad adolescent and young adult self, and I read everything she wrote. I remember reading A House for Mr Biswas – not my favourite but I enjoyed Naipaul’s non-fiction, which is something I don’t say of many writers. I read Walcott’s In a Green Night when it came out too. But it wouldn’t have been the first one I read. Oh, and Garth St. Omer’s first two novels would have come out while I was at secondary school, too, and I read them then. I remember discussing them with my dad, who recognized some of the characters…
How many Caribbean writers from the 1940s and 50s could you name?
You don’t really want a number, here, do you? I am not great at numbers…
I think of the crew that went to the UK and got picked up by the famous BBC series. John Hearne, George Lamming, Samuel Selvon, V. S. Naipaul, etc. Of others – I actually met Frank Collymore once when I was very young. I’ve already mentioned Garth St. Omer, Edgar Mittelholzer, Derek Walcott and Jean Rhys. There was Martin Carter and Phyllis Shand Allfrey and Frantz Fanon. Paule Marshall.
OK, maybe I should have just answered this question by saying I could probably name somewhere between 13 and 20 if I thought about it really hard, and as soon as I submit this I am going to think of a bunch more and really hate myself.
How many women?
Looks like today I can think of the three: Rhys, Allfrey and Marshall. Jean Rhys was very important to me.
Which writer do you wish you knew more about?
Edgar Mittelholzer. A really strange mind. He writes gripping novels, full of sex and violence and I haven’t read them all and I wish I could get hold of them. Also, I need to read as much about him as I can. I haven’t done that.
What is the earliest piece of Caribbean writing you have read?
I actually don’t know. Probably an early Jean Rhys? But I feel there is something before that.
Does the Caribbean’s literary past matter to you?
Yes. We did some really interesting things. When it comes to novels, I am not a very scholarly reader. I read novels because I get to live in other people’s lives for a while and I love that. My profession was teacher, rather than writer, and as teacher I can analyse poetry and plays, but never novels, which are always places I just go and live.
Who are our most important writers today?
Whoa. This is an even more dangerous list to make. There are so many emerging writers that I want to follow, and I feel will be important but I won’t go there right now. Except to say I loved Sharon Millar’s The Whale House and I can’t wait to read more of her. I will stay with the more established for now… There’s Olive Senior, there’s Edwidge Danticat. There’s Lawrence Scott. I love Kei Miller’s work, poetry or prose. I have been a total fan of Marlon James since John Crow’s Devil, and I always have his books pre-ordered. Jacob Ross. I love all of his and am waiting for the most recent one to reach me.
I’m a novel reader, but I will also plug three Lucian poets: Kendel Hippolyte, John Robert Lee and Vladimir Lucien. I also like reading the poetry of Shivanee Ramlochan and Danielle Boodoo-Fortune.
What are you reading now?
I think the last Caribbean book I read was Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf, and I am waiting greedily for the second in Jacob Ross’ murder series. Waiting at my bedside is a pile that includes Leone Ross’ Come Let Us Sing Anyway, which I think I am going to enjoy. But the last novel I read wasn’t Caribbean, it was Richard Powers’ The Overstory. I loved it. Novels I can live in are even better when they come with something important and timely to say.